Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


The Uluru Statement, the Constitution and the Election

  • 06 May 2022
Whoever is Prime Minister after the election on May 21, he will need to address the question of Indigenous recognition in the Australian Constitution. This is the sixth election in a row when the question has been a live, unresolved issue during the election campaign. The patience of Indigenous leaders is understandably wearing thin. Trust is waning. There is still no clear path ahead. So where to from here? First a little history of the previous five election campaigns and their aftermaths, and then some pointers to a way forward for whoever wins the election. No matter who wins, there can be no prospect of constitutional change unless those on both sides of the parliamentary chambers agree.

In the week before the dissolution of the House of Representatives and the issuing of the writs for the 2007 election, Prime Minister John Howard announced:

‘If re-elected, I will put to the Australian people within 18 months a referendum to formally recognise Indigenous Australians in our Constitution – their history as the first inhabitants of our country, their unique heritage of culture and languages, and their special (though not separate) place within a reconciled, indivisible nation. My goal is to see a new Statement of Reconciliation incorporated into the Preamble of the Australian Constitution. If elected, I would commit immediately to working in consultation with Indigenous leaders and others on this task. It would reflect my profound sentiment that Indigenous Australians should enjoy the full bounty that this country has to offer; that their economic, social and cultural well-being should be comparable to that of other Australians. I would aim to introduce a bill that would include the Preamble Statement into Parliament within the first 100 days of a new government. A future referendum question would stand alone. It would not be blurred or cluttered by other constitutional considerations. I would seek to enlist wide community support for a “Yes” vote. I would hope and aim to secure the sort of overwhelming vote achieved 40 years ago at the 1967 referendum.’[1]

Howard lost the election. His declaration remains the high water mark of what has been promised by any Liberal prime minister on the issue of Indigenous constitutional recognition. But he did confine himself only to the prospect of a preamble being inserted into the Constitution, what nowadays is labelled as minimal symbolic change. He never envisaged more substantive change to the Constitution. Kevin Rudd