Who Is Ready To Change The Constitution?

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Earlier this month a journey of more than 4000 kilometres, from Victoria, through to South Australia and across the Northern Territory, reached Nhulunbuy in north east Arnhem Land. That’s where the Garma Festival, one of the largest Indigenous cultural festivals in the country, takes place. The Journey to Recognition had been coordinated by Recognise, about the people’s movement to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution.

While the journey now continues west to Darwin and beyond, a journey of significantly more importance to Indigenous Australians is underway. The fact that our nation’s founding document does not recognise one of the world’s oldest continuous cultures is surprising at best, and insulting at worst. If we pride ourselves on being a fair nation, it is something that needs to be rectified.

The ALP went to the 2010 election promising a referendum on the matter. Constitutional recognition also formed part of the agreement with the Greens and the Independents in forming minority government. Together with cross-party and Independent support, the time seemed ripe for it to proceed. In late 2010 an Expert Panel of MPs, community and business leaders, academics and — most importantly — Indigenous people was formed to advise the Government on how best to amend the Constitution.

When the panel reported back in January 2012, there were five key recommendations, including, that a new section 51A be inserted into the Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples — recognising them as their first inhabitants of the islands known as Australia, acknowledging their continuing relationship with their traditional lands and waters, respecting their continuing cultures, and acknowledging the need to secure the advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The panel further recommended a new section 116A and section 127A be inserted into the Constitution, respectively prohibiting racial discrimination, and recognising that while the national language of Australia is English, that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are the original languages, and part of our national heritage.

The report argued that in the interests of simplicity, there should be a single referendum that dealt with the suite of proposals. It stipulated that before such a referendum was held, there would need be cross-party support across federal, state and territory governments in relation to both the timing, and the content of the proposals. It also called for a properly resourced public education and awareness program. In the eyes of the Panel in relation to a referendum, “the consequences of failure would be damaging to the nation".

Unfortunately, in the heady days of minority government, progress towards a referendum was slow. By September 2012, concerned that the education campaign had not progressed far enough, the Federal Government shelved the plan for a 2013 referendum. Minister for Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin said at the time that the government had postponed the referendum to allow more time to build community awareness of the change.

“I’d like to be part of this change to the Australian Constitution, but I think we also have to acknowledge that there isn’t the community awareness for a change to the Constitution,” she said. While many were quick to criticise the then PM Julia Gillard for failing to keep a promise – suiting a narrative that many were keen to maintain — the reality behind closed doors was seemingly something different. At a panel discussion at Garma on this very topic, Professor Marcia Langdon said, “Some were quick to call PM Gillard ‘gutless’ [for shelving the referendum], but the truth is that many of us on the expert panel were all on the phone saying ‘Don’t do it!’’ and to postpone it.”

Historically, Australians have been conservative when it comes to referenda. Of 44 that have been held since Federation (the first in 1906), only eight have been carried. In order for a referendum to be successful, it needs what is known as a “double majority” — a majority of voters nationally, and a majority of voters in at least four of the six states. Any proposal that does not enjoy bipartisan support is almost certainly doomed.

Deputy campaign director for Recognise, Tanya Hosch has said that we should be optimistic. “It’s a difficult task, but the good thing is that we are the generation that gets to do this,” she told New Matilda. “It can’t be achieved with one leader, or one vehicle. We all have to contribute, and we’re doing it for ancestors past, but also for our children, and our children’s children.

A month ago, the newly reappointed Prime Minister Rudd used the 50th anniversary of the Yirrkala Bark Petitions in north east Arnhem Land to renew the push for recognition, and committed to the government to a referendum within two years.

“I, as Prime Minister want to see this matter brought to the people of Australia by referendum within two years of the election of the next parliament,” he said. “And for that to happen, I want Mr Abbott to join that journey with me.” The Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, reaffirmed the Government’s support for constitutional recognition at Garma.

Abbott on the other hand, while supporting the notion of constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and committing to releasing a draft constitutional amendment for public consultation within 12 months should he taking office, is yet to commit to a timeframe beyond that. In his speech to a packed key forum at Garma — which was widely reported as a strong performance, ignoring that it was high in sloganeering and light on detail — he once again only committed to taking it to a referendum “as soon as possible” after that.

Nevertheless, both major parties appear to be on the correct side of this debate, and this should be welcomed. Even the normally conservative Senator Barnaby Joyce is on side, and has said: “I don’t think I’ve ever supported a referendum in my life, but I’m going to make an exception for this one.”

One of the biggest obstacles however continues to be public awareness. In 2011, the Expert Panel commissioned Newspoll to conduct specific qualitative research. It found that there was little knowledge among the Australian public of the Constitution’s role or importance, or about the processes involved in moving towards and achieving success at a referendum.

While bipartisan support exists now, any such change — especially one so positive for the social and cultural tapestry of our nation — runs the risk of being harmed by the same conservatives and shock jocks that once upon a time claimed that the establishment of native title would lead to people’s backyards and, heaven forbid, the MCG being taken over. That said, this is not an issue that necessarily fits neatly along conservative or progressive lines, but rather welcomes all in an engaging and constructive way

The campaign for Indigenous recognition is overwhelmingly positive and should be embraced by all Australians. It would, finally,  be a demonstration that as a nation, we have come of age, and have left the discriminatory and racist ways of yesteryear behind.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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