Friday, September 25, 2015

No Small Change: The Road to Recognition for Indigenous Australia, by Frank Brennan

Staff review by Chris Saliba

In this nuanced study, Frank Brennan examines what a yes vote at the coming referendum to recognise Aboriginal people in the Constitution might mean for Australia.

Frank Brennan is an Australian Jesuit priest and human rights lawyer. He is well known for his work on Aboriginal land rights and has published several books on the subject. No Small Change: The Road to Recognition for Indigenous Australia examines the proposed referendum to recognise Australia’s indigenous people in the Constitution.

Such a question might seem like a no-brainer. Frank Brennan shows in this subtle and nuanced book how changes to the constitution, no matter how small, can open a legal pandora’s box. There is also the problem of being tempted by such an historic referendum to try and do too much. In fact, it’s important that the proposed changes be conservative in order to garner wide public support. For example, any proposals that might make it appear that indigenous people are being favoured could create resentment in the electorate. An overwhelming yes vote is necessary to avoid making constitutional change appear controversial and contested.

The majority of No Small Change is an exercise in history. Brennan concentrates on the successful 1967 referendum, which allowed the Commonwealth to make laws specifically for Aboriginal people. The overwhelming groundswell of support for a yes vote in 1967 was the mainspring for the Aboriginal land rights campaigns that were launched over the following five years. It is this period of legal challenges, of bouncing the issue between courts and parliament, that Brennan picks apart in fine, almost forensic detail. If you thought the notion of land rights was a fairly simple business of merely handing land over then think again. Important questions that must be worked out in law relate to how the land is used, whether for spiritual or economic purposes, and how that land is responsibly preserved for future generations. All of this involves complex legal thought.

By going back to the land rights struggles of the late 60s and early 70s, Brennan hopes to school the reader in the big legal questions that another successful referendum could bring on. If the upcoming referendum produces a yes vote on the same scale as the 1967 referendum, then this could give momentum to further fundamental changes in Aboriginal status in Australian society. Another Wik or Mabo, for example.

No Small Change provides a level headed guide to the key constitutional questions that the nation will face when it votes on this upcoming referendum to formally recognise our indigenous heritage.

No Small Change: The Road to Recognition for Indigenous Australia, by Frank Brennan. Published by UQP. ISBN: 9780702253324  RRP: $32.95

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