The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation
delivered its Final Report in December
of 2000. It came at the end of a year
made remarkable by its popular commitment
to reconciliation between Indigenous peoples
and the wider Australian community. Looking
back, those events seem a long time ago.
Yet it has been less than three years
since Cathy Freeman lit the Olympic torch
and hundreds of thousands of people took
part in the Bridge Walks for Reconciliation
in capital cities and towns across Australia.
Despite a strong and continuing grassroots
commitment, reconciliation has gone off
the boil as a federal political issue.
In part this is due to the Howard Government
pursuing "practical reconciliation"
to the exclusion of any "rights agenda"
for Indigenous peoples. It has done so
despite the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation
emphasising that reconciliation means
addressing both practical measures to
tackle disadvantage as well as legal steps
to recognise Indigenous rights.
Practical reconciliation and the rights
agenda are not mutually exclusive. Steps
to improve service delivery and government
performance are necessary and important,
but there is no reason why legal and constitutional
reform should not proceed at the same
time. Indigenous people have been excluded
from our Constitution for more than a
century. They should not have to wait
another generation or more for the socio-economic
statistics to improve before they find
a place in our fundamental national document.
In fact, the two agendas are inextricably
linked. More than 200 years of history,
a roomful of reports and inquiries and
the everyday comments of Indigenous people
all send this message. As the influential
Project on American Indian Economic Development
has stated, shifting power from government
to Indigenous communities is a necessary
(though not sufficient) condition of sustained
development. The Harvard Project has "yet
to find a single case in the United States
of sustained economic activity on indigenous
lands in which some governmental body
other than the indigenous Nation itself
is making the decisions" about matters
such as governmental structure and natural
Reconciliation must start with acknowledgement.
Our Constitution is silent on the history
and rights of Indigenous peoples. This
was not the case in 1901. The races power
in section 51 provided that the Commonwealth
Parliament could legislate with respect
to "the people of any race, other
than the aboriginal race in any State,
for whom it is deemed necessary to make
special laws", while section 127
stated that when taking the census "aboriginal
natives shall not be counted".
In 1901 we cast Indigenous peoples as
outsiders to the nation. In 1967 these
discriminatory references were deleted
from the Constitution by referendum. However,
the change left the Constitution, including
its preamble, devoid of any reference
to Indigenous peoples. The system moved
from explicit discrimination to silence,
rather than to inclusion and acknowledgement.
Acknowledgement involves change to our
Constitution. However, we must learn the
lessons of the failed 1999 referendum
on the republic. The drafting process
of a new preamble should involve consultation
and negotiation with Aboriginal people
and the community more broadly. There
should be no rush to a final draft. Parliament
could ask the people what they think a
new preamble should say. Entries in a
national competition could be encouraged
from across the nation, including from
school groups and Indigenous communities.
This might capture the public imagination
and unite government and people in an
act of national reconciliation.
Work should also begin on drafting changes
to the Constitution to delete the races
power that might still be used to pass
racially discriminatory laws. The Constitution
should instead contain a power to pass
laws for the advancement of Aboriginal
peoples as well as a general freedom from
racial discrimination. Parliament should
also investigate the options for enacting
a Bill of Rights. It should look to models
such as the United Kingdom's new Bill
of Rights. This will be an important part
of a reconciliation process that recognises
and affirms the rights of all Australians.
The government should also establish
a process to negotiate with Indigenous
peoples on the possibilities for treaties
or other models for acknowledging Indigenous
rights and interests. This could lay a
platform for the recognition of specific
Indigenous rights and for the building
of economic and other partnerships through
a national instrument that brings a formal
close to the reconciliation process.
Much of the symbolic and rights aspects
of the reconciliation process is being
undertaken at the State, local and community
level. However, the commitment of federal
governments is vital. Without it, the
reconciliation process will not encompass
the national acknowledgment of Indigenous
peoples and we as a nation will be diminished.
Discuss in our Forums
See what other readers are saying about this article!
Click here to read & post comments.