It’s time to recognise Indigenous Australia in our constitution

Last week, the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples concluded its deliberations on reform proposals. While we wait on the release of their final report…

It’s time to recognise the first Australians in our constitution. Flickr/Rusty Stewart

Last week, the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples concluded its deliberations on reform proposals.

While we wait on the release of their final report and recommendations, it’s worth thinking again about the issues involved in altering the Commonwealth Constitution in order to recognise Indigenous Australians’ unique place in Australian history and identity.

A great Australian silence

When former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd opened Parliament with an apology to the Stolen Generations his actions were widely acclaimed as an acknowledgement of Australia’s Indigenous history that was long past due, and of significant value.

It was a step in remedying what Australian anthropologist, WEH Stanner in 1968 called the “great Australian silence” over Indigenous history.

Although the apology did not seek to directly address any of the constitutional or legislative deficiencies residual in our legal system, it did hold great symbolic and therapeutic meaning, not only for those Indigenous Australians to whom the apology was directed, but for the broader Australian community in general.

Now, we have an unusual constellation of political and parliamentary forces; the usually slow orbit for constitutional reform has presented the opportunity for a long overdue referendum on meaningful constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians.

Left out

Australia took the first step of saying sorry, but now it needs to go further and amend the constitution. Flickr/butupa

Our Constitution currently fails to safeguard the basic human rights standards that we might (mistakenly) assume are recognised and enforced. The federal Constitution generally expresses protection for few fundamental rights and freedoms, even those that are expressed are of fairly weak protection because of the limited scope given to those sections by the High Court.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have suffered from this neglect, and been excluded in the history, the terms and the effect of the Constitution.

As the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda rightly said in his 2010 Report:

“…if Australians were aware that their Constitution did not protect its citizens from discrimination, the nation would take collective action to bring about reform to enshrine the principles of non-discrimination and equality.”

We now have an opportunity for the modernisation and reform of our Constitution to reflect the reality of prior Indigenous ownership, custodianship and sovereignty of Australia, as well as recognition of rights of equality, non–discrimination, and culture.

What’s needed

Although the 1967 referendum is considered one of the most “successful” amendments to the Constitution, it did not adequately address the issues of recognition of Indigenous Australians and their legal and constitutional protection.

What changes should we now embrace?

It is important to find the right balance between identifying appropriate constitutional reform, and communicating the importance and necessity of reform to the wider Australian community.

To remedy the injustices and omissions of the past, a new “recognition referendum” should include a number of reforms. However with that comes the risk of community and political division on the content and impact of the proposed changes.

To start with, a new preamble to the Constitution is needed, it should embrace the true history and the special culture of Indigenous Australians, and their unique contribution to Australia. The constitutions of Victoria, NSW and Queensland already have already successfully been altered to include similar acknowledgement.

Big and small reforms

Also, section 25 which allows states to disqualify people from voting because of their race, now an antiquated, redundant and racist section, reflects past discrimination against Indigenous peoples’ rights to vote.

It should be deleted, but doing so will make no particularly great change to the ways the Commonwealth parliament makes laws regarding Indigenous Australians.

At the other end of the reform spectrum we could include amendments to include specific constitutional protection of Indigenous rights, designated Indigenous seats in parliament, a guarantee of “free prior and informed consent”, or a guarantee of self-determination.

The recognition and protections adopted in the 1982 Constitution by Canada are often raised as an example. The inclusion of specific Indigenous rights in the Australian Constitution would be appropriate and would strengthen the validity and integrity of our constitutional system.

The ‘races power’

Flickr/Rusty Stewart

To affect the Commonwealth’s law making powers, a change to Section 51 is needed. Section 51(xxvi) or the “races power” could be altered to authorise the Commonwealth Parliament with the power to make laws “with respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people” (it seems it has only ever used the races power regarding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people so far) so as to avoid the possibilities of discriminatory laws “for” Indigenous people.

Could we leave s 51(xxvi) as it is, but add a clause prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race or ethnic origin?

This would also be unsatisfactory, for we would be left with a “races power” and a prohibition on making racially discriminatory laws, a seemingly inconsistent and incoherent use of the concept of “race”. Thus the removal of s 51(xxvi) must be accompanied by a positive grant of power to make laws for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

To ensure the Commonwealth makes only “beneficial” laws, there must be a constitutional prohibition on racial discrimination inserted, perhaps sitting in place of the now deleted s 127.

Many Constitutions contain such guarantees against racial discrimination, and this would be consistent with Australia’s international commitments under the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), and other human rights treaties.

Equality or anti-discrimination?

A general “equality clause” is a desirable inclusion in a Constitution that seriously lacks human rights standards such as ours. Such a clause could guarantee “equal treatment before and under the law, and equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination” as found in many comparable nations’ constitutions.

However this suggestion goes further than recognising Indigenous people of Australia, and so would present considerable political challenges in terms of achieving approval at referendum.

A more focused “anti-discrimination” clause, specifically prohibiting racial discrimination in the terms Australia has already adopted in the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) or the CERD should be adopted.

Such a “non-racial discrimination” clause also should provide that the Commonwealth and the states are still able to make laws that redress disadvantage, or are protective of Indigenous culture, language and identity.

This would allow laws that address strategies promoting substantive (not just formal) measures of equality, and that recognise the special place of Australian Indigenous culture.

It also would be consistent with Australia’s obligation to protect Indigenous culture under Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Australia signed onto this in 1980) and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (we endorsed this in 2009).

Political planets align

The referendum process itself can have wider, and sometimes unforeseen impacts; both the 1967 referendum result and the national apology generated broad shift in national attitudes. Achieving a “Yes” at referendum is no easy task, and we should consider how the political, electoral and social contexts impact on any referendum’s chances of success.

But now that the twin orbits of political and public sentiment may finally have coalesced, and the opportunity to recognise the special place of Indigenous people in our constitutional and legal framework has arrived, let’s not allow arguments about imperfect timing or political timidity eclipse the “constitutional moment”; coherent and concrete changes to our governing legal instrument are now overdue.

A longer version of this can be found on the Castan Centre for Human Rights blog and in the Castan Centre Newsletter: “Rapporteur”.