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Australian Referendum and Human Rights



by Dr Laksiri Fernando

Australia is holding a referendum on 14 October (2023) proposing a constitutional amendment in the country in recognising the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the ‘first nations people’ and creating a body as ‘a voice’ to express their views through representatives to Parliament and the government on policies relevant to their welfare and development. A referendum is usually a vote in the form of ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to a particular question and the question in this instance is the following.

“A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?”

In May this year, both houses of Parliament approved the holding of a referendum and since then the campaign for yes and no has been launched by various political parties and organisations. It would have been very much better if the ‘yes’ campaign had been conducted on a bipartisan or nonpartisan basis. Because the voice to parliament is mainly a human rights issue. When a particular community or a group of people is disadvantaged in society, they should be given a special push or place to overcome those disadvantages. In human rights vocabulary this is called affirmative action. In 1998, the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights appointed a Special Rapporteur on the subject and in his report, he gave the following tentative definition on the matter.

“Affirmative action is a coherent packet of measures, of a temporary character, aimed specifically at correcting the position of members of a target group in one or more aspects of their social life, in order to obtain effective equality.”

Even before this date, affirmative actions were in practice particularly on women, minorities, and indigenous people in some countries. In 1974 when I entered the University of New Brunswick, Canada, I could meet many indigenous students enrolled under affirmative action. When I came to Australia in 1991 however, I unfortunately could not see any indigenous person in Sydney universities. In the American continent it was under John F. Kennedy’s initiative in 1961 that affirmative action programs were initiated in the university sector although a recent Supreme Court decision is meant to be reversing it. Affirmative action programmes are in operation in many democratic countries today for women, blacks, immigrants, poor people, disabled persons, war veterans, indigenous peoples, and specific minorities. Through practice it is revealed that affirmative actions work as human rights promotion. One of the best explanations on the subject is ‘A Philosophical Defense of Affirmative Action’ by Engelbert Ssekasozi (1999).

Voice to Parliament also has some historical origins and emotional aspects. These are clear from the Uluru statement. However, these are not against human rights or against any other Australian. The statement says it is a ‘Statement from the Heart.’ Through a Voice to Parliament some of the emotional claims or sentiments could be appeased. This is a human duty of all other Australians. Apart from the human rights aspects of the proposed referendum, there are very many humanitarian aspects. Whatever the weaknesses of the Uluru statement, it must be admitted that it is the way probably most of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people feel and think at present. Australia as a tolerant and democratic society should be able to understand and allow these views.

When it says, “Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign Nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands and possessed it under our own laws and customs” there is no point in having a dispute. However, when it says, “This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors” there can be some impractical aspects. This confusion enlarges when it follows the following statement. “This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or extinguished and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown.”

The Uluru statement was made in 2017, more than five years ago. Unfortunately, there was no apparent dialogue between those who formulated the statement and modern Australians who would support the ideas/demands with necessary and possible amendments. Indigenous people have every right to express their views and aspirations. Two years before the Uluru statement, Meagan Davis and George Williams wrote ‘Everything You Need to Know About the Referendum to Recognize Indigenous Australians’ (2015) supplying convincing reasons for the matter before us at the referendum. They said, “The 1967 referendum deleted discriminatory references to Aboriginal people but put nothing in their place. Torres Strait islanders have never been referred to in the Constitution. As a result, rather than recognizing Indigenous people, the referendum left a silence at the heart of the Constitution.”

The Australian Government has issued an official pamphlet on the referendum according to the Referendum Act 1984. It has fairly given a balanced assessment on both sides of the coin to vote Yes or No. On the Yes side, what is proposed is a new Chapter IX to the constitution in “Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.” The proposal further says, “there shall be a body to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.” This is what has created the controversy and doubts.

From a human rights perspective, just recognition of indigenous people as the First Nations in the constitution is not enough. There should be some positive measures and mechanisms. A major reason for this necessity is their appalling socio-economic conditions and neglect. Uluru statement says “Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet.” This is what needs to be changed with their participation and support. There are several devoted charity and nongovernmental organizations working with indigenous people. But that is not sufficient. What is necessary is an overall development action plan under the national government based on the voices expressed by the indigenous representatives. Their health, education, employment, and security should be looked into with a road map and a plan of action.

Indigenous Voice might not be the correct name for the proposed mechanism. However, that can be rectified after the referendum. What is proposed is not a Third Chamber. It cannot override the Australian parliament and it has no veto power as some people incorrectly argue. The ‘Voice’ is also not like a mere commission appointed by a government. Voice is elected by the indigenous people. As the referendum proposal says, ‘Voice may make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to their peoples.’

