Tim Wilson: My journey on the road to recognition

In comparison to people like Warren Mundine and Noel Pearson, I am an interloper in the discussion surrounding the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I initially approached this issue from a position of scepticism. Indeed, I approach most issues from a position of scepticism but not of cynicism. I believe one should question any proposal and critically analyse its merits and rationale, especially the proposal as important as the one in Warren Mundine’s recent essay, “Practical Recognition from the Mobs’ Perspective”. It is also important to find bridges and lessen divisions in society, to find common ground, and to put one’s self in the shoes of others. If you are going to take a community – and, indeed, a country – on a journey, you also have to generate empathy, understanding and awareness. That is the journey I have been on with constitutional recognition.

Throughout my journey, I looked primarily at the issues of silence and illegitimacy that pervade our society – a lack of understanding of others’ lives. I wondered if there is a common bond for many people in Australia today, people that have similar journeys and similar stories who can relate to the challenges faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, particularly those people who are silenced, and who lack recognition.

I should also highlight, on the subject of my scepticism, that I am someone who fought against a planned referendum in 2013. Julian Leeser MP and I established a campaign against Kevin Rudd’s intention to include local government in the Constitution. Although Rudd’s referendum never transpired, the experience proved that there are indeed practical challenges that we face if we, as a country, want to amend our Constitution to formally recognise Australia’s Indigenous past, present and continuing future. 

Throughout my journey, I looked primarily at the issues of silence and illegitimacy that pervade our society – a lack of understanding of others’ lives.

This is not a straightforward task. The Australian Constitution can only be amended as a consequence of a double majority – a majority of democratic votes in a majority of states. This process was originally intended to make it easy to change Australia’s Constitution in comparison with that of the United States of America. In practice, it has provided stability, but it is, in fact, difficult to change and improve Australia’s Constitution. As a constitutional conservative (or “Con Con”, as Julian Leeser likes to say), I recognise that the Constitution nonetheless has within it provisions for change in response to the will of the people and the weight of serious argument. I think that such an argument is now being borne out around full recognition of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The original work that looked specifically at the ambitions of indigenous Australians was important but controversial. By contrast, there is furious, broad-based agreement when it comes to getting rid of provisions that can be used to discriminate against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

I applaud the work of my parliamentary colleague, Julian Leeser, Damien Freeman from Uphold & Recognise, and of course Noel Pearson. They looked at the Constitution and worked out what can be done to amend it so that it remains a framework to facilitate democracy. They also looked at how Australia can achieve many objectives outside of the framework of the Constitution, where we can be set ourselves very difficult and high bars to pass. They drafted a declaration to be used in civic ceremonies. The declaration is not just about recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s past, but how to create a sense of unity and purpose for the whole of the country, and how every Australian can live their lives through the ambition of this process. 

Via the declaration, the issue of constitutional recognition ceases to be just a discussion about how are we going to elevate the status of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It points to a united future for our country. This is where Warren Mundine has made an enormous contribution: the crucial aim is to take things from the Indigenous lens and put them through the conservative lens and also through the liberal lens. An Indigenous lens will always give you ambition; a conservative lens will always give you a tempering of that ambition; and a pragmatic, liberal lens gives you an idea of what is achievable, by respecting and acknowledging both the Indigenous lens and the conservative lens and finding the sweet spot. The sweet spot is where we can take a community forward together and recognise the potential of what can be done. 

When you look at the success of a country – not just ours but many others around the world – it isn’t achieved because governments came along and designed top-down structures. Success comes from empowering people, people who come together. In a traditional sense, we talk about people forming families and building communities as the foundation of a great country. Success and self-determination for Indigenous people requires the provision of structures that enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to come together and represent their mobs.

This is the basis for credibility: a representative body – which might be state-based, regionally-based or nationally-based – that will seek to achieve what Indigenous people want for themselves, and the country will be compelled to listen to it. The body’s credibility doesn’t just come from the Constitution. We know there are organisations and structures established in the Constitution that no longer exist today or else have no authority. Credibility comes from representative voices that carry not just the weight of those people who are in the positions of power or authority but because they have the support of the people behind them and that is why I think Mundine’s proposal is so important. It looks at the foundations of how to realise the ambitions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It doesn’t seek to take shortcuts to Utopia; it seeks to find ways to take everybody on a journey and not just a journey for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but for every Australian.

The process of constitutional recognition isn’t simply about getting recognition of Aboriginal Australia and Torres Strait Islander Australia; it is reciprocal. It goes both ways and provides a foundation for recognising European settlement from the past. It is a pathway via which we can take our entire country forward together.

Tim Wilson MP is the Federal Liberal Member for Goldstein, covering bayside Melbourne. He has previously been appointed Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner, and he is the former director at the Institute of Public Affairs.

Uphold & Recognise