Indigenous Leaders Meet to Form a United Front on Constitutional Recognition
24 May 2017 at 4:39 pm
In a historic milestone more than 250 Indigenous leaders from across the country are meeting with the intention to reach a consensus on constitutional reform.
The First Nations National Constitutional Convention, held in Uluru between May 24 and 26, coincides with the 50th anniversary of the landmark 1967 referendum, which received an overwhelming affirmative vote to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the census and gave the Commonwealth government the power to make laws for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Organised by the Referendum Council, which was established in December 2015 by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten, the landmark convention aims to reach a consensus on behalf of the nation’s first peoples on whether Indigenous Australians want constitutional recognition and what that might look like.
Turnbull, who “respectfully declined” an invitation to attend, told Parliament it was “vitally important our first Australians consider and debate the models of recognition free of political interference.”
“The next step in constitutional recognition needs to be embraced by all Australians, but first it needs to be embraced by our first Australians if it is to be proposed at all,” Turnbull said.
The convention is the culmination of 12 regional dialogues held across the country between December 2016 and May 2017.
It is expected that by the final day of the convention a statement will be issued to Australians and recommendations on a clear path forward will be issued in a report to the Prime Minister and the opposition leader.
Referendum Council CEO Geoff Scott told Pro Bono News the hope for the convention was to get a consensus for a roadmap for constitutional reform.
“We are starting the conversation and getting an understanding of what people are prepared to accept and what their concerns are about the processes and outcomes for a way forward,” Scott said.
“It is a bit like we have opened Pandora’s Box, people have now realised what is involved here. There are more questions, but people are now more informed of the impact of the government’s policies on people’s lives.
“People’s lives have been ruled by policies of the successive governments. A lot of people are asking for a voice, it comes back to a constitutional authority to do that.”
Scott said the first day of the convention had seen “passionate debate on the way forward.”
“There are many people who are pushing for something that they think will get through the parliamentary process and the referendum. What we have got to work out is whether it is going to be meaningful enough and whether that is something people want to do,” he said.
Addressing an earlier convention in Darwin, Indigenous leader Professor Patrick Dodson said past treatment of Indigenous Australians by government had given the nation’s first peoples “little faith” that present and future governments would protect and defend their rights.
“That is why we need a formal agreement that recognises and guarantees the rights of Indigenous Australians within the Australian Constitution,” Dodson said.
Delegates will be discussing what “recognition” means and how it should be institutionalised to protect Indigenous Australians against unfair treatment and recognise them as the first peoples of the nation.
The Referendum Council’s Discussion Paper on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples references the ambiguity behind the word.
“Recognition might be as basic as acknowledging the existence of people, their history and their culture. Or it might mean confirming their legal rights and freedoms, or giving them a voice and political representation, or making a treaty or agreement with them- or all of these things,” the paper said.
Convenors from the regional dialogues in Melbourne and Broome, Jill Gallagher and Nolan Hunter said all of the discussions thus far had “rejected a purely symbolic or minimalist model in favour of substantive reform.”
Pat Anderson, the co-chair of the Referendum Council told Nine News that there was likely to be a tension between some who might push for bold structural reform and others who fear an ambitious approach won’t succeed.
But she said overall she was “fairly confident” a consensus would be reached.
Pro Bono News will report the outcomes of the convention once it concludes.