“Constitutional recognition is so important because it is about recognition of Aboriginal heritage, our connection to country and our rights as Australia’s First Peoples.
Racism, discrimination and a lack of respect and recognition have terrible and lasting impacts on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s mental health and social wellbeing.”
It is also critical that constitutional recognition does not prevent or make void any efforts by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to assert their rights as sovereign peoples or to pursue a treaty.
“The bipartisan support for recognition offers us a real opportunity for us to get this right and ensure the full and proper recognition of Aboriginal people in the Australian Constitution.”
National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) Chair, Matthew Cooke
“Recognition in the country’s founding document will go some way to redressing the racial discrimination Indigenous Australians “live, eat and breathe”,
Labor senator Nova Peris
A bipartisan parliamentary committee looking into constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders recently issued its final report : The report will form the basis of Australia’s next referendum question.
The new poll shows 85 per cent of voters support
A huge and growing majority of voters support amendment of the constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the first inhabitants of Australia, according to the latest Fairfax – Ipsos poll.
But as Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten hold an historic meeting with about 40 Indigenous leaders (see list below ) at Kirribilli House on Monday to discuss the prospects for a 2017 referendum on the issue,there are divisions within the Indigenous community about the best way to proceed and signs the question of what to do about constitutional race powers pose a threat to a successful outcome.
The new poll shows 85 per cent of voters support an amendment to the Constitution that recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the first inhabitants.
Why change? From ABC news site
There is no specific reference to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia’s constitution.
Advocates argue recognition of Indigenous Australians in the founding document is vital, both symbolically and practically.
There are also a number of references to race in the document that allow governments to discriminate against Indigenous Australians.
What are the options?
There are now a significant number of options and combinations that have been put forward including:
- A symbolic statement of recognition – a new section to recognise Australia was first occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, acknowledge the relationship with traditional lands and waters, and with references to continuing cultures, languages and heritage
- Repeal racist reference – Section 25 contemplates banning people from voting on the basis of race. There is wide consensus that this is outdated and should be removed
- Change to so-called “race power” – Section 51(XXVI) allows the Government to make “special laws” for people of any race “for the peace, order and good government” of the nation. Changes to the “race power” could include a direct reference to the Parliament making laws for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and could go further, stating laws should be for the “advancement” of Indigenous people, or to “overcome disadvantage” or “ameliorate the effects of past discrimination”. The race power was gained in 1967. However the constitutional change did not give any guidance as to whether those laws could be good laws or negative laws that discriminate adversely. The High Court has said the power could be used for laws detrimental to Indigenous peoples. For that reason, a change to this power may include wording that indicates laws must be beneficial
- Separate ban on race discrimination – this could be a new section in the Constitution prohibiting discrimination on the basis of “race, colour or ethnic or national origin”. Alternatively it could be a specific statement that bans governments from making laws that discriminate against “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples”
- Preamble – this would involve recognition in an introduction to the constitution rather than in the body of the document. An attempt to add a preamble was included as part of the failed 1999 referendum to become a republic. There are legal questions about whether this option is legally possible and some advocates argue it risks being only a tokenistic change
- Indigenous Parliamentary Advisory Body – this option could include a new section in the constitution to establish an Indigenous body “to advise Parliament on matters relating to Indigenous peoples”. Proponents of this case argue this would ensure recognition has practical application and oversight of laws by Indigenous people rather than through High Court action
- Declaration of Recognition – this would form a declaration outside of the constitution with no legal status or it could be achieved via legislation. It could still be put to voters at a referendum. Advocates for this option have suggested a national competition be held to decide on a declaration of 300 words or less and suggest it could be used at “all national civic and religious occasions”
40 people are expected to attend the summit including: Updated 10.30 am 6 July
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda
- Joint director of the Recognise campaign Tanya Hosch
- Reconciliation Australia CEO Justin Mohamed
- National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples co-chairs Kirstie Parker and Lez Malezer
- WA Indigenous leader Patrick Dodson
- University of Canberra Chancellor Tom Calma
- Arnhem Land senior Gumatj leader Djawa Yunupingu
- Academic and anthropologist Marcia Langton
- Director of the Cape York Institute Noel Pearson
- Former Senator Aden Ridgeway
- Cape York Land Council chairman Richie Ahmat
- Northern Land Council chief executive Joe Morrison
- Central Land Council director David Ross
- Eddie Mabo’s daughter Gail Mabo
- Film director and producer Rachel Perkins, daughter of Charlie Perkins
- Businesswoman and member of the PM’s Indigenous Advisory Council Leah Armstrong
- Businesswoman and member of the PM’s Indigenous Advisory Council Josie Cashman
Indigenous recognition ‘must be real’: Aboriginal leaders
Tony Abbott is facing a push from powerful Aboriginal voices and his political rivals to commit to substantive indigenous recognition ahead of today’s historic summit, with a key architect of the failed 1999 constitutional preamble, Aden Ridgeway, warning against repeating the mistakes of that doomed campaign.
On the eve of today’s long-awaited conference on indigenous recognition in the Constitution, Bill Shorten issued a plea to the Prime Minister to aim higher than the “smaller-target path of meaningless change” and ensure recognition contains a “promise of meaningful improvements”.
