Defend indigenous land rights, fight for a democratic republic

There is a growing crisis of federalism in Australia and the left needs positive political solutions and a republican narrative, writes Marcus Strom.

It says much about the state of the left that the conservatives are taking a radical lead on issues of constitutional change in Australia.

Painfully highlighted by prime minister John Howard’s paternalistic assault on indigenous Australians it should be clear to all except the myopists of the far left that there is a burgeoning crisis of federalism in this country.

Howard’s "war on sex abuse" in Aboriginal communities is clearly a last-minute attempt at wedge politics a few months out from an election. Apart from Howard apologists such as Noel Pearson, much of the reaction is ostensibly correct: where is the consultation, let alone the negotiation? Why hasn’t he done anything for the past 11 years? Why isn’t Howard addressing the underlying causes? What about other issues in Aboriginal health? What about abuse by non-Aboriginal men outlined in the Children Are Sacred report? What about the widespread sex abuse, alcohol abuse and unpunished/unreported rapes in non-Aboriginal society? Forced intervention by the military and a land-grab by white bureaucrats will only add to the crisis in Aboriginal communities. Forced medical inspection of young children will only add to their trauma. And there is the growing panic in some communities that this whole process will see another generation of children taken away.

On ABC’s Lateline Business on June 27, Rex Wild QC, co-author of the Children Are Sacred report categorically stated that compulsory medical examinations of children under 16 did not form any part of the 97 recommendations made. Other than the first recommendation of declaring a national emergency, the federal government has gone off with its own agenda.

Out of fear of being wedged just outside an election campaign, the ALP has predictably – and unfortunately – backed the Howard campaign while reserving the right to criticise the detail. This has all the hollow echo of Kim Beazley’s ‘me-too’ response to Howard’s Tampa gambit in 2001.

Howard is using the social-military techniques developed in East Timor and the Solomon Islands to push through a land grab in the NT. If he was serious about child abuse in indigenous Australia, he would not have ignored the countless reports on the matter and he would have taken the matter to the last election … or the election before that, or the election before that. So, too, would have the ALP.

Instead, the experience of Aboriginal Australians is that of broken promises and report after report that has gone by without any serious action taking place. Alan Ramsey has highlighted Mick Dodson’s warning words on sex abuse and violence in Aboriginal communities from June 11, 2003.

This is not to deny that there is a serious crisis but the government is using the issue as a Trojan horse to push through its ideological agenda.

Not only is Howard starting a land grab and trying to wedge the ALP, he is enacting legislation that will see the rate of imprisonment of Aboriginal people escalate. The abolition of customary law in consideration of sentencing and bail will see incarceration rates soar. More black people will die in prison.

In 1992 I wrote the Central Land Council’s response to federal, state and territory reaction to the report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. That report was at the time the most important document ever written in Aboriginal affairs. It made 339 recommendations, many calling for urgent support for Aboriginal self-control and self-government. The reaction of government was, in general, appalling.

In October 1990 the Central Land Council said to a Royal Commission Underlying Issues conference: "In presenting its final report, it is essential that the Royal Commission does not present us with yet another set of admirable recommendations that we can look at in 10 years and say, ‘Too bad no one ever acted on that report.’ "

That is the sad history of Aboriginal experience of paternalism and colonialism in this country. "White governments come and go, but since the Europeans arrived, our country has changed from the Land of the Dreamtime to the Land of Promises, promises which are always broken." So said Nancy Napananga of Utopia Outstation in central Australia.

This is Howard’s attempted roll-back of Aboriginal rights won over the past 40 years. The irony of it all is that he is using the powers granted to the Commonwealth on indigenous affairs through the referendum in 1967. That referendum in many ways heralded the beginning of the modern land rights and self-emancipation movement. Ever since that referendum, Aboriginal organisations have called on successive Commonwealth governments to use that constitutional power to act on a wide range of issues: violence, sexual education, health, jobs, housing, education and to enact land rights legislation for all states and territories. What irony is it that Howard is using these powers now in such a limited, undemocratic and draconian way.

The timing of Howard’s assault is pure cynicism. Aboriginal organisations have been crying out for help to deal with sex abuse and myriad other social and health problems only to be ignored by government.

Behind Howard’s assault is a deeper political process, however. This is the latest act of centralisation in the hands of the Commonwealth under a prime minister who has been nothing but radical in his corralling of powers for the federal government. In the face of a conservative majority in both houses of parliament, this has led some leftists to actually trumpet states’ rights. With no positive program for change, with no narrative to take to the Australian people, such leftists merely respond to change in the most piecemeal of manners while sprouting off about socialism in much the way of a Marxist Sunday school teacher or as a Pentecostalist preacher warding off the ills of capital.

John Howard’s administration has seen the most undemocratic centralisation of power in the history of the Commonwealth outside of war time. Even in fiscal terms this has not gone unnoticed. Take Steve Burrell’s article, ‘Big Squeeze: states as branch offices’ in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald on May 29. Burrell points out that specific purpose payments – a form of tied funding – now make up 42 per cent of Commonwealth monies to the states and local government. These payments have been growing at the rate of 7 per cent a year since 1999-2000.

