Deborah Coddington
Deborah Coddington is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Deborah Coddington: Race relations drag lucky rival backwards

Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders are not included in Australia's constitution. Photo / Getty IMages
Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders are not included in Australia's constitution. Photo / Getty IMages

Happy New Year, readers. The first day is one of hope - grand schemes, weddings, births, surprises and there will be inevitable tragedies.

I hope for you a grand share of the former, and few of the latter but, as Nietzsche philosophised, we need difficulties and disasters to appreciate our happy times.

Right now I am having a happy holiday in Australia, Tasmania to be precise, much to the horror of some of my friends who, before I departed New Zealand, wondered why we wished to visit what they believed to be one of the world's backwaters.

Tasmania is anything but. For starters, about a 15-minute drive out of Hobart is Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, the largest private art museum in Australia, owned by Tasmanian multimillionaire David Walsh. A huge tourist attraction, it has a fantastic art collection.

Mona is also Moorilla Estate vineyard and winery, with luxurious accommodation overlooking the Derwent River, so if this was the "backwater" my friends referred to, then we were happy to rest here awhile.

I write this from Priory Lodge, in historic Bothwell, and as you read it I'll have moved on to the breath-catching Saffire Lodge in Freycinet National Park.

The weather is gorgeous, and driving through Tasmania to reach these destinations you pass historic sandstone homesteads set in acres of beautiful grounds - photo stops outnumber coffee stops.

So if schlepping around shops a la Sydney or Melbourne is not your ideal holiday, you love luxurious and peaceful accommodation but don't want to sit on a plane for 24 hours, then visit Tasmania.

We're being urged to catch Australia, the lucky country, but are we the poorer cousin in every single aspect? Economically, yes, we are behind the Aussies, but in terms of race relations they have serious work to do to catch up with us.

Last week, Philip Ruddock, a former minister in John Howard's government, gave one of the most contorted and convoluted reasons I've seen for abolishing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. In essence, he should have just come out and admitted he's a bigot and doesn't believe that Australia's first people have a place in Australia's constitution.

Incredible as it may seem, Aborigines and Torres Straits Islanders are still not included in Australia's constitution. There's no reference to these people in the country's founding document, more than 111 years after Queen Victoria gave her assent to Australia's constitution in 1900, despite the fact Australia supports the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

Ruddock told The Australian "the idea of incorporating within the body of the Constitution recognition of the prior occupation of Australia by Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, and respect for their culture, was designed to 'give you more hooks on which you can hang potential litigation'."

Of course it might, you silly goose, but has that scared New Zealanders from recognising the prior occupation of New Zealand by Maori and respecting their culture? Has that scared New Zealanders from litigation, from robust debate (to use an understatement)?

To be fair, there were other reasons why the commission was dumped, including allegations of embezzlement, corruption and historical sexual harassment. But Australia still hasn't solved the problem of equality, partnership and legislating for advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, though there is an ongoing campaign to try to involve the entire country in dealing with this.

In terms of financial wealth, Australia is financially better off, but they could learn something from us in terms of respecting tangata whenua. Yes, the English ripped off the Maori, too, when it came to getting them to sign the Treaty of Waitangi. Henry Williams deliberately mistranslated from Maori to English to protect his land holdings, and numerous other travesties were perpetrated.

But I know where I'd rather live. We can't go back, only forward, and guilt gets nobody anywhere.

New Year brings another chance to get it right and, as John Wayne said, tomorrow hopes we've learned something from yesterday.

- Herald on Sunday

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