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Jan 20, 2012

Indigenous rights: constitutional amendments

Crikey media wrap: A referendum to remove discrimination of indigenous Australians from the constitution is likely before the next election, after an expert panel presented its final report to the Prime Minister yesterday.

A referendum to remove discrimination of indigenous Australians from the constitution is likely before the next election, after an expert panel presented its final report to the Prime Minister yesterday.

The report by the 22-person panel on constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples outlined how racist parts of the constitution should be removed and a section should be added recognising the role and importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia and calls for their “advancement”.

There seems to be some discrepancies between newspapers on how likely the changes are to go ahead. Patricia Karvelas in The Australian says the changes tabled in the 300-page report “face almost certain defeat unless significantly amended” with a legal expert and some indigenous leaders expressing concern that voters will not be convinced to support changes or that High Court challenges could be likely.

Meanwhile, Dan Harrison reports in the Sydney Morning Herald that a referendum “seems certain to proceed, with both sides of politics yesterday embracing the thrust” of the report’s findings.

One of the chairs of the panel which presented the report, Mark Leibler, wrote in The Age about the panel’s decision:

“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.”

The panel has attempted to solve too many problems and it just confuses voters, argues Nicholas Rothwell in The Australian:

“What is at issue here is not the good sense or moral justice of the proposals the panel has reached, which are more nuanced than initial leaks suggested. What matters is the simplicity and logical shape of the referendum question to be put.

Voters have a no-nonsense approach to such matters. The expert panel is asking them to accept several measures that tug in different directions: both to deracialise the Constitution and to insert in it a clause recognising the special need for indigenous advancement; both to prohibit racial discrimination and to recognise the special place of Aboriginal languages, cultures and ties to the land. Equal rights – and a special role as well. These different aims are not at war with each other, but they do not stem from a unitary project.”

It’s important that both sides of politics support these constitutional changes towards reconciliation, writes Michael Gordon in The Age:

“Finishing the job will go beyond symbolism. It would, in the words of Patrick Dodson, ”fundamentally debunk the White Australia policy and the white Australia mentality”.

It could, in the opinion of Noel Pearson, drive a new approach to indigenous policy that gets the balance right between the symbolic and the practical.

It could change lives.

But the consequences of failure are even more significant. Not only would it send a confused (and pessimistic) message about the nation’s values, sense of self and attitude to racial discrimination, it would be a devastating blow to those the referendum is intended to honour and uplift.”

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19 thoughts on “Indigenous rights: constitutional amendments

  1. Steve777

    I hope I’m wrong, but it’s very hard to see this getting up. The naysayers have already started, for example talk about a ‘one line Bill of Rights’.

    If the referendum is held with the next election it will be buried in the most filthy and bitter election campaign in decades. The opposition will be cynical enough to sink the proposals to advance their cause. And the dog-whistling opportunities will prove just too hard for the Coalition to resist. In this, the Coalition will be supported by their usualr media allies playing on the anxieties of the electorate (remember Mabo and concerns about claims suburban backyards?).

  2. GeeWizz

    So let me get this right… we are going to “deracisialise” the constitution(not too sure which bit mentions race but feel free to let me know), but then we are going to specifically mention Aborigines and Torres Strait islander races in the constitution.

    Gee another Gillard Government brain-fart.

    But why stop at mentioning Aborigines and TSI in the consitution as the first descendants? Why not mention the early white settlers who built this country in the first 150 Years that we now take for granted? But wait… then the Labor Party’s White Australia policy was ended. So we have to give recognition to the Greeks and Italians who helped build the snowy river dam, better put that in as well.

    But wait, what about all those people who entered after that? What about the Canadian Eskimo’s that have no doubt helped with the building of our nation after they immigrated?

    Yep…. that’ll deracialise the constitution alright by SPECIFICALLY mentioning a race.

    I’ll be voting NO to mentioning of specific races in the *AUSTRALIAN*(afterall isn’t that what the lefties keep telling us we all are?) Constitution.

    Equality means just that… everyone is equal… and that means no special treatment. The lefties need to learn this.

  3. outside left

    4 years ago,we were told by people of your ilk that we couldn’t say ‘SORRY’ because they would sue the pants off us. And? Sad to see this hatred still alive and kicking

  4. WTF

    OUTSIDE LEFT – 4 years ago we were told by your ilk that saying ‘SORRY’ will make all the difference and it will put everything right for indigenous people once and for all ever – the biggest thing since slices bread. Like what difference did it actually make, what did it deliver beyond a meaningless word? Don’t blame people who are simply fatigued by the avalanche of hollow, useless historic Labor thought bubbles. I sure am. Trying to divert attention from a comprehensively failed government is no reason to mess with the constitution!

  5. ray

    “Referendum?! Constitution?! That mob that handed the paper to the government do not represent me, my family or my community. I am an Aboriginal man of five nations and I have never ceded any degree of my national sovereignty to the British crown. My lands were invaded and then occupied by force of arms. The British have carried out an horiffic war of genocide against our peoples since 1788. I will never surrender to the enemy and I will continue to fight for justice until the day I die. Onetime !!” ~ Brisbane Activist Sam Watson

  6. outside left

    WTF, it was never meant as a magic panacea , just a considerate step in the right direction. Fatigue??

  7. SBH

    Geewiz, I’d ask that you go back to Mark Liebler’s final paragraph. the case for a yes vote could not be made more eloquently or succinctly.

    As for treating everybody equally, I ask you to rethink that position. People don’t want equal treatment, they want fair treatment. This is what we strive to do all the time in our society. As Aristotle noted several centuries ago, treating the unequal equally is injustice.

  8. Stiofan

    Cue the expenditure of large amounts of taxpayer dollars on ad campaigns featuring doe-eyed indigenous kids jumping into pristine waterholes, GetUp ads featuring Carbons Cate and Caton, handwringing opinion pieces in the Fairfax media (actually, those have already started), etc.

    Meanwhile, somewhere in WA or the NT, Uncle Joe has got his eye on that young kid and Community Services has its eyes elsewhere.

  9. Stiofan


    Leibler’s piece (or at least the quoted parts) are largely a nonsense. There is no need to amend the Constitution in order to make laws to alleviate the problems of indigenes.

  10. GeeWizz

    [“Leibler’s piece (or at least the quoted parts) are largely a nonsense. There is no need to amend the Constitution in order to make laws to alleviate the problems of indigenes.”]


    In fact large parts of the anti-discrimination act had to be ripped up to allow the Intervention. It’s a case of bueracracy and leftwing tokenism restricting on-the-ground results.

    We don’t need to mention Aborigines in the constitution as the “first decendants” or the “original owners” or any other leftwing buzz words, because it’s a do-nothing token gesture which is stating the obvious. We leave that sort of stuff to the history books.

    If the left want to help Aborigines they should leave the comfort of their inner city latte shops and go out bush and meet some… talk to them… find out what they want and need. Don’t be armchair experts, get out there and get the facts.