Soon Australians will be able to consider the Referendum Council’s report, the culmination of almost two years of work on what form constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders should take. The process has been ongoing for almost 10 years with no referendum proposal on the table. The council was established by Malcolm Turnbull almost two years ago to bring the nation closer to a referendum.
Australians should be proud of this rare exercise in direct democracy, which enabled first peoples and the wider community to provide their views on the range of proposals that emerged during the past decade. If we take our baseline as the exclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders before Federation in 1901, this is the first input first peoples have had in our constitutional arrangements. The dialogues convened by the Referendum Council asked first peoples want they want, and to grapple with the legal and political challenges facing constitutional change within our system. The process was unprecedented.
During the past six months, 13 regions in Australia spent their weekends speaking about what meaningful constitutional recognition means on the ground. Led by Pat Anderson and Megan Davis, Referendum Council teams travelled to Hobart, Broome, Dubbo, Darwin, Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, Cairns, Ross River, Adelaide, Brisbane, Thursday Island and Canberra.
We heard unequivocally that mere symbolism in the Constitution is not desired by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people but rather practical and pragmatic reform that could make a difference to the lives of Australia’s original and most disadvantaged group. The regional dialogues said they wanted to take responsibility and control over their lives and decisions made about them. These decisions are taken by politicians and public servants in Canberra and the capital cities.
This desire for empowerment was best explained by our Referendum Council colleague Galarrwuy Yunupingu, who wrote: “What Aboriginal people ask is that the modern world now makes the sacrifices necessary to give us a real future. To relax its grip on us. To let us breathe, to let us be free of the determined control exerted on us to make us like you. And you should take that a step further and recognise us for who we are, and not who you want us to be. Let us be who we are — Aboriginal people in a modern world — and be proud of us. Acknowledge that we have survived the worst that the past had thrown at us, and we are here with our songs, our ceremonies, our land, our language and our people — our full identity. What a gift this is that we can give you, if you choose to accept us in a meaningful way.”
The Uluru Statement from the Heart was issued by the representatives of the First Nations Dialogues gathered at Uluru on the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum. It was a message to the Australian people of a vision for what responsibility looks like. Like most Australians, we find governments and public servants don’t always listen and don’t often take into account what is best for us. This is why Uluru called for a mechanism that would allow us to participate more directly in decision-making in Canberra.
Marcia Langton once famously said: “Kids can’t eat the Constitution.” Nowhere in the world has symbolic constitutional change led to substantive change on the ground.
We know Aussies already reject this wishful thinking: they did in 1999 when a preamble was put to them.
Similarly, during the expert panel consultations in 2012, non-indigenous Australians said they wanted concrete change that would close the gap, not token, symbolic changes. The idea that Australians would support symbolism, without controversy, in the face of extreme Aboriginal disadvantage on the ground, is mistaken.
Australians have already rejected a symbolic preamble in the 1999 referendum. The regional dialogues convened by the Referendum Council demonstrated the rejection of symbolism by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Instead, they want a voice in the nation and to the parliament. It must be a fearless and active voice, participating robustly in the democratic life of the commonwealth. It must be a responsible voice, always seeking to make laws better, to make policies more effective, and to influence the design of programs and initiatives to close the gap on disadvantage and banish misery.
With power will come responsibility. With responsibility will come accountability. Because it will not be possible for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to assume responsibility for laws, policies and programs in partnership with governments, without also being accountable for the outcomes. It can’t be all care, no responsibility. Self-determination and self-management will mean that failure will be ours as much as success.
Read again the words of Yunupingu. Recognition has never been put more eloquently: let us be a modern version of ourselves. We know we need education, economic development and individual freedom as well as communal cultures and the gifts of our heritage. Give us the space to enjoy the best of both worlds, to hold to our traditions while embracing the future.
It is time for Australians to believe in ourselves, and to tell our story anew. For those who will constantly remind us of the truth of the difficulties facing a referendum, we say we know we are climbing Mount Everest. The path ahead is filled with peril and uncertainty. But we know this mountain has a pathway to the summit.
The devils of fear and loathing must yield to the better angels of our nature. The report of the Referendum Council has now identified the path to success.
Megan Davis is a professor of law and pro vice-chancellor at the University of NSW; Noel Pearson is director of the Cape York Institute; and Pat Anderson is the co-chairwoman of the Referendum Council.