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.”