Dianne Hiles welcomed us all on behalf of the WRN, and Aunty Rasme Prior gave the welcome to country. The first speaker was Jodi Broun, Joint Chair of the National Congress of First Peoples, who outlined how the Congress is structured, and the help it has given the Panel in drawing up the wording for the proposed amendment. She pointed out that many countries which have indigenous populations, for example in South America, have clauses in their constitutions that recognise their first peoples, and promote non-discrimination. There is strong hope for real change in the recognition of Aboriginal identity and culture that will benefit the whole nation and contribute to genuine reconciliation.
Jacqui Phillips, National Director of ANTaR, spoke of the aim to achieve something of real benefit to Indigenous people, not just a symbolic act. The package of amendments proposed by the Panel – which included representatives of every political party – must be enacted in their entirety, making a noticeable change in the disadvantage suffered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples, but also changing all our lives, and how we see ourselves as Australians, as well as how the rest of the world sees us.
Linda Burney MLA, Member for Canterbury and former Chair of the NSW Reconciliation Council, spoke of the recognition of truth, justice and rights, and quoted Mick Dodson who said: “Social justice is what faces you in the morning. It is awakening in a house with adequate water supply, cooking facilities and sanitation. It is the ability to nourish your children and send them to school where their education not only equips them for employment but reinforces their knowledge and understanding of their cultural inheritance. It is the prospect of genuine employment and good health: a life of choices and opportunity, free from discrimination.”
In times of economic difficulty, we can be focused on our own needs, and if you are living in poverty, recognition of Aboriginal people’s identity and rights may not seem to have priority. But if the national awareness campaign can lift our minds and hearts to the level of unity and enthusiasm that saw the 1967 referendum pass so successfully, this can be a high point in our nation’s history. The timing and nature of the question lost the 1990 republic referendum about Australia becoming a republic. If we can’t be confident that the amendments will be carried, we shouldn’t rush this referendum.
There will be a campaign to raise national awareness of the referendum in the coming months.
The Expert Panel unanimously endorsed a specific proposal to amend the Constitution. If adopted this amendment would: Recognise the prior occupation and continuing cultures, languages and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples; Acknowledge the continuing relationship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to these lands and waters; Remove the ability of States and Territories to bar certain races from voting [section 25]; Remove the capacity of governments to make laws to the detriment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples or the people of any race [section 51 (xxvi)]; Insert a protection against discrimination on the basis of race, colour or ethnicity.