What Will We Be Voting On?
The recommendations of the Expert Panel were drafted with the intention that Parliament would design a question for the referendum based on them. However, it is ultimately for Parliament to draft the question to be put to the Australian public for the referendum, and this may differ from the recommendations of the Expert Panel.
The Constitution requires that a proposal to alter the Constitution be submitted to electors in the form of a proposed law. Federal politicians will be responsible for drafting this proposed law, and formulating it as a question to put to voters. However, it must for pass through a particular parliamentary process before this can occur.
A proposed law to alter the Constitution must first pass an absolute majority of each House of Parliament; that is, both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Alternatively, if one House of Parliament passes the proposed law with an absolute majority and the other house fails to pass it in an unaltered form, and if after three months a similar proposal is put forward again, which meets the same fate, the Governor-General may submit the proposed law to electors at a referendum.
There are several stages in the referendum process at which a decision might be made to depart from the Expert Panel’s recommendations. The Government may, following consultation within its own ranks and probable consultation with the Opposition, decide not to give effect to one or more of the Expert Panel’s recommendations. Alternatively, the Government may submit the initial proposed law to both Houses of Parliament only to have it rejected by either the Senate or House of Representatives. The Government may decide to amend the proposed law at this stage so as to depart from the Expert Panel’s recommendations, in order to gain bi-partisan support.
The government has not yet put forward a proposed law for the alteration of the Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
When Will We Be Voting?
There is no guarantee as to when Parliament will call a referendum on Constitutional recognition or even if they will. However, the Act of Recognition passed by Parliament in February 2013 is designed encourage Government to reconsider the levels of community support for a referendum to amend the Constitution within the next 12 months.
The Act of Recognition acknowledges the prior occupation of Indigenous peoples, their continuing relationship with the land and waters and pays respect to the continuing cultures, languages and heritage of indigenous peoples. However, this recognition is not a substitute for constitutional change and its purpose is to build momentum towards the ultimate goal of a successful referendum. The Act contains a two-year ‘sunset clause’, meaning that it will expire after two years. This helps set a deadline for Parliament to reconsider and act on the issue in the future.
It is now the responsibility of Australians to keep the referendum on our politician’s agendas and to demonstrate support and commitment for recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.