Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians
A Guide to the Issues
For many years, governments, communities and individuals across Australia have viewed reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and Non-Indigenous Australians as an important national objective. The Federal Parliament’s National Apology in 2008 was seen by many as a major step towards national reconciliation. ‘Closing the Gap’ has become pressing business for Australians across the country, to reduce discrimination and disadvantage, but much remains to be done.
Constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples now has wide support and is seen by many as an important further step that should now be taken towards full recognition of the unique place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in 21st Century Australian society. There are several reasons for this.
First, many people would be surprised to know that not all citizens are treated equally under the Australian Constitution. While racial discrimination is no longer accepted in our community, in our workplaces and in our daily lives, the Constitution permits laws that discriminate on the basis of race.
While over 90 per cent of voters in the 1967 Referendum approved positive changes to the Constitution in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, a number of questions about the way our Constitution treats the First Australians remain unresolved.
Second, while the great majority of Australians value and celebrate the unique contribution made by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and cultures to our national identity, the Constitution, our founding national document, gives no acknowledgement of the place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our nation’s history or our contemporary society.
Third, many people believe that constitutional recognition would serve as a powerful symbol of the nation’s desire to embrace Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as a full and equal part of the Australian nation. To advance the idea of constitutional recognition and to explore how it might be achieved, in December 2010 the Australian Government, with the support of the Opposition, the Greens and Independent members of Parliament, appointed an Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians. The Panel’s task is to consult with the community and make recommendations by December 2011 on options for constitutional change that could be placed before the people at a future national referendum.
The Public Discussion Paper is designed as a starting point for the national conversation that the Panel will be conducting across Australia over coming months. It sets out background information about our Federal Constitution and how it can be changed, the potential benefits of constitutional recognition both for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and for all Australians, and possible ideas for recognition that will be discussed and developed during the Panel’s community consultations.
Ideas already raised by constitutional experts for constitutional change include:
• A Statement of Recognition in a Preamble to the Constitution, or in the body of the Constitution, acknowledging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ distinct cultures, identities and heritage, their prior ownership and custodianship of the land, and their ongoing contribution to Australian society.
• A Statement of Values in a Preamble or in the Constitution itself, which would include both recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and also set out the fundamental values of our society such as our personal freedoms, the rule of law, racial and gender equality, and our commitment to democratic government.
• Repeal or amendment of provisions in the Constitution currently based on racial discrimination.
• Creation in the Constitution of a new guarantee of non-discrimination and racial equality.
• New powers for the Australian Government to legislate to protect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and heritage, and to redress historical disadvantage.
These and other ideas are explained in detail in the Paper. The Panel has no prefernece for any of these ideas. Before making its recommendations to Government, the Panel wants to hear the views of a wide cross-section of the Australian community. We therefore, invite and welcome comments and contributions from all Australians.
Please click here to download the Discussion Paper or click here to make your submission to the Panel. The website also provides details of the community consultations which the Panel will be holding across Australia in which you are invited to participate.