Indigenous community groups have called on the federal government to ensure the recognition of Indigenous Australians in the constitution does not turn into a token gesture.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced an expert panel will be set up to examine the proposed referendum which will report back to the government by 2011.
The panel will be made up of Indigenous community representatives, federal politicians and constitutional law experts.
Gillard has not set a date yet for the referendum, saying it could be held before or after the next federal election, which is scheduled for 2013.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda says he believes it will be critical to involve Indigenous Australians in the consultation process in the lead up to the referendum.
“We’ve got to populate this expert panel. This is where the government will take its advice from. We’ve got to make sure that our voices are heard and I’d encourage people to nominate for it and participate in the discussion. This is where those sort of things are decided.”
Gooda says he hopes the panel doesn’t become embroiled in a drawn-out debate about the wording of the referendum proposal; he says previous referenda have failed when political parties have got into similar debates.
Gooda added that he hopes this latest referendum can help ensure that future Australian governments don’t implement laws that discriminate against Indigenous Australians.
He believes the Northern Territory Indigenous Intervention, introduced by the Howard Government in 2007, is a good example of a policy that was racially discriminatory.
The former coalition government suspended the Racial Discrimination Act to allow the intervention to go ahead.
The intervention has involved measures like income management where a percentage of an Indigenous Australian’s welfare payments must be set aside to be spent on food, rent and utility bills.
Gooda believes that constitutional recognition could ensure that similar policies aren’t introduced in the future.
“If we make this change in the constitution and particularly covering the racist powers (of the intervention), governments then can’t do that, parliament can’t do that, only the people of Australia can do that. And I think not only are we saying that it’s an act of goodwill by the government, but we want to actually get to the point where we have protection of the constitution….because an act can be changed by parliament.”
NSW Aboriginal rights activist and Euahlayi Elder Mr Michael Anderson shares Gooda’s enthusiasm about the referendum.
Independence for the NT?
But he believes the government should go further and also put forward a separate referendum question to allow the N.T. to become Australia’s seventh state.
He says the Northern Territory has a large Indigenous population and there could be more funding for government services if it became a state.
Anderson says it would be a pity to miss a unique opportunity to implement broader changes to the constitution that could bring some long term benefits for Indigenous Australians.
“I hope that this is not just a token gesture on the part of the Commonwealth government because as a nation we’re well past tokenism. There’s a lot more to be done and said in recognising us. There has to be some sort of equity in designing new government programs and dealing with new ways of dealing with Aboriginal disadvantage.
One critical question which the expert panel will have to resolve is where the recognition of Indigenous Australians will occur in the constitution.
The federal opposition has favoured placing this in the preamble, but the federal government has not ruled out proposing that it be placed it in the body of the constitution itself.
The legal director of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre Michael Mansell believes there is a big distinction between the two.
“If the outcome is that there is a reference to the rights of Aboriginal people enshrined in the constitution that’s in the body of the constitution, rather than the preamble, then that would give Aboriginal people the right to sue governments, and to have a defence against legal action taken against them”, he said, giving the example of people we practising their cultural traditions or wanting to visit their sacred sites.
“So clearly there is a practical benefit if you get the right form of words in the body of the constitution.”