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Long road to the Indigenous referendum

John Warhurst |  26 January 2012

The end game in the Government's plan to hold a referendum to recognise Indigenous Australians in the Constitution and to remove racially discriminatory provisions has now begun with the submission last Thursday of the unanimous report by the 22-member expert panel.

It has recommended five specific changes (removing two sections and adding three) to the body of the Constitution. The Parliament must now decide on the precise questions to go to a referendum.

The reception of the report has shown what a tough game it will be, not just because of the historic difficulty in making constitutional change in Australia by the referendum process, but because of the broader context of race and racism in which the campaign is already being conducted.

The moment encapsulates the long-held aspirations of both the Indigenous Rights and Reconciliation movements. The Prime Minister has said this is a one in 50-year opportunity.

It is 45 years since the successful 1967 Indigenous referendum to which this one inevitably is being linked. It is 47 years since the 1965 NSW Freedom Ride campaigns. It is 40 years since the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra. The main public face of the report, the co-chair Patrick Dodson, was made chair of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation way back in 1991.

These efforts illustrate the various streams in Indigenous campaigning, of which constitutional reform has been just one. While not a final step, this referendum might be a significant further step in this long journey. It follows the 2008 parliamentary apology to the Stolen Generations and provides an opportunity for this Labor era to be remembered whenever the Indigenous story is told.

Ominously though, it has also been 35 years since the last successful referendum in 1977. Only eight out of 44 attempts have been successful. Passing a referendum is exceptionally difficult and there is no fool-proof recipe for success. No one should doubt this.

The advocates of this referendum have done a lot right in the usual ways. They have attempted to build a broad coalition behind the proposal right from the start. The large size of the committee illustrates the attempt to bring everyone together inside the tent, including different opinion leaders within the Indigenous community (from Noel Pearson to Dodson) and the range of political opinion from Labor to the Coalition, represented by Aboriginal Liberal MP Ken Wyatt.

This consultative, consensual approach has been successful so far, though there are already critics, including Indigenous ones.

But there are problems. One is getting the timing right. Can an unpopular government manage to conduct a successful referendum as an election draws near or even at the time of the next election?

This problem may be overcome by top-level, comprehensive bipartisanship and multi-partisanship. Tentative indications are that federal bipartisanship may hold. To be successful this must be extended to comprehensive state government and opposition support, and the Greens must campaign enthusiastically too.

The second problem is deciding the scope of the referendum. Critics are already picking holes in the extent of the recommendations. Some are suggesting that for success the KISS (Keep it Simple Stupid) principle must be adopted.

But the winning principle is not merely simplicity but not trying to do too much. Changes have to be made carefully and compromise must prevail even if this means some worthwhile suggestions are ditched. Voters are not fools but they are apathetic and can be led because they are ignorant of the detail. Public education campaigns find it hard to crack this combination of detachment and ignorance. Negative campaigns are too easy to run.

One thing is certain; it is too late to pull back. No government or opposition should trifle with the Indigenous community and/or with the broad community on such an issue.

Defeat may be worse than no referendum at all because of the hopes dashed. But surely we have to have a go. It is a test for all those in Australian public life to make sure not only that it happens but that the outcome is successful. It is also a test for all of us with a voice to play our part. Most successful referendums pass resoundingly. Let's hope this one does too. 

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a columnist with The Canberra Times.



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Submitted comments

Tony Abbott's remarks about the Aboriginal tent embassy look reasonable at first glance. However, his words may also be interpreted as a 'dog whistle' to those who will oppose changes to the Constitution aimed at giving greater recognition to Aboriginal people. Time will tell - when the referendum campaign begins and the Opposition chooses to give whole-hearted support; or not.

Bob Corcoran 27 January 2012

Yes, John. This is going to be a good occasion to do something positive for Aborigines, considering that the NT Intervention is doing such harm to them! It won't solve the problem of administrative ignorance of how to implement policies, but it could be a beginning of a proper education centred on showing respect for the most vulnerable group in our community!

nathalie 27 January 2012

burning the australian flag will make getting a YES vote in a referendum almost impossible. Dum Dum Dum!

brian kelly 27 January 2012

"tentative indications are that federal bipartisanship may hold" - I'm presuming Jon, your article was written before Tony Abbott's appalling statements re: the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, which clearly remains relevant until our Indigenous peoples are recognised properly by the constitution, having been deliberately left out! Bob Corcoran - nothing is reasonable about Mr Abbott's insensitive ignorance - even at first glance.

Michelle Goldsmith 27 January 2012

Your silence on the incident at the Lobby is deafening. If it had been done by some conservative group, I am sure that it would have been condemned roundly by your writers by now.

John Smith 28 January 2012

Our national tragedy is that it has taken the best part of 200 years since the White occupation of this vast continent, endless bureaucratic hypocrisy and a people that are consumed with self interest, for us to be reminded that we have ignored the existence of our original Australians.
This is the country that, since its White occupation in the late 18th century, has become the envy of developed countries all over the world. And yet ( on Australia Day, a day that most of us have no idea why we're celebrating), we remain oblivious of the fate of this nation's original inhabitants.

Shame on all of us. No amount of rational discussions will erase our black heart. Well done, Professor Warhurst for trying to ease our consciousness.

Alex Njoo 28 January 2012

Recent events clearly demonstrate that this is a critically important issue which can be resolved only by a bipartisan approach.Is Tony Abbott prepared to forego perceived political advantage and display some real leadership? There are some precedents for this, but too few.

David Dyer 28 January 2012

Should the proposed referendum be instituted at the next election the chances of success is dismal. The Intervention leglislation in the NT is a grave injustice to the Aboriginal communities. Until the Aboriginal elders, are able to reign in all elements of their society including the dismantling of the "Tent Embassy" will white Australians be supportive of the total integration of people that now occupy a nation of beautiful indiginous heritage, culture and spiritual harmony. Whether you are black or white respect is to be earnt and not demanded through futile hostile direction.

Trevor J Bates 28 January 2012

Why is a referendum on this topic needed? The advocates have done the community a disservice by not addressing this question directly and convincingly. Where will such a process stop? Must the constitution, which has a life going back only to 1901, be altered to recognise all groups or peoples who have suffered injustice? Is this the role of the constitution? So far the dialogue and the debate have been shallow and failed to show how the existing constitution is broke and in need of repair.

joe remenyi 29 January 2012

This is not going to happen....and frankly, nor should it. This is merely dog-whistling from the left. The current situation allows for laws to be made for the benefit of the Aboriginal "race"... what is wrong with that? There will hopefully come a time when that will seem unnecessary , and then it can be eliminated!

Eugene 30 January 2012

This will all fail. Any referendum on making changes to the constitution which affect only part of the population will always fail. All peoples who are citizens of Australia are Australians with equal rights and responsibilities. Discrimination will lead to much unrest and unpleasanteries.

Peter 31 January 2012

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