44. RECOGNITION OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLES IN THE AUSTRALIAN CONSTITUTION (UAICC and UnitingJustice)

Friday, 15 June 2012

In July 2011 the Assembly Standing Committee resolved to require that proposals for changes to the Constitution be submitted 90 days before the Assembly commences and other matters 30 days before the commencement of the Assembly meeting (ASC minute 11.43.07). In November the Standing Committee addressed the issue that the Congress National Conference, which often brings proposals to the triennial Assembly, would not meet in time to achieve these deadlines. The Standing Committee resolved:

 

11.57.02

a) note that the triennial Conference of Congress will be held within one month of the 13th Assembly and therefore it is not possible for Congress to comply with the ASC decision that all proposals must be received no later than one month before the commencement of the Assembly;

 

b) request the Congress National Executive to advise the General Secretary of any proposals that they will be submitting to the triennial Conference that may subsequently come to the 13th Assembly as proposals at least one month before the commencement of the 13th Assembly;

 

c) agree to include in the Agenda of the 13th Assembly any amendments to these proposals that arise from the Conference, or which have not come from the National Executive; and

 

d) request the National Executive to liaise with the General Secretary in future years so that the National Conference can be held at a time that will allow it to comply with the Assembly Standing Committee decision regarding the closing date for proposals to the triennial Assembly.

 

The UAICC advises that the following proposal is taking up the option provided for in ASC minute 11.57.02.

Terence Corkin
Assembly General Secretary

That the Assembly resolve to

1. note the resolution of the 9th Assembly (2000) minute 00.11.05 (d) which called on the Federal Government to provide constitutional acknowledgement of Indigenous peoples as the 'First Peoples' and for the removal of racist provisions in the Constitution;

2. welcome the support of Australia’s major political parties for the constitutional recognition of Australia’s First Peoples and the commitment of the Federal Government to proceed towards a referendum to acknowledge in the Australian Constitution the special place of Australia’s First Peoples;

3. welcome the findings of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians and the key recommendations contained in the report of January 2012;

4. encourage Uniting Church councils, groups and members to engage with education campaigns that serve to highlight the importance of constitutional change for all Australians, reflecting on and sharing our own story of constitutional change as a positive contribution to the public conversation; and

5. call on all Uniting Church councils, boards, agencies and members to support the views of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) on the proposal for changes which will be determined by the Federal Government and taken to the Australian people, acknowledging that a less than satisfactory proposal may not be supported by the UAICC.

Rationale:

When the Australian Constitution was written, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were not included in the conversation about the formation of the nation to be located on their ancestral lands. Not only did the Constitution not recognise the special place of Indigenous Australians as the first peoples of the land, it was discriminatory in a number of ways. The referendum of 1967 (which was passed by the largest majority for any referendum) removed the provision that prohibited Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from being counted in the census and removed a section that prevented the Commonwealth from making laws for Indigenous peoples. Today, however, the Constitution still permits racial discrimination, making Australia the only country with a constitution that allows for prejudice against its Indigenous peoples on the basis of race.

Australia’s First Peoples suffer higher levels of mortality and lower levels of wellbeing compared to non-Indigenous Australians. These statistics are a manifestation of continued social and economic disadvantage, and the legacy of our colonial history. When Indigenous peoples are not acknowledged in a nation’s founding document, there is a negative impact on their sense of identity. It also allows discrimination to linger and erodes the respect of Indigenous peoples within the wider community.

Our Constitution reflects our values, acknowledges our past and provides hope for our future. Recognition and acknowledgement of Australia’s First Peoples, as the world’s longest continuing traditional culture, would demonstrate their valued place in our national identity. It would symbolise the maturity of Australia as a nation and importantly, contribute to raising the self-esteem of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians as well as improving their social and emotional well-being. The state Constitutions of Victoria, Queensland, and New South Wales all formally acknowledge Indigenous Australians.

The importance of the constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians has been long understood by the Uniting Church. At the Ninth Assembly in 2000, the Assembly resolved (minute 00.11.05) to call on the Government to:

(d)(i) provide constitutional acknowledgement and recognition of the status of Indigenous peoples of Australia as ‘First Peoples’;

(ii) provide constitutional recognition of Indigenous rights and remove aspects of the constitution which can be used to discriminate on the basis of race; and

(iii) provide constitutional protection to the Racial Discrimination Act.

In December 2010, the Federal Government established an Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to consult with the community and report on what constitutional changes would be likely succeed at referendum. The Assembly and UAICC made a joint submission to the Panel (September 2011) supporting Constitutional change and responding to options presented in the Discussion Paper. The Panel’s final report, released in January 2012, details a number of recommendations for constitutional change to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including:

  1. removal of section 25 which provides that state governments can prevent people from voting on the basis of their race;
  2. removal of section 51(xxvi) and the introduction of section 51A to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and to preserve the Australian Government’s ability to pass laws for the benefit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;
  3. introduction of section 116A to prohibit racial discrimination; and
  4. introduction of section 127A to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages while confirming that English is Australia’s national language.

The High Level Panel’s Report and recommendations are being considered by the Federal Government, which has the responsibility for proposing the changes that will be considered by the Australian people and drafting the form of words for the referendum question. It is important to recognise that there is the possibility that Indigenous Australians may not be satisfied with the final proposal presented by the Government.

It is critical that the Uniting Church in Australia, its councils, boards and agencies, in the spirit of our covenantal relationship with the UAICC and consistent with the values, beliefs and commitments expressed in the Preamble to our own constitution, seek to uphold any decision the UAICC may make in relation to the adequacy and appropriateness of the changes proposed by the Government which will go to referendum.