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Turnbull misses opportunity to progress Aboriginal rights

  • 02 November 2017


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.

The 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