Some critics have voiced concern and confusion over the report by the 22-person panel on constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples released yesterday, namely how the issue of race (or racist elements of the constitution) can be removed and yet seemingly emphasised at the same time by introducing a section on the role and importance of indigenous Australians.

But the panel contends that they’re suggesting the subject of race is removed entirely from how we view and talk about Aboriginal Australia. As one of the chairs of the panel which presented the report, Mark Leibler, wrote in The Age:

“Some people might question why you would want to remove race from the constitution and then replace it with a power to legislate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I would say we have to get away from this 19th-century idea that Aboriginal people are members of a ‘race’. Their identity is based on ancestry, ethnicity and belief systems, not race. We need to have laws that relate to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people just as we do for many groups in society — women, the elderly, the disabled, veterans, people living in remote areas — but these laws should be based on need and the national interest, not race.

“Need because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people remain Australia’s most disadvantaged citizens. The national interest because their cultures and languages are unique to this country to be celebrated as part of our common heritage.”

And there’s the rub: this mooted change extends beyond benefiting the first Australians, the nation as a whole has much to gain. As we continue to remain ignorant about the plight of indigenous citizens, so too do we miss the chance to learn from and value their vast knowledge. We are all the poorer for it.

As a nation, we don’t collectively identify as racist, or uncaring, or ignorant. And yet there is the undeniable reality that our constitution as it stands still contains two sections designed specifically to discriminate against non-Caucasian races. Add the appalling incarceration and suicide rates amongst Aboriginal people, the demonstrably lower standard of living, and in many instances a lack of basic human rights. This constitutional change, if the referendum is framed correctly (and that’s a big if) is a chance to reject that legacy and, to use the PM’s favourite phrase, truly move forward.


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Peter Fray

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