Perth launch: “The Forgotten People”

On 23 February 2017, Christian Porter MP, Ben Wyatt MLA, Andrew Forrest AO, and Nolan Hunter met in Perth to discuss the recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Constitution, and to launch The Forgotten People, edited by Damien Freeman and Shireen Morris.

The Perth launch marked the end of a series of similar successful discussions across the country with prominent Australians such as Jeff Kennett, Thomas Keneally and Rachel Perkins. The purpose of the discussions, and the key contention of the book itself, is to demonstrate that constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians is not exclusively a cause of the progressive left.

Prominent right-wing or conservative contributors to the book include Professor Greg Craven, Major General Michael Jeffery, Chris Kenny and Malcolm Mackerras. Each shares an insight into the various reasons they hold for wanting to change the way Australia does business with its Indigenous peoples.

The evening in Perth offered the panellists the opportunity to respond to the ideas and aspirations raised in the book.  During the discussion, Christian Porter engaged Shireen Morris on the need for an Indigenous voice in the Federal Parliament. The Minister sees the role of the book as ‘the important foundational step of those constitutional conservatives who believe there is sound reason for change’. He also highlighted several important next steps to address the concerns of conservatives.

Ben Wyatt MLA was instrumental in WA parliament’s recent, and unanimously adopted, Bill recognising Indigenous Australians in the WA Constitution. In the spirit of the book, Ben reminded us of the need to achieve bi-partisan support for constitutional change by engaging with the views of ‘formidable’ constitutional conservatives such as Greg Craven. ‘Hopefully we will achieve consensus’, he said, and it was heartening to see political opponents from the Labor and Liberal parties engaging in a pragmatic and constructive dialogue.

The evening’s discussion was generally focused on the historical and national importance of constitutional recognition. Andrew Forrest’s family enjoys a famous relationship with the Aboriginal peoples of WA, and the audience were treated to his reflections on the importance of constitutional recognition. ‘To consult with Indigenous people is to right that small wrong, which over time has become a very large wrong, of the failure to recognise Indigenous people in the original Constitution’.

This year will be the 50th anniversary of the referendum to include Indigenous people in Australia’s census. Shireen reminded us that this is an historic opportunity to visit some of the constitutional issues not raised in 1967. With the people of the Pilbara and the Kimberley having said, as part of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet’s regional dialogues, that they want substantive change to the Constitution, Shireen reminded the audience that the time to make that change falls to us.

A treat emerged for the audience when Nolan Hunter, CEO of the Kimberley land council, agreed to join the panel at the last minute. Having come from the recent regional dialogue in Broome, he remarked that ‘non-Indigenous and Indigenous people are all Australians. The proposal to give Indigenous peoples a voice is about achieving the compromise that needs to be made in order to heal us, as a nation… something needs to change’.

The Forgotten People: Liberal and conservative approaches to recognising Indigenous peoples is available via Melbourne University Publishing.

Uphold & Recognise