Calls for recognition

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A vast number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations have campaigned for constitutional recognition for decades.

Some trace the history of the current movement as far back as the 1930s, when Aboriginal leaders such as William Cooper and Jack Patten began a campaign for Indigenous parliamentary representation and enfranchisement.

The work of their generation of leaders would lay the foundations for a decade-long campaign for a referendum held in 1967, which deleted two racially discriminatory references from the Constitution. The grassroots community momentum for that referendum was led by FCAATSI (the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders).

In recent decades, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations have urged the nation to complete the task begun in 1967 – by including recognition and ensuring there is no place for race discrimination in the nation’s rule book.

Here are just some of the many calls for recognition in the past two decades, both from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the wider community:

  • 1933 – 1936: The Melbourne Aboriginal community begins seeking support for Aboriginal representation in parliament, enfranchisement and land rights. In 1937 a petition was to Prime Minster Lyon with 1,817 signatures and a request to be sent to the King.
  • 1938: The 1938 Day of Mourning, organised by Yorta Yorta leader William Cooper, on January 26 was the 150th anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet in Australia.
  • 1959: Parliamentary Joint Committee on Constitutional Review recommendations to remove section 25.
  • 1963: The Yolngu people from Yirrkala present to Parliament bark petitions – calling for recognition of rights to their traditional lands on the Gove Peninsula in Arnhem Land.
  • 1967: More than 90 per cent of the population vote to remove two discriminatory references to Aboriginal people from the Constitution. This allowed Aboriginal people to be counted in the census and for the Commonwealth to make laws for Aboriginal people.
  • 1973:  Parliamentary Joint Committee on Constitutional Review recommendations to remove section 25.
  • 1981: The Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs report ‘Two Hundred Years Later’ recommends that the Constitution be amended to facilitate the creation of a treaty between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the Australian state.
  • 1985:  Parliamentary Joint Committee on Constitutional Review recommendations to remove section 25.
  • 1988: The Constitutional Commission report recommends the repeal of section 25 of the Constitution ‘because it is no longer appropriate to include in the Constitution a provision which contemplates the disqualification of members of a race from voting’.
  • 1988: Prime Minister Bob Hawke is presented with two paintings and a text declaration calling for Indigenous rights. This has become known as the Barunga Statement. In his speech Bob Hawke promised there would be a treaty within the life of the current Parliament – this did not happen.
  • 1995: Following nationwide consultation, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission’s report “Recognition, Rights and Reform” lists “Constitutional reform and recognition” as a priority. “The national consultation process in relation to the Social Justice Package showed overwhelming support for the reform of the Constitution especially in relation to recognition of indigenous peoples.”
  • 1998: The Constitutional Convention communiqué highlighted the need to incorporate a new Preamble into the Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians.
  • 1999: Aden Ridgeway, Gatjil Djerrkura and Dr. Lowitja O’Donoghue consult with Prime Minister John Howard on the wording of a preamble to the Constitution that would acknowledge the First Australians.
  • 1999: A Referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the preamble to the Constitution is unsuccessful.
  • 2000: The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation calls on Federal Parliament to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in a new preamble to the Constitution and Remove section 25 of the Constitution and introduce a racial discrimination clause.
  • 2008: The Yolngu and Bininj clans of Arnhem Land present Prime Minister Kevin Rudd with a statement calling on the government to ‘work towards Constitutional recognition of our prior ownership and rights’.
  • 2008 (February 13): During the apology speech, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd commits to working on Constitutional recognition of the first Australians.
  • 2009: Gumatj (Yolngu) leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu writes in the Monthly that he wants Constitutional recognition “to bring my people in from the cold, bring us into the nation”.
  • 2010: Prime Minister Julia Gillard established an Expert Panel to “lead a national discussion and broad consultation in 2011 to build consensus about the recognition of indigenous peoples in the Constitution.”
  • 2011: Legendary campaigner Lowitja O’Donoghue declares recognition is “is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make things right for our country … This would be good not only for our own heads and our hearts … but also for the nation’s soul.”
  • 2012: The Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition reports its findings. Recommendations include a national vote that that would: Remove Section 25 – which says the States can ban people from voting based on their race; 
and Insert a new section 51A – to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and to preserve the Australian Government’s ability to pass laws for the benefit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;
  • 2012: The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples put its full support behind the final report and recommendations of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
  • 2012: National Congress Members support change in both the body and preamble of the Constitution to recognise the history long and lasting of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as First Australians.
  • 2012: Yothu Yindi front man, treaty campaigner, Aboriginal leader and supporter of Constitutional recognition, Dr. Yunupingu said “It’s time for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians to be formally recognised by the Constitution. It’s the right and decent thing to do, please give us your support.”
  • 2013 (February): The Government passes the Act of Recognition, as an interim step towards a referendum. The legislation has a sunset period of two years, which Liberal MP Ken Wyatt likens to a “post it note on the fridge” to remind the Parliament to finish the task.
  • 2014: Rachel Perkins – “I say that we must not wait for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to agree on this. And that’s important because I don’t think we will have absolute unity for it. And that’s actually ok. Because we don’t all have to agree. Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders have the right to a different view.”
  • 2014 (October): Aboriginal Leader Pat Turner says Sovereignty and treaty and treaties can still be pursued if we are recognised in our own right as having occupied this land and having the oldest continuous culture in the world in the Australian Constitution. Watch her here.
  • 2015 (April): Dr. Tom Calma in an interview with the ABC says Constitutional Recognition and treaty can co-exist.
  • 2015 (June): Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples table the final report.
  • 2015 (December): Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten announce the establishment of the Referendum Council.
  • 2016 (February – March): The Journey to Recognition travels to the Torres Strait Islands to engage with thousands of people and discuss referendum proposals and the process.
  • 2016 (March): Pat Anderson is announced as the new Referendum Council Co-Chair alongside Mark Leibler, following Pat Dodson’s move to politics.

PLEASE NOTE: A vast number of people have spoken in support of recognition over this period – too many to include individually on a single timeline on this page. We are keen to maintain a record of the movement and encourage you to get in touch if there are other inspiring moments of leadership on recognition that you can help us to document.