“Order, order, can we all please settle down,” said the co-Chair, squirming in his seat. “The Expert Panel has an important job to do here today. The hand of history lies delicately upon our shoulders, I think you’ll all agree…”
Marcia rolled her eyes back. “When you say ‘hand’, could you not be a little more specific? It could be misconstrued as a white hand, and that would be paternalistic.”
Around the room, heads nodded feverishly.
“Possibly even racist,” muttered Expert Panelist 17 under her breath.
The co-Chair felt beads of sweat breaking out on his forehead. The room was claustrophobic enough, nineteen people all crammed around one long table, without the feeling of dread that had been creeping over him these past few minutes. “Of course, of course. Allow me to rephrase that, er… let the minutes show that the black armband of history sits…”
Expert Panelist 13 slammed her hand down. “It’s not the black armband. It’s the black hand. We have to get these details right.”
“I’m sure that’s what my learned panelist meant,’ said the other co-Chair, swiftly coming to his co-Chair’s rescue. It had been a long, exhausting process. Tempers were frayed. He picked up his dog-eared copy of the Constitution that lay forlornly on the table, covered in gigantic red crosses and angry red lines that made it look more like the victim of a road crash than the most important legal document in the land.
There was a hesitant cough. The thin expert panelist with the neatly trimmed beard sitting at the far end of the room adjusted his glasses as he summonsed up the courage to speak. “I just think, perhaps, without overdoing it, but in, a, er, non-confrontational spirit of, er, mutual recognition, we might, er…”
“What?” said Marcia, fixing him with her formidable gaze.
“I, er, just thought that perhaps we should, er, possibly consider, um, just simply changing one or two words… that was all.”
Around the room the expert panelists all started angrily gesticulating and speaking at once.
“One or two words?” shouted Megan, grabbing the tattered document. “Look! Section 51. I’ll read it to you. ‘The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to the people of any race, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws.’
“That is soooo racist,” said Panelist 12, the youngest expert present. The rest of the room agreed, shaking their heads in disgust.
“Special laws for special races. Sick,” said Panelist 9.
“In the bin!” yelled Panelist 14, screwing up the offending pages into a tight ball and lobbing them across the room.
“Whooaa!” yelled Marcia, snatching back the document. “Not so fast. Not everything’s gotta go. Not the new bits. They have to stay. The bit about advancement, for example.”
“Which bit was that?” said one of the token MPs, stifling a yawn. Canberra politics was bad enough, but this mob were something else.
Marcia glowered at him. “We have to have it legally enshrined that we can advance certain cultural groups.”
“But isn’t that, er… racist?”
“Don’t talk such rot! Some of them don’t even speak English! Of course they need special treatment!”
“You mean like teaching them English?” said the shy developmental and educational expert, who’d been longing for an opportunity to get involved in the discussion.
Panelist 5, an expert in indigenous welfare and social deprivation issues looked aghast. “How racist can you get?” she muttered, shaking her head in disbelief.
Marcia slumped back wearily in her chair. "What I have in mind is a substantive section in the Constitution that accords indigenous people recognition. And not some recognition lite which involves interpretation by some future High Court or government. Got it?"
The Independent MP reached for his glass of water. He’d always found Julia tough to negotiate with, but this woman was something else. “Of course, of course,” he said, swallowing nervously.
“So. We remove sections 51 and 25 from the Constitution because of their outdated racism? Agreed?”
Around the table, heads nodded enthusiastically. “And we replace them with the proposed section 116A. Agreed?”
“Sorry, er, what was that again?”
“The making of laws to protect the cultures, languages or heritage of special groups."
“You mean, er, special laws for special races?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” snapped Marcia. “I mean special advancement policies for indigenous groups.”
“Oh, I see.”
“Well?” said the co-Chair, swiftly wiping a bead of sweat from his brow. “Are we all agreed?”
One by one, the expert panelists turned and nodded. The other co-Chair gratefully shook his co-Chair’s hand. “Done,” he said, sighing with relief. “Can’t wait for the referendum.”