Indigenous recognition ‘won’t end racism’

A federal indigenous MP has urged his fellow citizens to fill a deafening silence in the constitution and allow the recognition of indigenous Australians.


A joint parliamentary committee has now handed down its long-awaited report on indigenous recognition and is calling on both houses of federal parliament to spend a full day debating its recommendations.

The committee, headed by indigenous WA Liberal Ken Wyatt, wants a referendum to be held at the “highest chance of success” – a change from committee’s progress report which flagged a vote in 2016.

The committee also wants a specific section ruling out racial discrimination – a suggestion favoured throughout the inquiry process.

That’s despite Prime Minister Tony Abbott indicating he’d rather not deal with the issue of race in the constitution.

Mr Wyatt said the changes won’t single out indigenous people or hand them extra rights, but will correct the “contextual silence that is currently so deafening in the constitution”.

“It is time to acknowledge and fix that silence,” he told parliament, while tabling the final report on Thursday.

“The referendum cannot and must not fail.”

The next step was settling the “gritty details”.

The committee proposes scrapping section 25 – which allows the states to prevent people from voting on the basis of their race – from the constitution.

It also wants to erase section 51 (xxvi) – known as the `races power’ – while retaining a `persons power’ that recognises indigenous Australians and allows laws to be made for their benefit. The race power currently allows governments to make special laws for any race.

The committee offers three suggestions for new text in the constitution.

Each requires the recognition of indigenous people as the “first Australians”, respect of indigenous cultures, languages and heritage and acknowledgment of their relationship with their traditional lands.

The suggestion which attracted “overwhelming support” from indigenous Australians was for a new section – 116A – that constitutionally ruled out racism.

It would say federal, state and territory governments “shall not discriminate on the grounds of race, colour or ethnic or national origin”.

The options will be considered by Mr Abbott and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten during a constitutional recognition summit with indigenous leaders in July.

The committee acknowledged constitutional recognition wouldn’t end racism or fix the serious problems faced by indigenous Australians, but would still be a vital step forward.

“Since the time of Captain Cook’s first landfall, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have suffered from continuous dislocation, discrimination and disadvantage,” its report said.

Mr Wyatt urged all Australians to engage in the recognition process, but warned against judging each other.

“Just because someone doesn’t support constitutional recognition does not make them racist,” he said.

A commissioned survey of 2700 people in May found a referendum would pass if held today.

Mr Abbott wants a referendum in May 2017.