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Chris Merritt
Legal Affairs Contributor
28 September, 2023
Martin Luther King’s advice on voice referendum

Noel Pearson did the nation a favour on Wednesday when he invoked the example of Dr Martin Luther King, one of the pathfinders for the American civil rights movement.

Pearson told the National Press Club: “Let’s follow Dr King’s dream – that our children will embrace each other as brothers and sisters in a way that too much eluded us in our time.”

But if we do follow King’s dream, those who support the “yes” case in the coming referendum will need to think again.

King’s famous “I have a dream” speech provides no support for those who seek to change Australia’s Constitution to include a separate race-based body for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

King repeatedly calls for equality. And sixty years later the concept he fought for – equality of citizenship – is under threat at Australia’s coming referendum.

On October 14, we risk becoming a divided nation.

Some might say the proposed voice to parliament is about indigeneity. But regardless of the spin, the voice will be an exclusive body for one group depending on the accident of their birth, descent or heritage.

King’s speech, when read in full, is a powerful antidote for the sickness of racial division and group identity.

As we consider our constitutional future, we should think again about what he said about race relations on the hot afternoon of August 28, 1963.

He was speaking on the steps of the Lincoln memorial in Washington before an audience that has been estimated to number about 250,000.

Anyone who reads that speech, or listens to one of the recordings online, will see that his preferred solution for racial injustice relied fundamentally on holding America accountable for its founding promise of equality.

This cannot be reconciled with the ideas of those in this country who would establish a constitutional entity based on race in the illogical hope that national unity would somehow emerge from division.

This is what King said:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’.”

Another section of that speech said: “This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.”

He warned there would be no tranquility in America “until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights”.

The idea of treating Americans separately, based on their race, was anathema to King. He referred to  “the manacles of segregation” and “the dark and desolate valley of segregation”.

Now consider what is at stake in this country.

Most people would readily accept a constitutional change that recognised Indigenous people were the first occupants of this continent.
But we have been denied an opportunity to vote on that alone.

Instead, constitutional recognition is being used as cover for the substantive purpose of this referendum which is to change our system of government by establishing a race-based institution that would be part of our Constitution.

This is not equality of citizenship.

Like all Australians, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders are entitled to equal rights under the Constitution.
If this referendum is approved, it would elevate racial difference and, inevitaby, spawn a repulsive body of race laws.
That would be the antithesis of King’s vision and would repudiate the work of generations of Indigenous reformers such as Charles Perkins who, like King, fought to shake off the shackles of unequal treatment.
It would also repudiate former prime minister Bob Hawke who asserted in 1988: “In Australia, there is no hierarchy of descent.”

Now is not the time to reverse course. 

Indigenous people have fought longer and harder than anyone else for equality of citizenship. The broader community should not obliterate their victory.
Towards the end of King’s speech he summed up his vision in a way that can only be read one way: he identified the inherent danger in judging people based on some assumed group identity instead of their individuality.
King said: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”
This, once again, is a way of thinking that has nothing in common with the philosophy underpinning the voice which would purport to speak for an entire race of people.

While King traced the promise of equality to the US Declaration of Independence, the American revolutionaries were drawing on a much older source: Magna Carta, which is also part of this country’s constitutional inheritance.

Australians, just like Americans, owe much to the Great Charter that was sealed in 1215 in a field at Runnymede west of London.

Like the Americans, equality is fundamental to what it means to be Australian.
But if we are to remain equal before the law, we must also remain equal before those who make the law and those who apply the law.

That is fundamentally at odds with the changes that would take place if this referendum succeeds.

An institution representing just part of society would be entrenched in the Constitution. It would have special access to parliament and the executive – those who make the law and those who apply the law.

Changing the Constitution to recognise Indigenous people is a worthwhile goal. But not like this. 
Instead, we should follow King’s dream. Indigenous Australians, like all other citizens, have earned the right to be treated equally as individuals based on the content of their character.