“Father of Reconciliation” Patrick Dodson has expressed disappointment about the need for “yet another education process” to inform the public about the need to support constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Speaking at the West Kimberley Youth Sector Conference at Notre Dame University, the Yawuru leader spoke out after Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin introduced into parliament the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012 to commit the Government to pursuing change.
In September, the Federal Government shelved plans to hold a referendum until there was more community support. Originally, Labor had promised to address the issue before the Federal election, due on or before November 30, 2013.
Ms Macklin said the Act demonstrated the Government’s commitment to the task.
“The Australian Constitution is the foundation document for our laws and our government, but it is silent on the special place of our first Australians,” she said.
Mr Dodson, who chaired the expert panel on the issue, said the Bill was not a substitute for constitutional recognition, but at least committed Federal Parliament to dealing with the issue in a set time frame.
“We had a Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, the Bringing them Home report – we’ve had I don’t know how many inquiries and reports mirroring back to us in Australia ... who the indigenous peoples are,” Mr Dodson said.
“Our history is appalling – and if you seriously want to understand some of it, read the report from the expert panel.
“Now we have to embark on yet another high level education process so that the Australian public will understand what these propositions are to be supported.”
The expert panel, chaired by Mr Dodson, recommended removing Section 51(26) which allows laws on the basis of race, and replacing it with Section 51A, allowing laws to be made for Aboriginal people.
Another new section, 116A, would prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity or nationality but not preclude laws to overcome inequality or past discrimination. Section 25, which allows States to disenfranchise people based on their race, would also be scrapped.
Mr Dodson said at present, a fear of indigenous people and other “people of colour” underpinned the constitution. Changing it would not afford the Aboriginal people any special rights but would allow past injustices to be redressed, he said.
Ms Macklin said in line with the expert panel’s suggestions, the Act recognised the “unique and special” place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as Australia’s first inhabitants and their history, culture and connection to traditional lands and waters.
With a sunset clause of two years, its sets an 18 month deadline for consultation on the expert panel’s suggested changes and other proposals for change.
A joint select committee would also be established to build support across Parliament for successful passage of the Bill, Ms Macklin said.
She said the government did not underestimate the challenge of achieving nation-wide consensus: “Change will not happen without support from across the political spectrum and the support of the majority of Australians,” she said.
Mr Dodson also noted the history of referendums in Australia was “abysmal” and agreed that unless it had bi-partisan support it was destined to fail.