The Prime Minister recently asserted the nation’s need “to recapture the spirit of the 1967 referendum in a contemporary practical fashion”. This means something he calls “practical reconciliation”, fixing up health, housing, education, employment, etc.

No one can disagree with the need to put these things right. It would certainly be a good move to improve living conditions and to encourage economic independence of communities, where that can be done. Some good things are being done. But it is not enough.

And something is missing.

I am not speaking about criticisms of particular programs, about the lack of participation of indigenous people in their design, or about the resistance and disagreement in some communities about their implementation.

My concern is that current policies recognise no distinct role or status for Aboriginal people in our political, social and economic life.

The issues are addressed on assimilationist lines. Only the other day, I heard the Prime Minister say that the best way for indigenous people to gain access to the bounty and good fortune of Australia was for them to be absorbed into the mainstream.

The Government’s response to the Reconciliation report in 2002 took a similar approach in rejecting action which would entrench additional, special or different rights for one part of the community.

Carried to its end, this essentially assimilationist approach would mean the eventual disappearance of Aboriginal tradition and culture — their knowledge and spiritual connections to this land built up over tens of thousands of years. Surely it cannot be the goal of reconciliation, to merge one group into the other.

We should say no to this approach.

It leaves unanswered the role of Aboriginal people in the Australian polity, as the first people of Australia with a unique and valuable culture. It takes no account of their right to autonomy and self-determination. Leaving these issues out of consideration is, in my view, a real impediment to the efforts to “fix problems”.

Contrary to what many may think, the 1967 referendum did not itself bring about any immediate change for indigenous people. It removed a discriminatory provision relating to the census from the Constitution and enabled the Commonwealth to legislate in respect of Aboriginal people. But the Commonwealth was in no hurry to use this power.

Progress for indigenous people moved along when ideas about human rights began to influence decisions. I have no doubt that the desire to restore rights to Aboriginal people influenced the Northern Territory land rights legislation, which recognised Aboriginal traditions and customs.

The Racial Discrimination Act 1975, based on the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), and the ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (the Covenant) in 1982 were significant in the Mabo litigation and in the decision to overrule the doctrine of terra nullius and to recognise native title as part of common law.

But in recent years, the momentum seems to have been lost. Further progress, in my view, would be advanced by paying greater attention to human rights principles which are already binding on Australia. These can provide a solid foundation for the restoration of dignity and equality to Aboriginal people, by ensuring that they have a responsible and committed role in the solution of current issues/problems.

Read the full text of Elizabeth Evatt’s 2007 ANU Reconciliation lecture here.