“I don’t want us to lower our sights,” the Opposition Leader said last night. “I believe Australians are big enough, smart enough and generous enough to vote for genuine, real change. Cosmetic tinkering with the preamble is insufficient.”
Addressing a gathering of indigenous leaders at Kirribilli House in Sydney on the eve of the summit last night, Mr Abbott said the challenge was to “correct the great silence in our Constitution”.
“Not everyone is as passionate as we are, not everyone is as informed as we are and our challenge over coming months is to more broadly and more deeply engage the whole of the Australian community in this task,” he said at the event, jointly hosted by Mr Shorten.
But he tempered expectations, saying any changes to the Constitution must be owned by the “vast majority” of Australians. “Yes, it has to be worth doing … but it has to be doable,” he said. “The challenge for us I suppose, over the next 24 hours particularly, but over the months and however-long-it-takes-to-get-this-done to come, is not necessarily to do the best that each one of us thinks should be done, but to do the best that each one of us thinks can be done.”
Mr Ridgeway — an Aboriginal senator for the now defunct Democrats who, in 1999, joined with then prime minister John Howard to campaign for a constitutional preamble that recognised Aboriginal kinship — said yesterday that symbolism alone would doom a referendum. “I think that the fact that it failed in 1999 is indicative that it has to be much more,” Mr Ridgeway said. “You really can’t go below that. The status quo, or the 1999 approach, would not be acceptable.”
Mr Ridgeway’s intervention comes as he prepares to join a group of 40 indigenous leaders at the today’s bipartisan summit with Mr Abbott and Mr Shorten in an attempt to chart a course towards a successful referendum on indigenous constitutional recognition.
With Mr Abbott keen for a referendum on changes that would recognise indigenous Australians in the Constitution in 2017, there is intense debate among Aboriginal communities who are near-united in their rejection of mere symbolism. The Weekend Australian reported on Saturday that senior members of the government were pushing for a modest form of recognition incorporating a preamble that would outline “indigenous heritage, British foundation and multicultural character”.
Social Services Minister Scott Morrison said yesterday he would like to see a “middle path” emerge between symbolism and practical reform. “If it goes too far, it has no chance of succeeding,” Mr Morrison said. “If it doesn’t go far enough, then what’s the point?”
Cape York indigenous leader Noel Pearson said last night any proposal must involve “substantive practical change”.
“We want to change the paradigm of indigenous affairs,” he told Viewpoint on Sky News. “We want 3 per cent of this country to have a fair place in it and to share in the benefits of being Australian. I really don’t think that will be achieved through some symbolic words; there has got to be a practical dimension to it.”
The chairman of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council, Warren Mundine, warned yesterday that failure on a referendum would amount to a “massive kick in the guts”.
He warned it was critical to devise an appropriate form of words to maximise the chances of a successful referendum, saying it was much easier to run an effective “no” campaign than an effective “yes” campaign. “I’ll be focusing on not having a lawyer’s dog’s breakfast coming out of our Constitution,” Mr Mundine told the Australian Agenda program on Sky News.
But Mr Mundine stands isolated as the only significant Aboriginal figure who supports a minimalist approach to recognition after a widely attended weekend seminar of the National Congress of First Nation’s Peoples in Sydney heard passionate arguments in favour of a form of recognition that delivered practical outcomes for Aboriginal people.
While there is strong support among Aboriginal groups for a ban on racial discrimination in the Constitution, there is also a pragmatic acceptance among many that such a proposal, strongly opposed by constitutional conservatives, is not politically viable.
A question on indigenous recognition to be put to the people at a referendum centres on the race power provisions of the Constitution. It is proposed that a referendum would remove race power provisions contained in sections 25 and 51 (26) of the Constitution. A joint select committee formed to advise on constitutional recognition, which handed down its final report last month, has recommended the retention of a “persons power” to allow for the commonwealth government to legislate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in line with the successful 1967 referendum.
The committee report laid out three options for recognising indigenous Australians, including a broad racial non-discrimination clause and a narrower clause relating specifically to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. But an alternative proposal from Mr Pearson, who is strongly critical of the joint select committee’s report for failing to deal with the problem of conservative opposition that could doom a referendum, is gaining traction.
Chair of the Cape York Land Council Richie Ah Mat said yesterday he believed the Pearson position — a declaration of recognition twinned with an indigenous advisory body — was “the one that we should all be gunning for”.
“It would give our people a constitutionally guaranteed voice in the political decisions made about our rights and interests,” said Mr Ah Mat, who will attend today’s summit. “This mandated indigenous body is opposed by those like Warren Mundine and (social justice campaigner) Frank Brennan who just want symbolism … a miserly symbolic outcome.
“A preamble alone will just not cut it. This must make a practical difference to indigenous lives or it’s not worth supporting. We are tired as blackfellas of symbolism.”
As she entered Kirribilli House last night to chat with Mr Abbott and Mr Shorten, Recognise joint campaign director Tanya Hosch said she hoped it would be the first of many more conversations between the government and indigenous leaders. “This is a really significant opportunity to sit down with the Prime Minster and the Opposition Leader … to work out how we’re going to take this process forward,” Ms Hosch said