A New Twist In Australia's 'On Again Off Again' Constitutional Reform Agenda


Only a month after signalling he would delay a referendum on recognising Indigenous Australians in the constitution until after the election, Prime Minister Tony Abbott is now saying he is willing to set a date.

But what the Coalition would take to a referendum is another question altogether, with further “discussions” needed before taking the next step.

The move comes following reported pressure from his chief Indigenous advisor Warren Mundine, who told The Weekend Australian he had called on Abbott and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten to meet for discussion. 

Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the preamble of the constitution was an 11th hour election promise made by former Prime Minister John Howard, before he was booted from office in the 2007 poll.

The promise was seized upon by his successor Kevin Rudd, who convened an expert panel to consult on changes to the constitution, who later handed its recommendations to Julia Gillard.

In short, the history of the constitutional reform proposal is a history of broken promises from both sides of politics.

Kevin Rudd proposed a 2015 referendum at the latest. Julia Gillard made a promise to independent MP Rob Oakeshott to hold a referendum at the 2013 election or earlier, which was shelved in September 2012.

Instead, Parliament passed an Act of Recognition which committed the next Parliament to a referendum with a sunset clause of two years. It passed with unanimous bipartisan support and was hailed as “historic”, even though it signalled a broken promise and did not commit either party to a timeline on a referendum.

It didn’t take Abbott long to break his own election promise on the issue either.

He told the Sydney Institute before taking office “within 12 months of taking office, an incoming Coalition government would put forward a draft amendment and establish a bipartisan process to access its chances of success”.

But earlier this year, during his brief and delayed stay in north-east Arnhem Land (which represented another broken promise) Abbott told media he would not support a referendum at the next election.

“I think it’s going to be difficult to run a bipartisan referendum campaign in conjunction with a highly partisan election campaign. That’s why I don’t think it’s really sensible to have the referendum at the time of the next election, “Mr Abbott told reporters.

“If we rush prematurely into naming dates, into deciding what the proposal will be, I think we cruel our pitch, I think we jeopardise our chances of getting it all through.”

But a month after making those comments, Abbott has again back-flipped.

The Weekend Australian reported that the Coalition of Australian Governments had discussed the timing of a proposed referendum on the issue.

Abbott reportedly said setting a date would show the government is “serious” about taking it to referendum.

“It is important that there be a high level of bipartisanship and it’s also important that there be a high level of discussion, not just within the Indigenous community, but certainly including the Indigenous community, and there are some discussions that need to take place before I think I can be too prescriptive about what the next steps are,” Abbott told the Weekend Australian.

“I am determined that we will have this referendum, (and) that we will soon set a date.

“I think it is important to set a date because I think that will help to crystallise the debate.”

A report handed down by a joint parliamentary committee into constitutional reform, headed by the only two Aboriginal politicians in Parliament – the Liberal MP Ken Wyatt and Labor Senator Nova Peris – recommended a referendum at or before the next election.

Senator Peris has told media constitutional reform had to be “meaningful” and not just a “token gesture”.

But it looks like that is what the Coalition is leaning towards.

Mr Abbott has told media he is opposed to proposals which would make the constitution a de facto bill of rights, and has indicated he would not support anything other than recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the preamble.

While both sides of politics, as well as the Greens, have pledged support for a referendum on constitutional reform, there has been silence from the major parties on the expert panel’s report, which handed down a number of recommendations including removing the controversial “race power”.

Meanwhile, there is lively debate within Aboriginal communities about constitutional reform, far removed from the government-funded Recognise campaign, which is headed by the former ALP National Secretary and GenerationOne CEO Tim Gartrell.

Prominent Tasmanian Aboriginal lawyer Michael Mansell wrote in Fairfax earlier this year this debate wasn’t being recognised by politicians.

“Recognition is supposed to deliver benefits to Aborigines yet the beneficiaries are denied the chance to have a say,” Mr Mansell wrote in Fairfax.  

“Public meetings on recognition have been held around Australia without a single meeting to hear Aboriginal opinion.”

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.