Imagine you live on the other side of the world and know nothing about Australia. Deciding to change that, you begin by reading the country’s founding document, the supreme law under which the society is governed – the Constitution.
At the conclusion of the 25-page document, you’d be forgiven for thinking ‘Terra Australis’ was completely devoid of human life before Captain Cook arrived in 1770 – because Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples are entirely missing from the Constitution.
When it was first written, the Constitution was created with no consultation, consent or treaty with Australia’s First Peoples. The question of their sovereignty over the land never entered the debate – in fact, there was no debate around the issue.
Originally, the Constitution protected in law: “The people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws”. It stated that, “aboriginal natives shall not be counted” in calculating the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth of Australia.
Both mentions were removed by way of a referendum in 1967, driven by a movement for Indigenous rights which objected to the references on the grounds they were racially discriminative.
In February this year the Act of Recognition Bill passed through the House of Representatives, committing Australia to amend the Constitution to acknowledge Indigenous Australians. In particular, to recognise the unique and special place they (and their languages) hold in contemporary Australia as well as in our national heritage.
While the Bill has bipartisan support, there’s no guarantee the proposed constitutional changes will receive sufficient public support to pass the required referendum, which must occur within two years.
In light of this, last month the Synod’s Commission for Mission unit facilitated a Constitutional Recognition Forum at the Synod office in Melbourne to open up the topic for explanation and discussion.
Keynote speaker Professor Muriel Bamblett, CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (VACCA), began her address talking about the 1967 referendum which, she said, changed the reference to Indigenous people in the constitution from “negative to neutral”.
Ms Bamblett also mentioned, with a laugh, that she thought a key to that referendum’s success was the support of Collingwood Football Club fans.
“The point is, it got through because of support of people on the ground,” she said.
She believes the Australian government can learn from the actions taken by the Uniting Church which changed its Constitution Preamble. The change acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia, and the Church’s complicity in the injustice that resulted in many First Peoples being dispossessed from their land, language, culture and spirituality.
The change was passed by the 12th Assembly in 2009 after extensive consultation throughout the Church, in particular with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC). It was then passed by the synods and presbyteries throughout 2010.
While the changes were controversial – and met with opposition among some church members – it was a vitally important conversation that legitimised the Church’s commitment to covenanting with Indigenous Australians and the church’s Indigenous arm, UAICC.
Likewise, change to Australia’s Constitution will no doubt meet with resistance.
National President of ANTaR (Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation), and former National Director of UAICC, Peter Lewis spoke at the forum.
Mr Lewis highlighted the words around the proposed changes.
“This is about recognition – re-cognition. Re-thinking our nation,” he said.
He emphasised the need to take an incremental approach on the long journey towards reconciliation – an approach endorsed by Ms Bamblett.
“Mabo, for example, was another nail in the ‘terra nullius’ coffin,” Ms Bamblett said.
“It takes time and many steps in the right direction. If we win this one, we’ll be better prepared for the next battle.”
The Government has provided funding to Reconciliation Australia to educate the community on constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians.
To find out more about the ‘Recognise’ campaign, visit recognise.org.au/thejourney