A petty example of such tied funding is money to state schools provided they fly the Australian flag, or the provision of funding to schools for a religious pastor for counselling. It is money tied to achieve the federal government’s policy agenda.

‘So what?’, many on the left would argue. What’s this got to do with socialism? All governments, state and federal, are pursuing a fundamentalism market philosophy now.

Such a view is extremely narrow and misses the fundamental shift occurring in the Australian political landscape. It fails to comprehend the inescapable stance the workers’ movement must to such democratic issues.

Traditionally it has been the left that has favoured centralisation in Australia. Through the 20th century it was Labor that first promoted a national banking system, national arbitration – even a national navy. The conservatives have traditionally defended states’ rights.

Of course Labor’s model was a bureaucratic social democracy from above - "nation building" so that national capital could compete protected behind sturdy tariff walls, sailing first behind Empire and then shoulder to shoulder with US economic interests, with occasional crumbs for the workers.

In modern times the Hawke-Keating governments started the centralisation process, albeit in a more corporatist vein and smashing through tariff barriers and the old social-democratic consensus, bringing the representatives of capital and labour to the table to carve up the national pie, with labour doing all the belt-tightening to achieve the social wage.

Howard has continued that apace but with a more robust anti-working class agenda: bureaucratic centralisation to underpin national capital’s pursuit of profit in a globalised economy. The shift in the proportion of GDP from wages to profit is unprecedented under his rule. In 1999-2000 the share of national income going to labour was 70.3 per cent, leaving the share going to capital at 29.7 per cent. By the December quarter last year, the wages share had fallen to 66 per cent while the profits share had increased to 34 per cent. As Ross Gittins wrote on June 2 in the SMH/Age: "That is a shift of a remarkable, unprecedented 4.3 percentage points in just 6.5 years."

Apart from indigenous issues and fiscal policy, where has Howard centralised? The question should be recast as ‘where hasn’t he?’

Industrial relations

The biggest shift in constitutional relations has come through the Work Choices legislation. In recognising the constitutionality of the laws, the High Court has acceded almost unlimited authority to the Commonwealth to enact legislation through the corporations power. Professor Greg Craven, executive director of John Curtin Institute of Public Policy and deputy vice-chancellor of Curtin University of Technology, said after the High Court decision in 2006 that the Commonwealth now had an "open cheque to intervene in almost any area of state power that catches its eye, from higher and private education, through every aspect of health, to such matters as town planning and the environment".

An editorial in Quadrant magazine said that Justice Gleeson and his majority had "destroyed our federal system of government". While the High Court challenge by state ALP governments was a forlorn attempt to stem the tide, it has led some in the labour movement to argue for the rights of states to define industrial relations and other matters.

This is as pathetic as King Canute’s attempts at tide control.


In January this year, John Howard announced a $10 billion dollar national water management plan which is to include the Commonwealth takeover of the management of the Murray-Darling basin. Forty per cent of Australia’s food is produced in the basin.

This affects the "states’ rights" of NSW, Queensland, Victoria and South Australia. All states, bar Victoria, have backed the plan, with negotiations continuing between the Commonwealth and the Bracks government.


Under the Howard government, universities have completed their shift from patrician seats of learning for the upper classes to corporate entities competing for students in the education marketplace.

Public universities remain authorised to exist through state acts of parliament, however, these are anachronistic anomalies. Howard and his various education ministers up to Julie Bishop are pushing through tied funding relationships with universities in much the way they do with the states. One example is the requirement that universities must offer AWAs to all staff in exchange for funding. This is an undemocratic obscenity.

The Howard government is also pushing for a more centralised schools education policy. This is notable through suggestions of a national values based curriculum, a revision of history syllabuses and through the Bishop proposed performance-related pay for teachers.

Energy and resources

Howard’s uranium and nuclear energy push is another example of creeping centralisation. Labor premiers have said that there will be nuclear reactors in their states over their dead bodies, but governments change and premiers can be bought off. Many have raised the fact that much of the Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory being accessed by Howard in this period also has plentiful uranium deposits.


According to the Business Council of Australia, a roundtable hosted by the Productivity Commission in October 2005 identified a range of problems with the Australian health system that arise from the shared responsibilities of the Commonwealth and states for health care, including: cost shifting between governments; funding and delivery arrangements that create barriers to continuity of care and good planning; and lack of effective formal structural links between the health and education sectors.

There is continued blame shifting between the Commonwealth and states on responsibility for the parlous state of the health system. Behind that, the Mad Monk, Tony Abbott is increasingly tying state health funds to national health priorities – more centralisation by stealth.

It’s the constitution, stupid

In all this time the constitution has barely changed. In fact, the Australian constitution is one of the most unchanged constitutions of all countries. While this may suit the ruling class ideologically in extolling the permanence of the social order it has become a barrier to its political and financial operations.

The Australian ruling class almost universally recognises a crisis of federation.

In launching its report last year Reshaping Australia’s Federation: A New Contract for Federal–State Relations Michael Chaney, president of the Business Council of Australia, said "Australia’s system of federal–state relations is at a crossroads."

