Indigenous leader Noel Pearson is lending his support to the idea of a separate declaration of recognition as a symbolic statement to run alongside any amendments to the Australian constitution to recognise Indigenous Australians.
The proposal put forward by lawyers Julian Leeser and Damien Freeman would see Australians vote on a 300-word historical and aspirational statement, similar to that of the US Declaration of Independence.
The concept is aimed at engaging with constitutional conservatives, who fear that major changes to the constitution, especially to the preamble, would have unintentional legal consequences.
Mr Leeser, former executive director of the Menzies Research Centre, and self-described constitutional conservative, said the idea was borne out of concerns about some of the proposals being put forward.
“Referenda fail when they do not engage with constitutional conservatives,” Mr Lesser said.
“So we wanted to come up with a proposal that would provide a more generous form of recognition that wouldn’t have any of the downsides that putting symbolic or historical matters would do in the Australian constitution.”
“It’s a heavily contested space and the best thing that the declaration of recognition does in this space, is that it really, culturally, in people’s hearts and minds through repetition at those great national events, places Indigenous people at the front of our thoughts and places them at the centre of our policy making.”
Noel Pearson, from the Cape York Institute said a declaration would allow for a more generous statement of recognition than what could conceivably be contained in the constitution.
“It can in fact be a more handsome document. It could in fact have more poetry than a kind of miserable reading of a few sentences about acknowledging the Indigenous history of this country and so on,” he said.
Declaration could enter fabric of national culture
Mr Pearson said it would be a statement that could be recited in schools, at national events and become part of the national fabric of the country, similar to New Zealand’s Waitangi treaty.
He is also calling for an amendment to allow the formation of a national Indigenous advisory body that he said would give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a voice in the legislative process.
“It’s very important that everyone understands that this declaration is just one of a three or four part package that needs to go forward,” Mr Pearson said.
But Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda said constitutional reform is the only way to truly recognise Indigenous Australians.
“We’ve described it as the birth certificate of the nation,” he said.
“It is the law out of which all other law in this country comes from and to be recognised in that document is probably the ultimate form of recognition.”
The Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition is due to report to Parliament by June.