Remove Racism of a Previous Era from the Heart of our Constitution

The Australian

By Graham Bradley
Former President, Business Council of Australia

In June last year, China’s Vice-President Xi Jinping – the man in line to become the next president of the world’s most populous emerging superpower – came to Canberra with a 200-strong delegation of Chinese business and government leaders. On his way back to Beijing, he stopped in Darwin and took his entourage to visit Kakadu to see the Aboriginal art.

During the Vice-President’s visit to Canberra, I had the privilege, as Business Council of Australia president, of co-chairing a round table with senior Australian and Chinese business leaders, and reporting back to the Vice-President. When he told of his plan to visit Kakadu, I was surprised, and asked him why. His answer spoke volumes. He said Darwin was the only mainland capital he had not yet visited. And, he added, when Governor-General Quentin Bryce visited Beijing recently, she presented some beautiful pieces of Aboriginal art. He wanted to see where they came from.

This story should resonate for us on many levels. It says much about how we are seen by our largest trading partner. First, China’s likely next president has now visited every mainland capital. Second, his interest in Australia goes well beyond trade and extends to curiosity about Australia’s culture, including our indigenous culture. Third, it reminds us how closely our Aboriginal culture and art are now viewed as integral to Australia’s national identity in the eyes of the world.

Most Australians take this third point for granted. We celebrate the cultures of our Aboriginal people in countless ways, on a daily basis, just as we take pride in our outstanding Aboriginal athletes, entertainers, artists, writers and community leaders.
That is why many people are shocked to learn that the Constitution – the foundation document of our federal democracy – gives no acknowledgment to the place of Aboriginal people in our national life, and continues to contain race-based clauses that are a throwback to the late 19th century, when the Constitution was framed in a social climate vastly different from ours, a climate of racism and intolerance that we today find alien and abhorrent. It was an era when Aboriginal people and cultures were afforded little or no respect or appreciation.

In December last year, I was appointed by the Prime Minister to a 22-person panel to advise how constitutional recognition of the traditional owners of the continent and waters we now call Australia could be achieved. In January next year, we will present our report on options for change that we believe will contribute to a more united and reconciled nation, and have the best chance of succeeding in the face of the poor track record of constitutional referendums in the past 110 years.

The panel was established with multi-party, in-principle support for constitutional change. Our public consultations have taken place across the country, in remote communities as well as regional towns and every capital city.

Together with almost 3500 public submissions they have indicated overwhelming support for removing the last vestiges of racism from the Constitution and for embedding in it a protection, for the benefit of all Australians, against discrimination on the basis of race, colour, or ethnic or national origins.

Indeed, many people are surprised and disappointed that this work is still unfinished, believing that the 1967 referendum –  the most strongly supported referendum in Australia’s history  –  had already removed discrimination from the Constitution. While the 1967 referendum removed some elements of discrimination, it did not expunge Section 25, a clause that contemplates the possibility that state governments might exclude people from voting on the basis of race, and did not eliminate the concept of race from Section 51(xxvi), which gives the commonwealth authority to make laws that discriminate among citizens purely on the basis of race.

In considering the panel’s report next year, the parliament must reflect carefully on the propositions it wishes to put to the electorate and also on the timing and context for such a referendum. No referendum will succeed without support from both main parties, from minor parties, Aboriginal groups and their leaders, and from community leaders generally, coupled with a well-conducted public education program. There is always a risk that the reforms proposed, no matter how widely supported they are now in public opinion polls, do not receive the overwhelming support they deserve. Surely all would agree that failure of an anti-discrimination referendum would be a big step back in the great strides that have been made in recent years to create a more reconciled Australian community, particularly after the national apology in 2008.

In these pages recently, Gary Johns rightly underscored the importance of improving education outcomes for young Aboriginal people. But he was wrongly dismissive of the value, both symbolic and practical, of constitutional recognition in contributing to the self-esteem and social wellbeing of the 2.5 per cent of the Australian people who identify as Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. He misses the importance of bringing our Constitution into the 21st century, free from racism, not just in the eyes of our own citizens but the eyes of the world.

But Johns is right about this: it will be education and employment that will contribute most practically to the economic wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This came home to me last August when I attended the Garma Aboriginal Festival in eastern Arnhem Land, and saw first-hand the local communities celebrating in dance and song the achievements of four Yolgnu men for being awarded their forestry graduation certificates.

It will be education and employment that ultimately frees our Aboriginal fellow citizens from the poverty trap. Full and equal recognition in our Constitution will do much to lift their sights and aspirations to contribute as an equal and valued part of the Australian community.

Graham Bradley is a member of the federal government Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians.