Recognising our First Peoples

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Professor George Williams

Professor George Williams

A leading constitutional expert has called for a national convention to be used as a key driver of community engagement on the question of constitutional recognition for Aboriginal people.

University of New South Wales law professor George Williams spoke following a community forum in Launceston on the topic late last month. He said one of the big lessons from the failed republic referendum in 1999 was that, without bipartisan support, any referendum question would struggle to reach the required hurdle of a majority of votes in a majority of states.

“I would actually like to see a national convention, that is often the way we do things,” Prof Williams said.

“People can elect representatives or stand themselves, (we should) televise it and get the conversations going around the country. Something like a convention is a way of sparking that off.”

Prof Williams believes achieving a model for recognition which had bipartisan support – from both sides of the political spectrum as well as from among indigenous and non-indigenous Australians – was achievable with wide community engagement.

“We have the chance to actually discuss these issues over an extended period of time, knock out the bad bits and focus in on the good bits. That gives us a much better chance of getting a good outcome.”

Prof Williams said it was possible the subject could be put to a referendum before the end of next year, but warned against rushing to it.

“One of the problems in Aboriginal affairs is often we don’t debate the issues, things are forgotten (and) this is finally the start of a conversation which frankly we should have had decades ago.”

Prof Williams said change to the constitution was long overdue as it was a document designed to exclude Indigenous people and allow for people to be discriminated against based purely on race, ideals out of step with modern Australian thinking.

“One of the things they (the drafters) did intend was to have a constitution which did not treat Aboriginal people as citizens. In fact they didn’t even want to treat Aboriginals as second class citizens (and) instead they were to be kept separate from this birth certificate for the nation.

“As a result we have a constitution today which still reflects that.”

Prof Williams believes constitutional recognition has broad support from Aboriginal leaders.

“There are many things which need to be done – but this is one of the things that needs to be done to achieve true equality and justice in Australia.”

Prof Williams said constitutional recognition was separate to issues such as a treaty or land sovereignty and the debate should not be seen in terms of one or the other.

The Interim State Director of the Victorian Uniting Aboriginal Christian Congress, Uncle Vince Ross, said constitution recognition was certainly overdue.

“The bottom line is we are the First People and it has not been properly recognised,” he said.

“I feel it is a bit disrespectful to indigenous people that this has taken so long and I would say most indigenous people want to be recognised.”

Mr Ross said the UCA’s efforts to revise the preamble to its Constitution five years ago was an example for the Australian Government of how meaningful consultation could ensure wide support for such a change.

“It is not just about consulting with one or two people but with a wide range of people and the church was able to do that.”

By Nigel Tapp

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