At a referendum, the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ compulsory vote should be completely a personal decision unlike voting at a parliamentary election. People do not need to worry at all about the dangers of the referendum or the Voice to their sovereignty or democracy. Indigenous people are an innocent, helpless and victimized small community not even exceeding 4 percent of the population. If the campaign for the referendum, already approved by Parliament, becomes further divisive and partisan, the victims again would be the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This is the most important human rights issue today in Australia.

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Speculations about origin of placename, ‘Negombo’ (Meegamuwa)



By Chandre Dharmawardana,

A writer using the pseudonym GADS, replying to a previous article regarding Negombo, states (The Island 17 Sept. 2023), “It is also historically recorded that the name Negombo is the Portuguese corruption of its Tamil name Neerakolombu and the Sinhala name Meegamuwa which means and comes from old Tamil Naval terminology Meegamam Pattnam. Meegamam denotes a naval captain”.

Unfortunately, the author does not give the reference to this “historical record” or elaborate on the details available from any early sources, Portuguese and Dutch maps etc. Furthermore, he asserts that “Meegamam” denotes a naval captain. Here again, this is certainly not so in any of the Dravidian languages, or Indic languages. No such usage exists even in Arabic and other languages of the Hebrew family, as far as we can ascertain.

A “naval captain” in Arabic would be Kabtin Bahriun, while the Tamil usage would be Katarpatai Kaptain in modern usage. In old Tamil words like Nakutawere used [1]. However, “gama, gamuwa, gammam, kamam, etc., are all refer “village”.

I have collected what is known about the place name Negombo in the website listed at the end of this note [2]. I quote from it below:

The name Meegamuva is believed to refer to a village (gamuwa) which was reputed for its honey (mee). Thus, the Mahavamsa-based tradition has it that honey was procured from this region for Queen Vihara Maha Devi, (2 century BCE)[3], initially from a honeycomb found in a boat turned upside down. It could also refer to a forest of Mee trees, Madhuca Longifolia (Koenig). It is well known that placenames have been based on vegetation and prominent land marks; in our view, this is the most likely source of the name.

Another interesting legend is that the name is related to “Nihumbala, the nephew of the Yakka king Raavana. The Tamil form, Neerkozimpu may mean water, and ‘kozimpu’ is sometimes claimed to mean ‘village’, but such a meaning is not recognised in standard Tamil Lexicons. Also, the Tamil name originally applied only to the lagoon-like area and not to the whole of Meegamuwa. Given the ancient histoofthe village, kozimpu may have comefrom the sinhala kalapuva adorned with the Tamil “nir”.

Maya Oya flows north of Negombo and falls into the ocean near Kochchikade. This was an early center of the cinnamon trade, set up by the Moors in medieval times. The Portuguese ousted them in the 16th century and built a fort, and established a strong Catholic religious centre here. The Dutch ousted the Portuguese in the 1644 CE. The ruins of the fort, with its fine archway marked ‘1672’ can still be seen. In 1796 the British took over Negombo, by which time the cinnamon trade had declined. The town has remained strongly Roman catholic to this day.

Frivolous folk-lore etymology attriutes the name ‘Negambo’ to nikam biruva. That is, a dog ‘just barked’ is said to be the response given by a non-comprehending bystander to a colonial who asked ‘what is the name of this town? While GADS recognizes such frivolities for what they are, the claim that Meegamuwa or Neer-kozimpu comes from the Tamil words for “sea captain” can be very intriguing if anyone takes it seriously; one cannot find a source for substantiating such a claim in any reputed Tamil lexicon or Tamil literary source.

[1]Madras Tamil Lexicon.

[2] index.html

[3] Mahawamsa, XXII, verse 48.

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How to conserve electricity at home and workplace



Going through my old paper clippings, I came across the following news item which is more applicable today when the country is facing a severe energy crisis on how to conserve or restrict the use of electricity at Offices and other working places.

There are several ways of conserving electricity at home, offices and other workplaces. It is absolutely necessary to do so because electricity is harmful for our environment and the planet we live in.

Here is how

(a)  Unplug all electrical appliances in the kitchen when not in use, except the refrigerator. This includes coffee pots, sandwich toasters, blenders and ovens. These appliances use small amounts of electricity when they are left in standby mode.

(b)  When it comes to washing, soap them first and then open the tap halfway to wash them.

