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Indigenous Constitutional Recognition: What's Taking So Long?

10 Oct 2014

Last month, Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced a referendum on Indigenous recognition in the constitution but said it might be years before the issue is put to vote.

This is an issue that has made its way around the political spectrum for years, with the former Labor government promising to hold a referendum to recognise Aboriginal people in the constitution but decided to delay a vote, citing the need to build more public support for the change.

Declaring that the timing and process for the referendum will crystallise in the upcoming weeks, Mr Abbott said he is determined to avoid the consequences of failure whilst Opposition Leader Bill Shorten agreed the process should be not be hurried.

Mr Abbott signalled his conviction that a referendum recognising Indigenous Australians is more likely to succeed if it is "spiritually ambitious" but legally conservative, adding that the challenge would be to emulate the success of the 1967 referendum which was awarded with overwhelming support.

"There'd be nothing worse than having a go at this and finding that it fails because we've been too ambitious or, in the process of trying to do something wonderful, we've ended up dividing the country," said Mr Abbott.

"No fair-minded observer would say we've been neglectful of this or other Indigenous issues.”

However, the joint select committee looking at recognising Indigenous Australians in the constitution, chaired by Liberal backbencher Ken Wyatt, now believes the referendum should be held no later than the federal election in 2016.

In a statement released by Mr Wyatt, he said “the committee has gathered evidence of public willingness for constitutional change” and that “Australians want to see the questions they will be asked to vote on. Once properly informed, they will be ready to vote.”

Gordon Chalmers, Associate Lecturer in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit at The University of Queensland, believes the referendum “could be an extremely important turning point in our nation’s history” but asserts that there needs to be a committed public education campaign to properly inform Australians before they vote.

“I don’t think this issue should be rushed. There needs to be a comprehensive consultation campaign based upon the proposed wording and not some vague notion of ‘recognition’” Mr Chalmers said.

“This information campaign needs to be conducted on the basis of the detail of the proposed amendments, and not some kind of ‘hearts and minds’ campaign based on vague notions of ‘recognition’.”

Mr Chalmers further adds that Mr Abbott is showing commendable leadership regarding the referendum.

“His positive rhetoric surrounding this matter is commendable. However, I am looking forward to seeing the detail when the wording is released,” Mr Chalmers said.

Additionally, Dr Johnathan Crowe from the TC Bierne School of Law at The University of Queensland agrees with Mr Chalmers believing that the process shouldn’t be rushed due to the very low success rate of constitutional amendments due to public scepticism and misleading scare campaigns.

“A public information campaign is essential to make sure voters are well informed. Bipartisan support is also very important if a referendum is to have a real chance of success,” Dr Crowe said.

“A balance is needed between making time for an effective education campaign, on the one hand, and moving the issue forward so that momentum is not lost.”

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