Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Turnbull misses opportunity to progress Aboriginal rights



In May 2017, a historic convention was held in Alice Springs to discuss Indigenous constitutional recognition. Hundreds of Indigenous people from around Australia were invited by the government to attend a summit at Uluru to consider whether a referendum on constitutional recognition was needed, and what it would look like.

Left to right: Megan Davis, June Oscar, Pat Anderson, Sally Scales, Irene Davey. Pat is holding the Uluru statement with coolamon given to her by the Anangu community. Australian Human Rights CommissionThe meeting resulted in a consensus that there needed to be a representational body for Indigenous people in the Australian Parliament. In order to have good policy and good laws enacted by our Parliament, Indigenous peoples needed to have a genuine voice within our democratic system.

This was the first time in 20 years that this topic was put on the agenda for serious debate. It could well have been the catalyst to progress as a nation, by having the place of an Indigenous representative body enshrined in the Australian Constitution.

The verdict came on 26 October 2017, when Prime Minister Turnbull announced that 'the Government does not believe such a radical change to our constitution's representative institutions has any realistic prospect of being supported by a majority of Australians in a majority of states'.

By contrast, in August 2017, Turnbull announced he would hold a non-compulsory postal vote on same sex marriage legislation. The cost of the survey to the Australian taxpayer was forecast to be $122m.

This could have been considered radical; certainly it was controversial for some, and offensive to others. At the very least it has provided a great distraction for the government, as we have had very little reported on Indigenous recognition since the Summit concluded, while commentary on same sex marriage has been constant on every media platform.

Why go to the trouble of gathering all the great minds to discuss the issue of recognition, giving hope to a great many people, only to determine the idea 'too ambitious'? What right does Turnbull have to predetermine what Australians will or won't accept? This question could be put to Australians in a referendum.


"Closing the Gap targets will not be met when evidence and policy collide and systemic indifference exists."


Both issues are complex and controversial. They both raise human rights and constitutional law issues, as well as a raft of social, religious, moral and political questions. Certainly one is easier to implement than the other.

Experiences in other countries suggest that mainstream parliamentary systems rarely display a strong record of incorporating indigenous peoples into their process. To address this, four main approaches have been developed:

1. Designated seats for Indigenous peoples, such as those adopted by New Zealand for Maori and the US State of Maine for First Nations peoples;

2. Separate indigenous parliaments, such as those adopted by Finland, Norway and Sweden for Sami peoples;

3. Electoral reform making parliament more accessible to minorities, such as that adopted by New Zealand; and

4. An approach incorporating education to the wider public about indigenous issues, and positive discrimination in relation to the preselection of indigenous candidates, such as those proposed by successive reports in Australia.

We only need to look at our neighbour to see what can be achieved. Like Australia, New Zealand has a substantial population of indigenous people. Unlike Australia, New Zealand has had dedicated parliamentary seats for indigenous representatives since the 1860s. New Zealand achieved parity between the proportion of Maori in its population and the proportion of Maori representatives in parliament following the 2002 national elections.

The Treaty of Waitangi is a means of recognition. It is seen as a formal expression and guarantee of the continuing viability of the relationship it describes between Maori and non-Maori. Dedicated seats symbolise 'a recognition of the position of the Maori people as a Treaty partner in the enterprise of national government'.

It is this distinction between the level and nature of Indigenous representation in parliament that has significant implications for the debate on dedicated Indigenous seats in Australia.

The recent, ninth Closing the Gap report highlighted the need to accelerate progress. It is a report card on how we as a nation are meeting our responsibilities in improving outcomes for Indigenous Australians. The Closing the Gap targets address health, education and employment, and provide an important snapshot of where progress is being made and where further efforts are needed.

There were minimal improvements across a few of the targets, however these improvements are not enough to meet the majority of the outcomes set by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). The targets set in the areas of child mortality, life expectancy, education and employment were not met. And they will not be met, when evidence and policy collide and systemic indifference exists.

In a year where Australia celebrated several significant Indigenous anniversaries  — the 1967 Referendum, the 1992 Mabo decision and the 2008 Apology — we could have added Indigenous recognition to the list. It is time to stop being tokenistic in matters to do with Indigenous affairs and to genuinely consider partnership options.

We must continue to preserve and respect Indigenous cultures for this generation and the future and we must acknowledge the impact of past policies on our First Australians, and work to heal the wounds of the past. The challenge continues for all who are trying to advance social inclusion in our work places, lives and society.



Anastasia MooreAnastasia Moore is a Project Officer for the Australian Province of the Society of Jesus working on the Society's engagement with issues related to Aboriginal Australians. Previously she worked with the Department of Justice on various social justice projects, and spent over 12 years living and working in remote NT Aboriginal communities, performing a variety of roles for local government.

Main image, left to right: Megan Davis, June Oscar, Pat Anderson, Sally Scales, Irene Davey. Pat is holding the Uluru statement with coolamon given to her by the Anangu community. Australian Human Rights Commission via Flickr

Topic tags: Anastasia Moore, Aboriginal Australians, constitutional recognition, Malcolm Turnbull, marriage equality



submit a comment

Existing comments

Poor Malcolm: damned by the Left if he does, damned if he doesn’t. Why can’t Catherine Marshall’s words in ‘Voting yes to black and gay rights’ (“When else would we allow one group of people to judge and evaluate another in so public, so humiliating, so divisive a way?.... And in years to come, we will hopefully all recognise … the utter absurdity of asking one group of people to determine the fundamental human rights of another”) also apply to an ATSI referendum in which white, yellow and brown Australians will be judging and evaluating what some black Australians consider to be their fundamental human rights? If judging sexual minorities by referendum or opinion poll is wrong, so too must judging ethnic minorities. Actually, if the Left had remembered to be consistent with their anti-Lionel Shriver reasoning, they would have demanded that only lesbians and gays should have been polled by the ABS and only ATSIs should vote in a referendum. Turnbull is being prudent. There is a good chance that the non-ATSI majority, following the usual trend in constitutional referenda for buyer’s caution to prevail, will balk at the Voice to Parliament idea.