(c)   Use the washing machine once a week. Try washing some of your lighter clothes by hand and save jeans and other heavy clothing for the washing machine

(d)  When drying your clothes, do not use the dryer unless very necessary. Hang wet clothes on a line in the backyard which is an easy way of drying them and clothes dry so easily during the day in this intensely hot weather.

(e)  Change the traditional light bulbs for energy saving bulbs. The garden lights can be replaced with solar powered lights. In the kitchen, the refrigerator is out of direct sunlight and not next to the oven. Avoid putting hot dishes in the refrigerator as it will have to work harder to cool the dish, therefore wait for a while for the dish to cool and then put it in the refrigerator.

(f)    Unplug any phone or laptop chargers when they are not in use.

(g)  Unplug the computer when it is not in use. This is very important because it can get very badly damaged if it is plugged in during a thunderstorm. You may not even be at home during the storm, so it is advisable to unplug the computer when it is not being used. Do not leave the computer switched on for long hours.

(h)  Unplug the television set and gaming consoles too, as they can get damaged if they are on standby mode during a thunderstorm.

(i)    Keep DVD players, TVs and other audio and stereo equipment plugged into a multi-port which can be turned off with one switch. This saves electricity.

(j)    Turn off the lights, fans and air-conditioner when you leave the room. Remember that you do not need the lights switched on during the day.

(k)  Do not use electric appliances such as vacuum cleaners and use the broom instead.


Via e-mail

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Some lesser known historical facts



The Greek women in ancient Greece realised to their utter dismay that their husbands were always fighting wars overseas. One brave Greek woman, Lysistrata, organised a women’s front with the sole purpose of denying their husbands the marital pleasures unless they remained at home to fulfill their marital duties

Socrates, known for his wisdom, was invited by the King of Sparta, which had waged war against Greece, to be an honorary citizen of Sparta. He gracefully turned down the offer as he valued the democratic way of life in Athens. As he was always arguing with fellow Athenians neglecting household work his wife used abusive language on him in the presence of his companions. Socrates continued with his arguments when his wife in utter exasperation treated him with a plate full of dish water. Socrates merely said to his companions that after thunder comes the rain.

In the Olympic games held during the peaceful times the athletes ran the races naked. Women were not permitted to attend them. The penalty was death if a woman was discovered breaking the law. On one occasion a middle-aged woman was caught breaking the law. As she happened to be the mother of a celebrated athlete she was forgiven.

Julius Caesar was caught dressed as a woman in a women only club in Rome. He was not punished since he had gone there only to meet his lover who saved him. On another occasion he had to offer a bribe to the ship’s captain, a pirate, who threatened to throw him overboard into the Mediterranean Sea.

Isaac Newton was accused by Robert Hooke for plagiarizing when the former introduced the gravitational constant in his book Principia Mathematica. Hooke was the Secretary of the Royal Society of which Newton was the President. Hooke was the person who encouraged Robert Knox to write the book “Historical Relations…” Newton was accused by the German philosopher Leibniz of plagiarism as the latter had published the calculations of infinitesimal calculus before Newton. There was a rule in the Universities that dons should take holy orders. The king exempted Newton from this obligation. Newton’s denial of the divinity of Jesus and the trinity did not earn any punishment from the ecclesiastical authorities. The complementary part of calculus, integral calculus, had been discovered by Archimedes in the second century BC. After the conquest of Greece by Rome the intellectual supremacy and the culture of Greece saw a gradual decline. It was known that the burial place of Archimedes was a much-venerated place visited by Greeks. The Romans did not show such veneration and the burial place got neglected. However, when Cicero, a Roman intellectual, lawyer and writer became the governor of Athens in the second half of the first century BC, he visited the burial site and had the monument restored to its former state. He noticed the epitaph wherein the symbol of a sphere within a cylinder had been inscribed.

A century later Rome conquered England, killing the English queen Boudica. There stands the figure of this queen on a horse (close to the underground tube station Westminster) with words emblazoned on the flanks in poetic language indicating that while England was colonised by Rome, England had conquered half of the world.

Guy Fawkes was the man who made an attempt to set fire to the Parliament building. This incident is known as the “Gunpowder plot”. He failed in his attempt and was executed. This incident may be compared to the attempt by a JVP member who threw a hand grenade when a Cabinet meeting was taking place in the Parliament building with the President JRJ presiding. The culprit got away.

When a German prince from Hanover became George the First of England, he found life in England very dull as he could not speak English. So, he invited his old German friend Handel, the musician, to be his companion. It was during this time that Handel composed his famous “Water music” and many operas.

Dr. Leo Fernando

Talahena, Negombo

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