Modest but realistic hope for a 2017 Referendum


Wheeler Centre Gathering including Aboriginal leaders Jill Gallagher and Patricia TurnerAfter the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders met Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten at Kirribilli house on 6 July at the beginning of NAIDOC Week, it was a shock for many Australians to hear Noel Pearson pouring cold water on the outcome, saying that he would have preferred to have stayed at his beach house in Cape York with his children, while sending down a cardboard cutout.

It was heartening then last Tuesday to be at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne and to hear respected Aboriginal leaders like Jill Gallagher and Patricia Turner (pictured) giving a more hopeful account of the meeting.

Jill Gallagher, CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, told a sell-out audience: ‘I was very confident coming out of that meeting that a referendum in 2017 will happen’.

Patricia Turner who had been the CEO of ATSIC and a deputy secretary of the Department of Prime Minster and Cabinet has had more high level meetings than hot dinners. She told the audience:

I’ve been to meetings with prime ministers and leaders of the opposition but never with them both in the same room. Our delegation was masterful. We were more interested in getting agreement on a process. It was important that we nailed them down to a process. I totally disagree with Noel’s assessment of it. Noel has agreed to work more co-operatively with us which is a good thing. Let’s look at how we are going to get the vast majority of our people on board and supporting us.

She thought it was one of the best meetings she had attended.

It was great to see Patrick Dodson and Noel Pearson coming out on the weekend on the same page about the way forward for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. They wrote, ‘We cannot proceed to a referendum without knowing where indigenous people stand,’ suggesting ‘there should be a diplomatic process between indigenous representatives, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Australian Greens, so we can reach multi-party agreement on the model to take to a referendum.’

Though agreeing on process, or at least on the pre-conditions for an appropriate process, they concede that they still have differing views about the desired outcome, saying: ‘We each have our own independent views on constitutional propositions’. Their sensitive leadership and reconciling spirit aimed at bridging differences are welcome and necessary if there is to be any hope of a successful referendum.

Australia is a more mature and more complex polity than it was at the time of the 1967 referendum. We need to be very attentive to the diversity and (hopefully) emerging consensus of Aboriginal viewpoints. We also need to be attentive to what measures the leaders of our major political parties will be prepared to sponsor during the life of the next parliament, championing those measures in a referendum campaign.

If there is to be a referendum in the life of the next parliament, we need a firm timetable for some key steps in what Dodson and Pearson describe as ‘a diplomatic process’.

First, Aboriginal leaders need to hear and report on the constitutional aspirations of their people. Second, Abbott and Shorten have to indicate which of those aspirations they are prepared to sponsor in the parliament. Third, Aboriginal leaders need to report back on whether they are willing to accept the proposals which the Government and Opposition are prepared to sponsor.

If they are not, there will be no point in proceeding further. We will all have to wait for another day, probably if and when Australia moves towards becoming a republic. If there is agreement between our Aboriginal leaders and our elected national leaders, we could then proceed to some form of Constitutional Convention to finalise the question to be put to the people at referendum.

To avoid the frustration of shattered expectations, all participants in the process need to remember that Australians have only ever approved eight referenda. Two related to the Commonwealth taking over state debts. Two related to the mode of election of senators. One related to voters in the ACT and the Northern Territory being able to vote in referenda. One related to the retirement age of federal judges. Only two related to expanding Commonwealth power: after World War II, the voters agreed to the Commonwealth Parliament being able to legislate for pensions and social security; and in 1967, the voters agreed to remove the adverse references to Aborigines so that the Commonwealth Parliament could make laws for them.

Three of the eight successful referenda were steered to success by Bob Ellicott when he was Attorney-General in 1977. He advises that to have any prospect of success a referendum question ‘should have become broadly acceptable to the Australian people as a result of broad consultation and the provision of information to the public as to its purpose and effect’. He cautions that the question also ‘should contain no element of possible substantial confusion on legal or other grounds’.

Though there has been much talk in recent weeks about ‘minimal’ and ‘symbolic’ change versus ‘substantial’ or ‘real’ change, we all need to remember that there is no such thing as only a small constitutional change in the Australian Commonwealth with its constitutional sclerosis. The lesson from 1967 is that a modest change, carried overwhelmingly by the Australian people provides the impetus for change. The institution of a body like the Council for Aboriginal Affairs (1967-1976), which this time would be constituted by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives with a statutory charter, would be the catalyst for change. Let the work begin.

Frank BrennanFrank Brennan joined Jill Gallagher and Patricia Turner on a panel at the Wheeler Centre on Tuesday last week, to discuss the topic 'Question Time: Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians'. The audio is available here.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Constitution, Indigenous rights, Noel Pearson, referendum



submit a comment

Existing comments

Thank you for this helpful and hopeful report. I am encouraged in the wearing of my `R` badge - which has generated a surprising number of questions and conversations.
Fiona Winn | 22 July 2015

There seems to be an assumption in Frank's article that "Aboriginal leaders" are the people that the white community has also accepted as the representatives of First Nations people . There are also Aboriginal Elders who have day to day responsibility for the traditional Law and the spiritual life in their communities. There may have been some at the Kirribilli meeting, but in reality we do not know what the true leaders of the First Nations think about the Constitution. We need to hear and report on the constitutional aspirations of Rosalie Kunoth-Monks and Djinyinyi Gondarra and other less obvious Law men and women. If the input of the traditional leaders is not heard, then the disempowerment brought about by the Intervention and other Government policy will be complete. Please listen to these people in an environment where they won't be drowned out by the articulate, Western educated, representative Aboriginal leaders chosen by the existing political system.
Digby Habel | 22 July 2015

I personally didn't take Noel Pearson's comments to be negative. He was rather commenting on the staged nature of the process; his comment (as I heard it) about staying at home was more about how it played itself out according to the pre-agreed script. So why bother turning up?
This of course begs the question about whether you can actually get to 'the diplomatic process', without going through the shallow staged political events!
Stephen Clark | 22 July 2015

The term 'Aboriginal leaders' gets thrown around freely but what makes a person an 'Aboriginal leader'? Many of those touted so may well have valid views but simply put, they are personal views. Election to a representative body of standing, i.e. not a local body, carries the right, no, the obligation to give voice to the wishes of those who elected them. A common expression in Aboriginal circles is "He/she does not speak for me." We need to be careful to see the pronouncements made by 'Aboriginal leaders' in the light of who they represent or as blackfella's say ' who do they speak for.' Petulant behaviour has no place in this discussion, nor do hand - picked 'Aboriginal leaders'. This discussion if far too important for that.
Allan Barnes | 22 July 2015

You can now listen to the podcast of my address at the ANU/Canberra Times literary event on my book ‘No Small Change: The Road to Recognition for Indigenous Australia’. Listen at
Frank Brennan SJ | 23 July 2015

Are there not a number of Aboriginal nations? It may prove very difficult to roll them all into the one mould, recognised as one not many. Maybe it is fundamental to recognise the different nations individually. War between the various Aboriginal nations was not uncommon.
john frawley | 24 July 2015

The problem with your your 'modest but realistic' option, Frank, is that we are unlikely to get any outcome that means anything to our indigenous brothers and nothing more than a 'feel good' result for the rest of us. I would prefer to see our politicians agree to put and support whatever proposal is developed by the indigenous communities by whatever process they choose. If the referendum then gets up, we'll have achieved something worthwhile; if it goes down it will demonstrate how much more we need to do.
Ginger Meggs | 27 July 2015


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up