That report reaches some interesting conclusions.

It says "the old federal contract between the Commonwealth and the states has broken down. The trend through the 20th century towards the centralisation of power continues unabated."

The report proposes a 12-point plan, beginning with a constitutional convention to overhaul federal-state relations.

The BCA is not alone. In April this year South Australian premier Mike Rann called for a convention to rewrite the constitution. Peter Beattie, premier of Queensland, made a similar call last October. At a meeting of state leaders in February, the premiers called for a constitutional convention for February next year and gave in-principle support to Northern Territory statehood. The Australian newspaper has called for a constitutional convention in an editorial last November. George Williams, professor of law at UNSW and aspiring ALP parliamentarian, called for a convention in The Age in March. Even monarchists and federalists such as David Flint are backing a call for a convention to fix the constitution. The list could go on. Absent from the list, of course, is the socialist left – inside the ALP or outside it in the grouplets.

Of course all such players are approaching constitutional change in the most limited of fashion. The ruling class, through the BCA, is looking for a uniform market from which to extract surplus. It seeks market efficiencies such as uniform occupational health and safety laws, payroll taxation and the like. It is not interested in a democratic constitution.

No matter that these forces seek change for the sake of preserving the system. They point to a glaring democratic deficit in the constitution and political framework of modern Australia.

The political centralisation that has occurred without the say-so of the mass of the population is allowing the Howard government to run roughshod over democracy in areas such as Aboriginal rights, industrial relations, health, water, education, energy, taxation and our legal rights.

Democratic socialists must look much further than a tinkering with the system and seeking piecemeal reform while extolling the virtues of some far distant socialism. We seek the widest democratic space possible for the working class to organise for concrete socialisation and democratic change from below in the here and now.

Howard has been wideranging in his constitutional change by stealth. Our methods must be more radical, more wideranging, thoroughly democratic and from below. The answer is not less centralisation, but rather more centralisation under the democratic rule of the mass of the population, in part achieved by a militant campaign for a new, democratic and republican constitution.

Is centralisation bad? Well, it depends who it is for and how it is achieved.

In general, socialists support centralisation of administration, but only on the basis of it being democratic and accountable. That means while administration can be centralised under democratic control, delivery and accountability needs to be decentralised. What Howard has achieved is anathema to such an approach. Socialists should fight for the abolition of the states, centralisation of democratic decision making while pushing for the decentralisation of delivery and accountability. This would involve the development of robust and active regional governments.

But we must go much further.

Democratic socialists must demand a constitutional convention, we should campaign for it, but not a limited convention as proposed by the premiers or the Business Council of Australia. The workers’ movement should campaign for a constitutional convention with full powers to rewrite the constitution. Such a convention should be elected by proportional representation across the country and be given authority to declare an interim government before endorsement of a new, democratic and republican constitution.

Democratic socialists should campaign for a constitution that includes:

- abolition of the monarchy system and its constitution, including presidentialism, its undemocratic offspring;
- election by full proportional representation to a single legislative and executive chamber;
- annual parliaments where MPs can be recalled and are paid no more than the average skilled wage;
- abolition of the senate, which becomes obsolete with proportional representation;
- abolition of the states and introduction of strong regional-local government.

In addition a democratic constitution must guarantee the rights of its citizens. To this end we need:

- a treaty with Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, reparations for lost lands and comprehensive land rights;
- a bill of rights;
- full citizenship rights for migrants and refugees;
- the right to work and the right to strike;
- an end to secrecy in government and business;
- workers' supervision of management through workplace councils.

The ruling class is in a bind over the federal framework of government. In 1999 it was divided over the most minimal proposal to a Clayton’s republic. The workers’ movement was also split, but the majority of people recognised that what was on offer was no change to republicanism at all.

The ruling class’s current dilemma is, of course, the opportunity for democratic forces in the workers’ movement. The left must champion democracy because not to do so leaves the solution of such questions in the hands of the ruling class and its bureaucracy. Democracy is not a thing in itself, it is the program and path for the workers’ movement to embrace the future.

Socialism is impossible without democracy because the workers’ movement cannot achieve socialism unless it prepares for it by the struggle for democracy and because victorious socialism cannot consolidate its victory and bring humanity to the withering away of the state without implementing full democracy.

Unless the left adopts such a programmatic approach it will merely continue to seek crumbs from the table of capital through reform, or be relegated to the fringes of political life as socialistic sects.

The burning issue today is defence of indigenous Australia and tying this defence to a change in Australia’s political framework. The failure of mainstream Australia to honestly come to terms with its colonial past is a deep scar in our national psyche; it is central to the democratic deficit we face as a nation. The struggle for a democratic constitution is not an abstraction from the day-to-day struggle for meaningful reform. Central to it is the fight for a meaningful treaty with indigenous Australia. That will involve a process of genuine treaty negotiations, genuine land rights, indigenous autonomy, meaningful investment in Aboriginal housing and health, reparations for lost land and the emergence of a democratic republic in Australia.

The left cannot carp about the appalling hypocrisy of Howard and the pale echo from Rudd, it needs positive political solutions.

July 8, 2007