Indigenous recognition must scrap race powers in Constitution: Shorten

Marking the 30th anniversary of the handover of Uluru to its traditional owners, Bill Shorten reiterated the importance of constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians. AAP/Dan Peled

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has said that Indigenous recognition in the Constitution cannot just be “empty poetry” but must lay to rest “the ghosts of the discrimination” haunting the document.

Its “so-called race powers” were crafted for Australia’s past, he said.

In the Northern Territory for the 30th anniversary of the handover of Uluru to its traditional owners, Shorten said the proposed referendum was very important and reiterated that the change must be one of substance.

“We want to make sure the change is not just symbolic. We don’t need more flowery poetry in our Constitution – we just need to be straight.”

The race power refers to Section 51 (26) which gives the Commonwealth the power to make laws for people of any race. There is also an anachronistic reference to race in Section 25.

There is as yet no agreement on the wording of a question to be put to a referendum. The issue is now to be discussed at a series of community consultations. The government is about to announce a committee headed by Patrick Dodson and Mark Leibler – who co-chaired the expert panel for a referendum set up by the Gillard government which reported in 2012 – to further consult on wording and seek consensus.

The former prime minister, Tony Abbott, proposed that the referendum should be held in 2017.

Abbott and Shorten were united in support of the referendum but while Abbott wanted to keep the change minimalist, Shorten has been looking for something more robust and is ambitious for an anti-discrimination clause. Malcolm Turnbull has yet to speak on it as prime minister. Those in the Indigenous community believe change must be substantive.

Shorten told the Uluru anniversary concert that it was almost impossible to imagine that for so long white Australians feared the continent’s red centre.

“For Aboriginal people, this land sustained life. Yet we looked upon it as alien, hostile and unforgiving. And we dispossessed and marginalised the people who knew, loved and cared for it.”

Slowly, things changed, he said.

“Our eyes were opened – to the beauty of this sacred place. And to the rights of the people whose culture and livelihood lives in every face of this rock.”

But our national journey to understanding, justice and reconciliation was not over – we must go further.

“It is for us, for our generation, to build the connection between equality under the law and equal opportunity in life,” he said.

“Let us aim for a national, unifying moment of recognition as honest as Redfern, as uplifting as the Apology and as real and enduring as this rock.

"And alongside the words of recognition, let us dedicate ourselves to a brighter future for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”