Jeff Kennett – As a nation, we need to be reconciled

The Herald Sun, June 8, 2016

LAST week I launched a book titled The Forgotten People. It is a compilation written by people from the political Right who have opposed constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders — or would be expected to. All have since rethought their views and now either support or give tacit support to recognition.

I think the time is long overdue to change our attitudes and the language we use when we refer to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, who I prefer to call our first peoples.

They occupied our continent for tens of thousands of years before white settlement in 1788 and we should recognise and celebrate their history, culture and special place in our nation.

The first peoples understandably seek constitutional recognition that they occupied this continent before we arrived.

The Australian Constitution was written by and for the new settlers and their successors. The Constitution finalised in 1900 did not recognise our first peoples but in several phrases excluded them from recognition and participating in Australian affairs.

It took until 1967 for the conservative Liberal government, with bipartisan support, to pass a national referendum that removed constitutional discrimination against the first peoples.

Section 51 defined the power that the federal parliament could apply for making laws for peace, order and good government “other than the Aboriginal people in any state”. The phrase was removed.

Section 127 dealt with the counting of citizens of the Commonwealth but said, “Aboriginal natives should not be recognised”.

That whole clause was removed as a result of the highest in favour vote ever in a federal referendum.

Since white settlement, the treatment of our first peoples has been at times brutal, well intentioned or misplaced, unfair, reasonable or generous. But there has never been a genuine partnership. We can’t change the past but nor should we forget it. But it shouldn’t cloud our thoughts and actions of what we can do to reconcile all citizens of this great country.

It is time for us all to celebrate our first peoples. There are not many of them but they are special and their history and customs should be appreciated, supported and encouraged.

There has been much debate about what form the constitutional recognition should take and much of the debate is occurring among the first peoples, as it should. Some want constitutional recognition, others want a treaty.

But until they can agree on appropriate wording, proceeding to a referendum is pointless.

Nevertheless, recognition is long overdue and no one wants it to be symbolic. It must be meaningful, substantial and enforceable. I believe recognition should commence with the phrase, “This Constitution recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the continent’s first peoples”. That is merely a statement of fact but unless we more recent arrivals recognise that fact, the chances of genuine reconciliation is substantially reduced. Such a statement should be added as a new clause 6 to the Constitution Act.

The first peoples have also talked about a council to advise government on their affairs and any legislation that might affect or enhance their opportunities. Such a council would not be difficult to establish, based on regional representation. But it would not control any expenditure or have any power of veto.

But properly structured and supported, such a council could provide invaluable advice to the parliament and help us to celebrate our first peoples.

The council would function in the same way as those bodies that considered, for instance, the impact of legislation on small business.

Professor Anne Twomey has suggested a new section 60A(1) for the Constitution Act that responsibly establishes such a body.

60a(1) There shall be an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander body, to be called the (insert appropriate name agreed by community) which shall have the function of providing advice to the parliament and the executive government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

(2) The parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to the composition, roles, powers and procedures of the (body).

(3) The Prime Minister (or the Speaker/president of the Senate) shall cause a copy of the (body’s) advice to be tabled in each House of parliament as soon as practicable after receiving it.

(4) The House of Representatives and the Senate shall give consideration to the tabled advice of the (body) in debating proposed laws with respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Not a bad starting place in my opinion, as long as the first peoples agree.

The book I launched, The Forgotten People, creates the impression that the only real opposition to the success of a referendum recognising our first peoples is on the Right of politics.

I reject that. Conservatives led the way on ending discrimination and I am sure they are ready to do so again — and the community is ready, as it was in 1967, to give our first peoples the recognition they deserve. Our community is more than just fair-minded, it is generous and will overwhelmingly support sensible and meaningful constitutional recognition.

But the first peoples must agree on the form and the wording, and that should be the sole objective in their forums to be held this year.

So much media attention focuses on the failures in the indigenous community without saluting the many doctors, professors, lawyers, professionals in so many occupations, the politicians, public servants, artists and sports people.

It is time to celebrate our first peoples, time for constitutional recognition. It is time for their leaders to decide on the wording.

It might not satisfy every leader or region or community. But without agreement soon, the opportunity for constitutional recognition could be lost for decades.

Many of us recognise the need to achieve that reconciliation and move to an exciting future, based on a wonderful history.

Have a good day.

Jeff Kennett is a former premier of Victoria.

Uphold & Recognise