There were moving words this morning from Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott in Parliament about ending the “great Australian silence” in our nation’s founding document — the silence about who occupied these lands for thousands of years. On the fifth anniversary of the national apology, an Act of Recognition Bill that has been dubbed a stepping stone to a constitutional referendum got the approval of the House of Representatives.

But unlike the national apology speeches in 2008, the chamber was not full. The audience for this moving moment represented just a trickle of the full-force wave that hit Parliament House five years ago.

Interest and support for constitutional recognition of Australia’s first peoples is still in its infancy, not just among some politicians but also the Australian people. There had been a groundswell of public support for an apology for 10 years before it was finally delivered — a movement greatly emboldened by former prime minister John Howard’s refusal to say sorry. In this case, many are looking to our politicians to show leadership ahead of the people’s movement — something that doesn’t sit comfortably with politicians at the best of times, let alone during an election year.

In the past few years, our political leaders have struggled to bring a popular beat to this cause, made more difficult by the nightmarish and bitter state of federal politics.

Both sides know that this issue deserves to be treated with loving care. Whether Abbott will succeed in ironing out some of the rougher views within his party so that he can focus on this issue without ideological defensiveness will be a challenge.

This morning he remarked that it was undesirable to create any new categories of discrimination and alienate some non-indigenous Australians. His comments were a little cryptic and no doubt there will be speculation about his meaning. One can only guess that it aimed to reassure elements within his party, as it is hard to see anyone proposing any new forms of discrimination, whether positive or negative (in fact the reverse).  But based on these remarks, it does stand to reason the Coalition should ultimately support moves to delete existing provisions in the constitution that sanction racial discrimination.

Gillard showed with her remarks that she can strike the right tone and speak with both clarity and heart on the subject. But whether this marks the beginning of more frequent acts of leadership by her on this issue is yet to be seen.

So what can we hope for from our political leaders over the next two years before the sunset clause in the Act of Recognition Bill kicks in? With an election in the middle of this period it is possible that it will sit on the political backburner until the leaders of the next Parliament are confirmed. While this scenario is quite probable, it is hoped that all legislators will show positive leadership in their electorates, capitalising on key calendar dates like NAIDOC Week, Reconciliation Week and Sorry Day to campaign and raise awareness.

History has shown that people’s movements are usually born in response to the obstinacy and denial of political leaders — whether it be the war in Iraq, the blind eye to climate change, the refusal to say sorry. And when leaders show they are in principle supportive but don’t commit to leading with vigour and passion, there is a real risk that reform quickly loses momentum and shape.

That is why it is imperative that community campaigners, including indigenous leaders, take control of this issue and lead it from the grassroots and through social media — keeping up the momentum and inspiring politicians to be courageous.

Peter Fray

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