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Indigenous Constitutional Recognition

Indigenous Constitutional Recognition

Words by Emma Goldrick

The Federal Government has promised to put forth a proposal which would give Indigenous Australians recognition within the constitution. Since 1901, the year the constitution was implemented, Indigenous Australians have been fighting for written and legislated recognition as the traditional custodians of the nation. Explicit acknowledgement of first nation people within the Australian constitution would be a significant step forward in the reconciliation process between colonial Australia and the Indigenous population. 

Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt stated that the Liberal Government will hold a referendum within the next three years posing the question to the general public as to whether or not Aboriginal people should be recognised within the Australian constitution. Wyatt further stated that the Morrison Government is willing to commit $7 million towards the process of recognising First Nation people within the constitution. 

Ken Wyatt claimed that “the Morrison Government is committed” to creating Indigenous constitutional change and will “bring forward a consensus option”. Whilst Wyatt stated that he has already begun the process of liaising with the counsel of Indigenous Leaders, he made it clear that the referendum needs a high degree of consensus and a strong prospect of success before it can be confirmed. 

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Wyatt also claimed that the process of recognising Indigenous people within the constitution must be a bipartisan movement that will require not only his initiative but also that of the Labor shadow minister for Indigenous affairs, Linda Burney. The topic of how and what Indigenous recognition should look like within the constitution remains  controversial and highly politicised. However, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Labor Leader Anthony Albanese have begun the process of discussing a bipartisan approach to the constitutional recognition. The government stressing the importance of a bipartisan approach stems from the complications of changing the constitution, especially through referendum. The referendum requires support from a majority of voters nationally in at least four states/territories and therefore is an extremely expensive task. 

The potential constitutional change was sparked by the “Uluru Statement from the Heart” in 2017 which called for “the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the constitution”. Following on from this, The Referendum Council proposed a national Indigenous representative assembly to be written into the constitution. The proposal had the intention to act as a third chamber which would establish a permanent body to advise parliament on matters and concerns regarding Indigenous Australians. This proposal was rejected, with the government claiming that it would be ‘discriminatory’, as it would give one racial group a means of influencing parliament that other groups are not privy to. Whilst, Aboriginal Australians are the only racial group to have certain laws pertaining purely to them, this is because they are the only racial group to have lived in the nation prior to European settlement. Indigenous cultural heritage is entitled to special legal protection and therefore it seems just that this racial group should have an influencing body that advises these very laws. The implementation of a third chamber would mean Indigenous voices would have their views tabled in parliament, offering information as an advisory council to ensure the best quality policies are put forward. 

Despite this initial proposal being rejected by the Turnbull Government, Wyatt’s push for a referendum may bring constitutional recognition finally. Just as Australian people voted in 1967 in favour of allowing the Federal Parliament to legislate specifically for Indigenous people, they may too recognise the inherent justice in recognising Aboriginal Australians within the constitution. 

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