A Constitutional Referendum on the Recognition of the Aboriginal People?

By September 21, 2012Indigenous, Politics, Society

Were you one of the many who had forgotten, or never knew, about this proposal? I certainly was. The news that such a referendum was to be shelved for two or three years must have caused many to ask themselves ‘What referendum?’ I cannot recall its being discussed in the last couple of years, though it had been one of the planks of agreement between Julia Gillard, the Greens and Mr Oakeshott. The report of an expert panel set up to consider the issue was released in mid January, and sank without trace.

Two questions immediately came to my mind. What exactly would the referendum ask us to agree to? And how would the proponents persuade us to vote for it? I’ll deal with the second at once. Constitutional amendments in Australia have a poor record of success, for two reasons. The first is that success requires both a majority of voters and a majority of voters in a majority of States, which is actually a two-thirds majority. That has turned out to be a hard ask. Those proposed amendments that have come closest have garnered the majority in Australia as a whole, but failed to get majorities in  four States (the Territories don’t count for this purpose).

Why so? Because almost any question that is put to the people becomes a matter of today’s politics, in which an Opposition is looking for issues on which it can attack the Government. This is particularly the case if the referendum is held at the same time as an election. Even if both sides of politics agree on the need for a change, the voters may not follow their lead: there seems to be, at least in this matter, a distrust of politicians and their apparent need for more power.

So if there were to be a successful referendum on the recognition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, it would require co-operation between the parties and, in my view, a broad base of community support that was unconnected with the parties, a long lead time, and a form of words that was easily understandable and generally acceptable. Do you see any problems there?

Well, yes — none of it currently applies. It is true that there was a highly successful referendum on the Aboriginal people in 1967 — nearly 91 per cent in favour, and all States. But this one focussed on the then exclusion of indigenous people from being counted in the census, and that seemed uncontroversial. One on the ‘recognition’ of the indigenous peoples seems to me fraught with wording difficulties from the beginning.

The expert panel’s report that came out in January proposed that the Constitution (i) recognise that the continent was first occupied by the indigenous peoples, (ii) offer respect to their ‘continuing cultures, language and heritage’, and (iii) state that there remains a need to secure the advancement of the indigenous peoples. I think that with the conditions I mentioned above, the first two could be secured in a referendum, but the third could look like an open cheque-book, and is unlikely to pass. If there is a single question encompassing all three, then it is likely to fail.

Will there always be a need to secure the advancement of the indigenous people? That is what the inclusion of such a statement in the Constitution would imply. I have been arguing, on my ‘indigenous’ thread, that the growth and change of Australian society are such that in time the indigenous people will be absorbed into it anyway. If you consider the great changes that have taken place in the past fifty years, the issue may be largely irrelevant by the 2060s. So I for one would have misgivings about writing into the Constitution a section that suggests that the situation of the indigenous people will always need to be advanced. If that makes me an assimilationist, then so be it.

Back to the present. Apparently all sides are agreed that there is no prospect of success if a referendum were to be held in the term of the present Parliament, and the Government is offering an bill of Recognition as an interim measure, before the end of the year. I would have thought the legislative program is already full to overflowing, but of course if the PM wants it to happen it will happen.

The wording will still be the issue. My natural scepticism tells me that nothing is going to happen, just because nothing has happened since the committee’s forgotten report in January. But if the bill comes, watch for the wording! If it is too weak, there will be protest everywhere. If it is too strong, it may only pass with difficulty if at all, and then be one of the issues unlikely to help the Labor party at the coming elections.


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