Constitutional recognition

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By Jill Ruzbacky

Australia’s Constitution was written more than a century ago. By then, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had lived in this land for more than 40,000 years, keeping alive the world’s oldest continuous cultures. But Australia’s founding document did not recognise the first chapter of our national story.

It mentioned Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples only to discriminate. For the first six decades of our democracy, Indigenous Australians could not vote. They were excluded from being counted as citizens until 1967.

Today Australia prides itself on being a place of fairness. But our Constitution still does not recognise the first Australians. And it still lets the states ban people from voting based on their race.

We need to fix this, and bring the country together after so many chapters apart. It is the next step in reconciling our past. And it’s the right thing to do.

The push to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and remove discrimination from our Constitution is not new.

Over the past few decades, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders have called for constitutional recognition.

In 1999, Prime Minister John Howard proposed a preamble to the Constitution which recognised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures – but it was defeated with the republic referendum.

In 2007, Mr Howard promised that, if re-elected as prime minister, he would hold a referendum to recognise Indigenous Australians in the Constitution. It has been Coalition policy ever since.

Kevin Rudd, as opposition leader, pledged bipartisan support for the proposal, regardless of the election outcome. It has been Labor policy ever since.

Adding further momentum, in July 2008 the Yolgnu and Bininj clans across Arnhem Land presented Mr Rudd with a statement calling on the government to “work towards constitutional recognition of our prior ownership and rights”. In accepting the communiqué, the prime minister pledged his support for recognition of Indigenous peoples in the Constitution.

In 2010, Julia Gillard struck a deal to form government with Independent MP Rob Oakeshott and the Greens that included a commitment to hold a referendum on constitutional recognition by the 2013 election.

An expert panel was appointed to advise on a model and process. It reported in January 2012.

In September 2012, Labor announced it would delay the referendum, citing concern at low levels of public awareness.  As an interim step towards a referendum, the government proposed an Act of Recognition in the parliament.

The legislation has a sunset period of two years, which Liberal MP Ken Wyatt – the only Indigenous federal MP – likened to a “post it note on the fridge”, to remind the parliament to finish the task.  Meanwhile, a grassroots movement of Australians is growing steadily to build the community support needed for a successful referendum.

The Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC/Congress) have given their blessing to the Uniting Church to educate their members about the issues of Constitutional Recognition in the lead up to a referendum on this issue. The Synod of Victoria and Tasmania is partnering with Recognise (www.recognise.org.au) and has funding available  to run information and education sessions within UCA congregations, presbyteries, schools and agencies throughout the Synod until 31 December this year.

Jill Ruzbacky is currently the Covenanting contact for the Commission for Mission, working in partnership with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC/Congress) in Victoria and Tasmania. To host an event in your area, or to find out more information, please contact Jill on 9251 5266 or jill.ruzbacky@victas.uca.org.au

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