Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Abbott's quest for constitutional inclusion

  • 25 March 2013

The conservative side of politics has always been more successful than Labor in proposing constitutional change in Australia. That's not because Liberals or Nationals are more committed than Labor to constitutional change.

The Australian Constitution is a very democratic instrument. Our politicians cannot amend it without the approval of the people. The people are very unlikely to approve an amendment proposed by politicians unless both sides of the parliamentary chamber support the change. Even then, the people may suspect that the politicians are in cahoots acting against the interests of the people.

In the field of Aboriginal affairs, a referendum proposed by an Abbott government would be more likely to win support from the parliamentary Opposition than one proposed by a current Labor government. This has nothing to do with the personalities of the two leaders; it has everything to do with the Coalition being the more difficult side of politics to bring on board with constitutional change when it is in Opposition.

Given the present opinion polling and the divisions in the Labor Government, it is no surprise that Tony Abbott is confidently preparing his team for government. Anything he says about constitutional change therefore carries considerable weight.

Last week he spoke at the Sydney Institute and repeated some of the themes from his very welcome parliamentary speech backing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012. Each time he has broken from the John Howard mould and demonstrated a bipartisan spirit by referring to Paul Keating's 1992 Redfern speech. He told the Sydney Institute:

There may come a time, perhaps some decades hence, when we can be relaxed and comfortable about the circumstances of Indigenous Australians — but it's not now. Our failure to come to grips with this remains, in Paul Keating's resonant phrase, a stain on our nation's soul.

Having demonstrated his willingness to move beyond the anti-black-armband view of history, each time he has been quick to indicate that he is not opening the Pandora's box of wide ranging constitutional reform. The cautious sting was in the tail of his parliamentary speech: 'I believe we are equal to this task of completing our Constitution rather than changing it.' Last week he underlined that caution when he told the Sydney Institute:

An acknowledgement of Aboriginal people as the first Australians would complete our Constitution rather than change it. Aboriginal people need to know that they will never be regarded as just