We need to fix the historical exclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from Australia’s Constitution – the nation’s ‘rule book’ and founding document.
We also need to eliminate racial discrimination in the Constitution – such as the section that still says people can be banned from voting based on race.
Australia’s Constitution was written more than a century ago. By then, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had lived in this land for more than 40,000 years, sustaining and evolving the oldest living cultures on the planet. Yet from its inception, Australia’s founding document did not recognise this first chapter of our national story.
When it took effect in 1901, the Constitution mentioned Aboriginal people only to discriminate, and Torres Strait Islanders were not acknowledged at all. Before the 1967 referendum, the first Australians were excluded even from being counted as citizens by section 127 of the Constitution.
In 1967, more than 90 per cent of Australians voted ‘yes’ to fix this.
That referendum in 1967 was a watershed moment for Australia, deleting two racially discriminatory references. Yet it did not complete the constitutional task of securing equality. Two further sections of the Constitution – sections 25 and 51(xxvi) – still permit racial discrimination by governments. As constitutional scholars have noted, Australia is now the only democratic nation in the world with a Constitution that still authorises race discrimination.
The nation’s founding document also still includes no recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the fact that our country’s history spans tens of thousands of years prior to the British colonies being proclaimed.
It implicitly begins Australia’s national story only from British arrival.
As Harold Ludwick, a Bulgun Warra man from Cape York, puts it: “If the Constitution was the birth certificate of Australia, we’re missing half the family”.
We need to fix this, and bring the country together after so many chapters apart. It is the next step in reconciling our past. And it’s the right thing to do.
Australians also know that our country’s unique Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures enrich this nation, and are crucial to our distinctive national identity. The success of constitutional recognition can help to protect against the loss of our unique Indigenous cultures for future generations.
When we write in this missing first chapter of our national story, it will formally become part of the shared story of every Australian. All of us will be connected with the tens of thousands of years of history that is the long story of Australia. Every Australian can rightly be proud that our country is home to the longest unbroken thread of human culture on the planet.
Such a shift will have both symbolic and practical benefit. More than 117 of the nation’s leading health bodies say it would help to improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and wellbeing, and speed the work to make inroads on disadvantage. It will also unite Australians, giving us greater shared pride and deeper connection with our country’s impressive Indigenous heritage and cultures.