– The Expert Panel Recommendations
– Involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Government
– Agreement-Making with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
– Generating Further Ideas: The Sky is our Limit!
The Expert Panel’s recommendations are not the only ways that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples can be recognized in our Constitution. They are the forms of constitutional recognition that the Expert Panel considered to be consistent with their guiding principles.
The Expert Panel Report also explored other options that were not put forward as recommendations. The Expert Panel made it clear that these other options were challenges that should be explored and addressed in the future.
The Expert Panel Report raised concerns about the lack of participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia’s political processes as well as the failure of the Australian government to deliver better outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples constitute 2.5% of Australia’s population. It was only in 2010 that Ken Wyatt became the first indigenous representative in the House of Representatives. Even though indigenous political representation in the State or Territory and Federal government has been limited, it is important to acknowledge that there are a range of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander bodies at all levels of Australian society that represent the views of indigenous peoples. The most recent is the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, which was established in 2010.
The way that the Australian government deals with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities has created many problems. The Expert Panel Report stated that, “at almost all consultations and in many submissions, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians expressed anguish, hurt and anger at the extent of their economic and social disempowerment, and their current circumstances.” Indigenous communities have not experienced sweeping positive changes as a result of government attempts to remedy disadvantage. The Expert Panel Report indicated that this failure to deliver outcomes acceptable to and supported by indigenous peoples comes down to barriers to indigenous involvement in the process, a lack of flexibility in the way that policy is implemented across different communities and a lack of understanding and respect for indigenous culture.
The Expert Panel acknowledged proposals put forward by people in submissions to address these issues, such as reserved seats for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the Commonwealth Parliament or Senate or the creation of an Equal Rights and Responsibilities Commission that is required to review all laws passed in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The Expert Panel recognized that issues of indigenous political representation and governance must be addressed in the future. However, the Expert Panel did not think this was appropriate as the basis of a proposal for constitutional reform due to a lack of consensus among Indigenous peoples.
Another option raised in submissions to the Expert Panel was the idea of agreement making with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples aspire to agreement making as a way of co-existing on equal terms in a respectful, co-operative way.
Australia is unique among former settler societies with indigenous populations because no significant historical treaties were entered into with Indigenous peoples. The US, Canada, Scandinavia and New Zealand all have historical treaties with indigenous peoples that have been drawn upon to inform the modern relationships that these states share with their indigenous peoples.
There has been significant activism and support in Australia over the years for agreement making with indigenous peoples. In fact, there are many examples where agreements have been successfully made with indigenous peoples such as with universities and local governments.
There are many different ways of entering into agreements with indigenous peoples and there are many different topics over which agreements could be made. The Expert Panel Report explores a range of agreement making models. The most widely supported was the insertion of an agreement-making power in the Constitution that would facilitate and require the making of agreements with indigenous peoples in relation to specific topics.
The Expert Panel concluded that agreement making with indigenous peoples will play an important role in improving the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the wider Australian community. The Expert Panel highlighted that this was a project for the future that required further groundwork, consultation and public education for it to be embraced and understood by the Australian community.
There are many different ways that we can recognize Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia. Recognition can be symbolic. An example of this kind of recognition is the Apology to the Stolen Generations. However, recognition can extend beyond merely acknowledging a group and past historical injustices perpetrated against them. It can extend to offering substantive rights to Indigenous peoples in Australia to better facilitate the healing process.
The Expert Panel Report focuses on ways that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples can be recognized in our Constitution. The Australian Constitution is Australia’s founding legal document. Australian people play an important role in updating its content through referenda. It is the responsibility of Australians to ensure that our Constitution reflects our contemporary values and outlines a vision for how Australians should interact and live side-by-side.
Constitutional recognition is just one step in a process of change to fully recognize and respect the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Constitutional recognition is not going to provide all of the answers to what is a very complex issue in Australia. Addressing the inequalities in the relationship between indigenous peoples and the wider Australian community requires us to change the way that we interact and think as much as change the words of a legal document. Australians need to be creative, innovative and take initiative to ensure that constitutional recognition can act as a positive framework for further change in the future.
How Can You Contribute?
There are a number of things you can do:
- Pass it on: Have a chat with your family and friends about constitutional recognition and the possibility of a referendum. While it is an easy thing to do, this is one of the most valuable steps you can take because it allows more people to join the conversation about constitutional recognition.
- Spread the word: Reach out to your local community and raise awareness about constitutional recognition. You can share the Ready4Recognition information pack with groups in your community or organise your own community event focused on constitutional recognition. You can download a copy of this information pack or view it online on our website at www.ready4recognition.weblogs.anu.edu.au.
- Speak Up: Write to your local member of Parliament and let them know your thoughts on constitutional recognition.
- Stay informed: Keep up-to-date with the progress of constitutional recognition as it develops at the political level so that when the issue is put to referendum you can make an informed vote.