Roy Chen Yee | 05 November 2017  

Perhaps we should be more careful of making the comparison between the situation in New Zealand and that in Australia. The history is very different. The Treaty of Waitangi, for example, is a treaty in the way most of us understand it. Not sure that a treaty would be well understood in Australia. Maybe Turnbull is right to wait. It doesn't seem that the consensus is strong enough even in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia.

Joan Seymour | 06 November 2017  

Totally agree with this article. People are more important than referendums on same sex partners. Get with it Australian's Malcolm Turnbull and your party needs to be more proactive in this to get you to believe all people should have rights regardless of colour.

Champion, Noeline | 06 November 2017  

'In order to have good policy and good laws enacted in our parliament, Indigenous people needed to have a genuine voice within our democratic system'. For the word 'Indigenous' read Chinese, Greek , Italian, Anglo-Saxon, Catholic, Jewish or any other ethnic or religious group that makes up the multicultural fabric of this country in the real world. All of these, including the indigenous community, already have a voice in our parliament. That voice comes from having not only the right, but also, the compulsion under penalty for default, to vote in the election of the parliament. If the Indigenous people want more say in the parliament do as some members of their community have done for years - get the free education available, work hard, join a political party and run for election. Like it or lump it, Australia is now a multicultural country and that is not going to change. There are many members of the Australian community who have no say in the parliament. Witness the wishes of 70% of multicultural Australia who believe we should treat refugees and same sex couples differently. Do we thus need a specific refugee voice and a specific same sex voice (through a change in the constitution) to recognise that in the parliament? Or is that another fairy-tale? The Emperor's New Clothes.

john frawley | 06 November 2017  

Anastasia Moore is correct. Malcolm Turnbull has missed many opportunities to progress the rights of Australia's indigenous peoples. Malcolm Turnbull poses as being one of the more liberal members of the LNP Coalition, but has certainly not lived up to this claim. He is being held captive by the extreme right led by Tony Abbott. Since the abolition of ATSIC in 2005, there have been no moves to establish a body to represent the various Aboriginal nations around the country. It was good that Kevin Rudd made the apology to the Stolen Generation in 2008, but his government and those of Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull have done little to provide a body that allows Aboriginal people to liaise with federal and state governments about programs to assist them. NZ's Waitangi Treaty , while not perfect, has helped to gain greater rights for the Maori people in NZ. Aboriginal people have been calling for a treaty and to be recognised in the Constitution for some time. It is a positive thing to see several Aborigines being elected into Australian parliaments, but they will be restrained from pushing for better programs for their people because of party priorities. We need a treaty, a body to represent Aboriginal people, recognition in our Constitution and much greater Government support for the Reconciliation process.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 06 November 2017  

Let me get this right: Government invites aboriginal people to attend summit at Uluru; Hundreds make effort to travel, camp, discuss and reach consensus; PM decides outcome is not going to be accepted by majority of Australian people. I suggest many of us migrant Australians (and we are all migrants or the descendants of migrants) would welcome fleshing out the Apology by allowing a representational body of Indigenous people in Parliament. Actions speak louder than words.

Marjo Chambers | 06 November 2017  

Very well balanced comments Anastasia. It is a great pity that for someone who has 'talked the talk' as a 'somewhat progressive' in the LNP Coalition, Malcolm Turnbull continues to 'give in' to the conservatives of the right wing. Whilst there may have been some deficiencies in what was proposed, it was certainly a step in the right direction, a direction that has now been derailed.

Wayne Brabin | 06 November 2017  

Malcolm Turnbull, the legitimately elected Prime Minister and his government, were not elected primarily to deal with a number of discrete issues but to govern this country in the interests of all. It has been incredibly hard for him to do this for a number of reasons, many not of his own making. There are many in the public sphere, including the commentariat, who want to bring him and the elected government down. I mistrust some of their motives. There are numerous problems confronting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, as well as all their other fellow Australians from every race and creed. There is no simple, easily applicable solution to any of these. Not all ATSI people, including Warren Mundine, agree with the proposed solution which came out of Uluru. There are very powerful voices agitating for this solution to be taken up, including that of Noel Pearson and it is becoming increasingly politically incorrect for anyone to disagree with it. When this happens I become afraid that we are in danger of being bludgeoned into a corner by the forces of moral totalitarianism which are an anathema to any free society. We need to talk sensibly. Now.

Edward Fido | 07 November 2017  

Similar Articles

Postal survey ends don't justify means

  • Neve Mahoney
  • 15 November 2017

In the ensuing debate, we shouldn't let ourselves forget that this postal vote never should have happened in the first place, and nothing like this should happen again to any minority group. The public voting yes or no on human rights is not what democracy looks like.


Left fails to confront S.44's racist legacy

  • Celeste Liddle
  • 13 November 2017

It seemed enough for many 'progressives' that the majority of the people who had fallen by the dual citizenship wayside were Coalition members, with the added bonus of Malcolm Roberts. I began to wonder why what is essentially an issue of racism and discrimination was not considered a priority for those who state they believe in social justice.