Australia to vote regarding indigenous people
Two years after the Australian government rejected a landmark plan to officially recognize indigenous people in the country’s Constitution, a top official said he will move forward with a national referendum on the issue.
“I’m prepared to walk with people on all sides … and reach a point on which we can agree,” Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt said in a speech Wednesday, pledging to find a consensus option that could be taken to a national poll within three years.
Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Islander peoples have long campaigned to be formally recognized in the Constitution. Wyatt — the first indigenous Australian to hold his position — said he would not bring the matter to a referendum if he didn’t think it could pass, adding that he believes most Australians would support the move.
Changing the country’s constitution is no easy matter, however, and even relatively small opposition could derail it. Per section 128 of Australia’s constitution, any law seeking to change it must pass with an absolute majority in both houses of parliament and in a referendum of each state and territory of the nation.
Indigenous people make up just 2% of Australia’s population, and while most non-indigenous Australians would be likely to support the change, resistance is expected to come from right wing groups who disapprove of creating special categories for indigenous people and from conservatives unwilling to amend the constitution.
Wyatt, who has not made clear what precisely the eventual referendum will decide, raised eyebrows in referencing Pauline Hanson, the notorious far-right politician, as an example of those whose views needed to be respected in the referendum process.
Hanson has previously claimed to be “indigenous” herself, as she was born in Australia, comments which attracted widespread criticism and ridicule.
“I admire Pauline for what she does and I have good meetings with her,” Wyatt said, according to the Guardian Australia. “We don’t always see eye to eye on things, but I will certainly be involving Pauline in discussions that we have, as we move forward into the future.”
Asked about racist statements by Hanson and others about indigenous people, Wyatt said “we as Australians have to call them out, collectively.”
Until 1967, the constitution of Australia held that “aboriginal natives shall not be counted” towards population numbers, essentially stripping them of citizenship rights.
That was overturned by a referendum, and indigenous communities have been working to get official recognition within the text and a say in laws which affect them.
In 2016 and 2017, the government agreed to meet with indigenous community leaders for a National Constitutional Convention aimed at proposing a change to the constitution to recognize indigenous people and land use rights. After months of consultations, the Uluru Statement from the Heart called in May 2017 “for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.”
“In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard,” the statement said. “We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.”
The coalition government at the time under Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull rejected the proposals — which also included creating an elected Makarrata Commission which could supervise agreements between government and indigenous people — saying they would create a “third chamber of parliament.”
His refusal was described as a “kick in the guts” for indigenous groups, after years of work.
Reacting to Wyatt’s statement Wednesday, Megan Davis, a vice-chancellor at the University of New South Wales who co-authored the 2017 Uluru statement, said it was a “really significant day in the nation’s history.”
“What we’re asking for is simply an enhanced role in our democratic decision making and as you know, successive polls have shown lots of Aussies understand the logic of that, that we will have better quality policies, better quality laws and we will have a really significant impact upon disadvantage and closing the gap if we’re at the table,” Davis told CNN affiliate ABC Radio.
Dean Parkin, another consultant on the Uluru statement, told the broadcaster it had a “very clear mandate” and its recommendations should be what is put to the constitutional vote.
“Proportionally, it was the most significant engagement process of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people around this question of constitutional and structural reform ever held,” he said.
“I’m not pre-empting the process that will come from here. I’m hoping that the process will confirm … that this was indeed a worthwhile and compelling constitutional change to pursue, the voice to Parliament, that this process undertaken by the minister and the government will come to the same conclusion.”
Closing the gap
Indigenous people continue to suffer from severe discrepancies in terms of health, education and employment outcomes compared to white Australians.
For decades, indigenous people suffered from legalized discrimination and abuse, with thousands of children of the “lost generation” seized from their parents and put in white-run care homes.
Indigenous language and culture has also suffered greatly since Europeans invaded the continent in 1788. Protests occur every year as the country marks Australia Day on the date of the First Fleet’s arrival in the country, which indigenous people view as the start of a prolonged and violent campaign of replacement against their ancestors.
Progress has been slow but the pace is picking up. In 2008, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued an official apology to the country’s indigenous people, saying “the time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.”
Some indigenous lands and monuments, including the world famous Uluru, have been returned to their original owners, though major issues remain. This week saw hordes of tourists scrambling to climb on the ancient rock before its traditional owners close it on October 26, after years of attempting to prevent what they regard as disrespectful use of a sacred object.