Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Preambling along

Six Australian authors have been asked by the Australian Republican movement to write a preamble to the Australian constitution, not so much as serious proposals, but as a creative exercise to re-start debate about whether our rather dry, arid constitution (essentially a document imposing uniform customs and creating a common domestic market) should include something that at least acknowledges our history and values – and provides some recognition of the aboriginal people as the continent’s first inhabitants.

What I find interesting about these preambles is the way they are historical documents – not speaking so much of our past, but our present concerns. Still, every effort at “nation building” statements is an act of imagination usually trapped within the historical preoccupations of its era. The imagination of our national past, and present concerns, is apparent in each.

Here are my quick views:

James Bradley (novelist, poet, once a lawyer) – I don’t like his opening. Pledging allegiance to the sea and sky? It rings hollow. His incorporation of a national apology to our indigenous peoples is good, though, as is his reference to “equal and inviolable” rights.

Peter Carey (perhaps Australia’s greatest living novelist) - I find his preamble just too dark in tone. The reference to the convict experience (“… a nation forged by prisoners in chains, dispossessed …, rejected, spat out, unloved”) is particularly brutal and a very Sydney perspective on European settlement – the free-settler states go unacknowledged. It’s 1970s nationalism, really.

Richard Flannagan – I didn’t like “Gould’s Book of Fish”, I don’t like this. Unsuccessful poetry assembled with a steam-hammer.

Dorothy Porter (poet) touches lightly on aboriginal heritage, but makes no bones about the importance of asylum seekers, international peace-keeping and higher education in the current national debate. Interesting.

Leah Purcell (aboriginal writer, singer, actor, director) has a touchingly simple and poetic turn of phrase. After opening with the language of the the Kamilaroi and Gungarri people she does refer directly to the aboriginal peoples again, but exhorts that we “Respect our pioneers, both men and women, of every creed and colour for their efforts in building this country they have given us”. Her abandonment of formal English jangles with me a little, I also shy from the word “empower”.

My favourite is Delia Falconer’s, other than her very lawyer-ish reference to a duty of care. Its simplicity speaks very loudly, and its syntax – just one sentence – is well-crafted:

“We, the citizens of Australia, recognising that this land was given to us by no God and existed first as country, then as colony, and last as a Federal Commonwealth created in 1901 by the federation of six states; honouring equally the system of law inherited from England and the continuing laws and cultures of the Aboriginal peoples who never ceded ownership; affirming our duty of care toward this ancient landscape and its creatures; upholding the liberty of each individual regardless of ancestry under the laws of our democratic system; cognisant of our history; accepting our special status as an island continent, generous in expanse and heart, linked and looking outward to the ocean; charge each government to uphold the rules and ideals of this constitution decreed by us, the Australian people.”

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