Tony Abbott wants Australia’s Indigenous people recognised in the constitution on May 27, 2017, the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, which gave the Commonwealth power to make laws for Aborigines living in the states.
“That would be a richly symbolic time to complete our constitution,” Abbott told a dinner sponsored by Recognise, the group – part of Reconciliation Australia – that is leading the campaign for the change. The dinner was also attended by opposition leader Bill Shorten.
While expressing his hope for the task to be completed on the anniversary, Abbott did not firmly commit to a referendum date, warning against the danger of rushing.
Abbott said he was “prepared to sweat blood” to get a referendum through, while also warning “we must not underestimate the ‘lions in the path’ of this vital project”.
Abbott told Recognise that “we have to temper our ambitions”, reminding them that a fortnight ago he had asked a conservative audience to “suspend their scepticism”.
“This is at least at important as any of the other causes that this government has been prepared to take on,” Abbott said.
However, Abbott rejected all three options for questions put up by the parliamentary committee chaired by Liberal MP Ken Wyatt. The first two would subject too much legislation to judicial review, while the third did not go far enough to recognise indigenous people, he said. The Wyatt committee will deliver its final report in the first quarter of next year.
“We will get indigenous recognition – and when it comes, I suspect that it will take the form of a pact – a heartfelt pact – between indigenous people and conservative Australia.
"Indigenous people have to accept that any proposal put forward is worth doing because it does sufficiently acknowledge them as first Australians. And conservative Australia has to accept that any proposal put forward really is completing our constitution rather than changing it.”
Abbott said that after the final Wyatt report, “all the significant proposals need to be socialised among the people of our country” and announced a further A$5 million for Recognise.
Consultations would accelerate in the new year. The referendum should be held “as soon as possible once we are comfortable that we have the proposal with the best chance of success”.
Shorten warned against submitting to “the tyranny of low expectations” – being put off by those who proposed nothing and contributed nothing.
And to those who thought recognition did not go far enough if it did not discuss a treaty “we must make clear that the past injustices of settlement and occupation and dispossession are not thwarted or extinguished by the recognition process”.
It was time for Australia to be debating what form of referendum to support, not whether we supported recognition.
Change needed to be genuine, meaningful and born of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices, not a nod to symbolism or lazy paternalism that said something was better than nothing, Shorten said.
Recognition must include acknowledgement of Aborigines’ and Torres Strait Islanders’ continuing relationship with the land and waters; their enduring cultures, languages and heritage; and their ancient ownership of this land. Also “we must ensure that there is no place, no refuge for discrimination in our founding document”.
“In particular, if we acquiesce to the ongoing presence of the so-called race powers, we risk rendering recognition meaningless.
"And whatever form that recognition takes, we can all affirm, we can all declare that there is no place for discrimination in our laws, and in our democracy,” Shorten said.
“I believe we can find a way forward by building consensus, by bringing justice home, not by drifting down the path of least resistance, because change that challenges no one is unlikely to inspire anyone.”
The referendum question must involve the complete representative and empowered participation of “our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters”, Shorten said.