Indigenous recognition in our highest law is the right thing to do

The Apology of 2008 demonstrated how symbolic actions have powerful practical consequences for reconciliation. AAP/Julian Smith

Later this year, we expect to see draft recommendations from a parliamentary committee on recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian constitution and ensuring there is no place for racial discrimination in our founding document either.

It’s instructive to look at how this next step forward sits in the history of other seminal moments for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – and how those moments, in recognising historical truths, have helped our country to mature and heal.

This is not a new aspiration – many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders have been calling for constitutional recognition for decades – but the rising momentum is noteworthy. It’s heartening to see that more than 200,000 Australians are now part of the RECOGNISE movement that is building public support for a referendum to do this.

Heed the lessons of history

The opportunity of such a referendum does not sit alone in the course of Australian history. Other crucial steps in past decades have taken our nation along the path to a more just and reconciled future together.

History tells us that watershed moments take discipline, stamina, resilience and unity. The 1938 Day of Mourning and Protest – the 150th anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet – was the product of shared aspirations for equality and recognition. Aboriginal people from up and down the eastern seaboard protested in silence for justice and equality in the face of government control and policies of discrimination and exclusion.

Those leaders and their bravery led to conversations that paved the way for the successful 1967 referendum almost three decades later. More than 90% of Australians voted Yes for Aboriginal people to be included in the census and to remove two discriminatory references from the constitution. Almost 50 years on, that referendum result remains Australia’s most successful.

We should remember that the process was not always supported universally. Those campaigners were sometimes subjected to ridicule and obstruction.

Yet their persistence achieved results that are still important today. The federal head of power that they won for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is the one on which modern native title laws rely, for instance. But perhaps their greatest legacy can be found not just in the words that were changed, but in the way it brought Australians together to begin the nation-building work of forging a more united future out of the separated and searing parts of our past.

Look at some other touchstones: the Yirrkala bark petitions in 1963, the Gurindji walk-off in 1966 and the Northern Territory Land Rights Act of 1976, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987) and the Bringing them home report on the Stolen Generations (1997). Each played a moral and important role in the slow but crucial healing of relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

In 1992 and 1996, the Mabo and Wik judgments were handed down. I remember the profound relief of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and of many other Australians in those moments.

I can also recall the hype and hysteria from a few loud voices at the time. Some said recognising native title would lead to people losing their backyards; that native title would ruin the mining and pastoral industries and Australia would become a nation divided. All of those fears were unfounded.

More than 20 years on, almost 900 Indigenous land use agreements have been registered and the sky has not fallen in. As Professor Patrick Dodson noted in his Lowitja O’Donoghue Oration in May, the mining and pastoral industries, two of the most vocal opponents of native title, are now among the biggest advocates of reconciliation. Such advances make us a better and stronger nation.

The 2008 Apology by then-prime minister Kevin Rudd was another momentous event. Our parliament finally acknowledged that past policies of forced removal of generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children systematically cut at the ties that Indigenous people have to a homeland and a people. It brought Australians together once more in relief that a truth of our past had been spoken.

These campaigns have a history for us all. They are part of our national story and the people involved deserve our gratitude and thanks.

Heal old wounds, build a better future

Each result, while it hasn’t achieved everything for everyone, has helped us all understand our past a little better, so we can create a better future together.

Fixing the Constitution will do this too. It will go some way to healing old wounds, helping us to repair some of the damage caused by past policies of exclusion and discrimination.

Furthermore, it places the power in the hands of the people. Referendum campaigns are not decided by what politicians want. Active participation must come from every Australian.

We cannot be complacent about this; we all have a role to play. There is a risk of failure. If we want a better future for our own country, it’s up to us to make it happen.

When the Apology was delivered, some naysayers derided it as mere symbolism. Some said it wouldn’t change a thing; wouldn’t educate a single child; wouldn’t create a single job and wouldn’t improve health, life expectancy and living standards. They argued that money could be better spent elsewhere, focusing on closing the gap in health, education and life expectancy.

But symbols and practical efforts are two sides of the same coin. One reinforces the other.

All of them are essential to a more inclusive future. As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner in 2006, I was one of the leaders in setting up the Close the Gap initiative. It remains a priority for me, as it should for every Australian, to see our countrymen and women share in the promise of full citizenship.

Goals of reconciliation are intertwined

All these goals are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are deeply interconnected. Medical authorities including the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association, the Australian Medical Association, the Australian Psychological Society and the Australian Indigenous Psychologists Association all say constitutional recognition and the removal of racial discrimination from our highest law would help to improve the health and well-being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

One recent study surveyed 755 Aboriginal people from Victoria and found 97% of respondents had experienced at least one racist incident in the past 12 months. One in two participants and two-thirds of those exposed to 12 or more incidents reported experiencing high or very high levels of psychological distress.

This view from the front line of community health is exemplified in a powerful piece for the Medical Journal of Australia. Tammy Kimpton wrote that:

Recognising our rightful place as First Nations people in the constitution lays a strong foundation for the health, well-being and unity of all Australians. While it will not wash away the grave injustices of the past, with such recognition there is capacity to heal the deep wounds that affect health outcomes and continue to weigh heavily on Australia as a nation.

I see both the symbolic and the practical as imperative for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the Australian nation as a whole to make progress.

We can learn from our history on this journey. Like Mabo and the 1967 referendum, there is nothing to fear here. This next step is for our constitution to recognise a simple truth – someone was here – and to ensure that racial discrimination has no place in our nation’s highest law.

Let’s make history by fixing our constitution to reflect our long history in this land and remove the discriminatory elements of it for all time.

This movement reflects our country’s growing desire for the rightful recognition of our first peoples; for a national moment that is unifying and meaningful; and for the next step towards a more reconciled future.

Above all, it’s just the right thing to do. Happy NAIDOC Week.


NITV’s Awaken show broadcast a panel discussion last month on on what progress has been made to advance the discussion on constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians. The Awaken: Constitutional Recognition special can be viewed here.