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Belief in the Constitution for change

A divisive debate about including Aboriginal people in the Constitution could jeopardise Australia's tentative steps toward reconciliation, leading legal and indigenous figures warned.

But they remained convinced Australia was finally ready to formally recognise indigenous people in the Constitution, and to strike out racially discriminatory clauses - if the process was handled properly.

A 22-member panel, led by the ''father of Reconciliation'', academic Patrick Dodson, and Reconciliation Australia co-chair Mark Leiber, yesterday delivered its report Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Constitution, to Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Professor Dodson said he looked forward to when the cultures, art, languages and heritage of indigenous people were embraced as ''the nation's soul''.

''We look forward to a nation that acknowledges its history, its heritage, in its founding document,'' Professor Dodson said in Canberra yesterday.

''We look forward to a nation who stands up to be counted as opponents to racism.''

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Ms Gillard commissioned the report in 2010, saying Australia had a one-in-50-year chance to eradicate discrimination from the Constitution.

''If approached in the right spirit, I believe this is both realistic and achievable,'' she said at the time.

The Constitution recognises Aboriginal people only in a negative sense: Section 25 allows states to exclude people of certain ''races'' from voting, while Section 51 lets the federal government make ''special laws'' for ''people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary''.

Yesterday, the panel recommended these sections be removed and a new section prohibiting racial discrimination be added.

But it gave the Government an out for its intervention policies, ''[the clause] does not preclude the making of laws or measures for the purpose of overcoming disadvantage, ameliorating the effects of past discrimination, or protecting the cultures, languages or heritage of any group''. The panel's members visited 84 sites across the country, conducting thousands of interviews with indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

And they found there was a significant appetite for change.

''[We have] confidence that the constitutional changes recommended in this report are capable of gaining the overwhelming public support needed to succeed at a referendum,'' the report's authors wrote.

But they said without bipartisan political support, the changes would have little chance of success at a referendum, which have notoriously low ''Yes'' votes. Since 1906, only eight of 44 referendums in Australia have been approved.

''There was concern that an unsuccessful referendum could jeopardise the healing process that was started by the National Apology,'' the authors wrote.

''This would be exacerbated if the referendum failed after a divisive public debate, or if the proposal generated opposition from substantial political minorities or from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities or their leaders.''

Rather than including recognition of indigenous people in a new preamble to the Constitution, which could lead to ''too many unintended consequences'', the group recommended recognition be included in the body of the Constitution.

The plan won early, if cautious, support from Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, who said the Coalition had ''a very proud history of support for indigenous recognition in the Constitution''.

In 1999 and again in 2007, the Coalition strongly supported including recognition of Aboriginal people in a new preamble to the Constitution.

''We have some reservations about anything that might turn out to be a one clause bill of rights,'' he said.

Ms Gillard said she recognised that referendums historically failed, but she had hope this one could succeed where others had failed.

The report was met with a rush of support from among community and social groups, with the Business Council of Australia, Oxfam, the Australian Council of Social Service, the Australian Human Rights Commission, Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation, the Uniting Church and others welcoming it.

This reporter is on Twitter: @_biancah