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Federal Government ready to “Recognise” Indigenous languages (but it’s kinda old news)

There was a bit of hoo-hah in Parliament House this week when Julia, Tony and co. made a minor song and dance about constitutional recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their languages. Greg Dickson writes that it’s good news but actually kinda old news… with shiny branding. He explains the recommendations and the clever work that was done by the expert panel over twelve months ago.

Greg Dickson writes:

Blink and you may have missed it but in this week’s circus of Federal politics, language issues got a rare mention. And, specifically, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.

Wednesday saw everyone in Parliament House make a bi-partisan song and dance about the moves to change the nation’s constitution so that it recognises the First Australians. (A bit of a no-brainer really). And one of the recommendations is to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages as the country’s first languages (no-brainer #2, right?).

The announcement was a good PR exercise for the government – and probably nicely timed following the disappointing mining tax revenue announcement. It coincided with a colourful re-branding of the campaign to change the constitution to recognise Indigenous Australians. The previous “You Me Unity” campaign has been done away with, replaced by a zhooshed up simple, bold strategy entitled “Recognise”, complete with a neon-like “R” blazing away as its logo and Indigenous supermodel Samantha Harris featured on their Facebook page.

But don’t be fooled into thinking this a bolt out of the blue. It’s kinda old news. The report that recommended these constitutional changes is now over 12 months old and the initial inquiry was announced back in December 2010. Also don’t be fooled into thinking that recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages in the constitution is a bold move. It’s not. Certainly not to Indigenous people nor to most average Aussies. 77% of people polled by Newspoll in October 2011 supported the idea.

The Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians reported that “the recognition and protection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and languages was raised at almost all consultations”. It’s an issue that goes straight to the hearts and mind of many Indigenous people, further evidenced by last year’s Our Land, Our Languages report resulting from a Federal Government inquiry into Indigenous languages.

The difficult task the Expert Panel faced was apparently not whether to call for the recognition of Indigenous languages, but to sort out what form the recognition should take and to also clarify the role of English in the constitution. The expert panel has been clever and pragmatic. The exact wording they recommended is as follows:

  • The national language of the Commonwealth of Australia is English.
  • The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are the original Australian languages, a part of our national heritage.

The wording is carefully chosen to avoid legal and technical complications. Note that English is referred to as a ‘national’ language. This just makes explicit how things are and “simply acknowledges the existing and undisputed position” of English in Australia. Note that the term ‘official language’ is avoided because that can carry more legal weight and may risk impinging on people’s language rights. Likewise, the recommendation that recognises Indigenous languages doesn’t in itself carry much legal weight but is “an important declaratory statement in relation to the importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages”.

The expert panel had initially considered further recommendations pertaining to language such as that “all Australian citizens shall be provided the opportunity to learn, speak and write English” and that “all Australian citizens shall have the freedom to speak, maintain and transmit the languages of their choice”. These components were removed following advice that they could result in legal ramifications that could make life unnecessarily difficult for the government.

But this good work by the panel was all done back in 2011. And Indigenous Australians have known the importance of their languages since year dot. Nice to see that Federal politicians are finally cottoning on.

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