Eternity interviews John Anderson, former deputy PM.
The Key reason, as I see it, is that we expect Australians to see the Constitution as a rulebook that ensures that we will all play fairly and that everyone will be treated equally. But we have actually offended the values of the constitution, the inherent values of the constitution because we often haven’t treated Aboriginals fairly.
So, highly symbolic but carefully worded changes, which will not open up disputes and court challenges and possible negative reaction from Australians feeling that one group is now being given favourable treatment, seems to me to be a really useful step in the road to reconciliation.
John, I think you are wearing two hats, one as a Christian, and the other as conservative politician. Starting with the Christian aspect: are you drawn towards this work as a Christian?
I am, and I am aware that many other Christians are as well. I think it is important that we recognise the dignity and worth of all individuals. For me personally I don’t believe the constitution has been the cause of the problem, I think our denial of its core values in the way that we have sometimes treated aboriginals is the problem. This symbolic step would signal that we recognize there has been a problem and that we are determined to that it should never happen again. There were two significant moments in my own life journey which made me conscious of discrimination of a technical sort that I think certainly fails any test against the Constitution’s commitment to equality for all.
Firstly, I discovered that an aboriginal stockman that worked for my own family during the Second World War on the family property, had three sons who served as did my father and his two brothers. So that one property had at least six men fighting. Three of them were Aboriginal, two of them were killed in the Malaysian campaign, and their family received only one third of the death benefit that a white soldier would have received. That I think is horrendous.
The second was when I met an old boxer at La Perouse in Sydney. And he had told me that despite being the most gifted boxer in his weight category in the country, he was told in no uncertain terms to lose the final qualifying round, to a white boxer as he would not be allowed to represent Australia at the 1956 Olympics because of the colour of his skin.
Those two things I seem to me to be serious offence to the inherent values and principles of od a constitution which in the end is a very dry and dusty document.
Its not the problem so much as our denying of its principles.
The other hat you wear is as a well-regarded conservative politician. Its said that the people who need to be won over to this constitutional change are conservatives. Particularly rural conservatives. Do you agree, and do you see yourself as a leader in that field?
I don’t entirely agree. It needs to be remembered that John Howard was the first Prime Minister who proffered the recognition. Secondly the research shows very
surprisingly, that the division turns out not to be between conservative and non-conservative Australians but between young and the old.
In something that really surprised me, the research actually indicates that older Australian, with memories of 1967, are more open to the idea of recognition than younger Australians,. I find that quite challenging because I thought Aboriginal studies were supposed to have been a core part of the curriculum in recent year.
The research shows that not many young Australians know much about the issues or what has happened at all.
Do you think Australians are making progress in coming together as a nation or is it still a struggle for us?
I think it is patchy. I do hear a lot of pontificating from the people who live in places where there are no Aboriginals. Just as I do on things like refugee issues. Very often it is the people who live at the coalface where you will find the very best and the very worst of relationship patterns.
I frankly think that there are many Aboriginal people who are feeling much more at home in the Australian community. But there are far too many who still feel unable to fully join in and then there are some Aboriginals to who I would say with the best of, and the deepest of respect, perhaps you need to think a little yourselves about your responsibility to reach out as well.
And I stress – only some. But I do meet them from time to time.
We all have to do this together. It is one thing to offer the olive branch, and it is important that we do, but as a Christian I know it is important that we accept the olive branch. And move on together.
So a final question, John. What are the challenges for Christians in the current of racial reconciliation?
I think the challenge is to be prepared to be sacrificial. And actually be engaged when we have the opportunity. I think it far too comfortable for most of us to pontificate from a distance. We desperately need Christians who will make the sacrifice in areas like education and medicine. I have met teachers and I have met doctors who have given up in despair, because of some local situation they have been involved in for many years and it has all become too much.
I think we need to remember that our Lord has never given up on us, although I know how much he must want to give up on me at times.
Well, I am hoping and praying he doesn’t. And somehow we need to keep at it. Not seven times, but seven times seventy.
John made a final comment on how to make sure the Constutional change gets up.
One thing our research shows very clearly was that Australians are well- disposed to on the whole to recognizing Aboriginal people. What they would not pass at a referendum is any proposal that is likely to be legally contentious or which singled out any group as being somehow superior.
They see the objective more than anything else is to see that everybody is treated equally. Anything that can be painted as creating a special class our researched showed very clearly wouldn’t get up.