If 85% of people are in favour of recognising Indigenous Australians in the constitution – a record percentage of support – then why hasn’t it happened yet? What is holding back an crucial reform that is widely supported?
The explanation begins with Australia’s history of resistance to constitutional change. Out of 44 referenda since Federation, only eight have been successful. As Frank Brennan pointed out, no Australian under the age of 56 has voted in a successful referendum.
The next part of the explanation is the danger of an unsuccessful referendum. If the case for recognition were put to the Australian public unsuccessfully, the recognition movement would be set back by decades. In the words of Indigenous academic Prof. Marcia Langton: “A negative vote would completely rule out any question of this being taken up again in our lifetimes”. Before a referendum can be put to the public, its success must be guaranteed.
The definition of success, however, depends on how much you want to achieve. This is where the real difficulty arises: is symbolic recognition sufficient, or will meaningful change require enforceable legal substance?
The consensus amongst leaders, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, is that a toothless reform of the constitution would not be enough. Kirstie Parker, co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, told the ABC: “We believe this process must bring about substantive reform. We don’t believe that symbolic change is enough.” Bill Shorten, in his trademark zinger style, argued that “Cosmetic tinkering with the preamble is insufficient.”
The debate, then, is over what form this substantive change should take. The two most popular proposals are a constitutional ban on racial discrimination or Noel Pearson’s proposal to establish a constitutionally-recognised body to advise on issues affecting Indigenous Australians. At this stage it is not clear if either of these proposals will make the referendum. What is clear is that if we want Indigenous Australians to be recognised in the constitution – and we do – then we have to get it right the first time. This is a referendum that is too important to get wrong.