Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory understand that the Australian Constitution matters. They have experienced law-making power being used for and against their interests. They have seen that legal recognition can make a difference to their lives. Aboriginal people know first-hand that laws which discriminate against them on the basis of their race remain possible under Australia’s existing constitutional arrangements.
From Aboriginal peoples experience with Commonwealth Ordinances in the protectionist and assimilation eras, through the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, the Native Title Act and the Northern Territory Intervention, Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory know that getting the right legal balance in the Constitution between the rights of people and the powers of government is essential. APO NT also acknowledges that Australia has not yet achieved that proper balance. Laws have been made with insufficient respect for Aboriginal people, their rights and capabilities. The gains that have made in the recognition of Aboriginal rights and culture are often vulnerable to being reversed or diminished.
The unfortunate truth is that racism was a feature of law and politics in the 1890s when the Australian Constitution was drafted. Things have moved on. Australia has committed itself internationally to respect basic human rights. Its courts and parliaments have taken some steps to reverse dispossession and recognise Aboriginal property rights. The government has agreed to the principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Prime Minister led the Parliament in 2008 in a national apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Unfortunately, the Constitution has not kept pace with these positive developments. In particular, it permits unilateral and discriminatory action which is not only flawed in principle but leads to bad policy and poor implementation. The most effective path to progress in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs lies in a shared commitment to solving problems, based on mutual respect and all sides taking responsibility for what they can improve.
Constitutional change is needed to support this goal. This would carry forward the work commenced by the 1967 Referendum but left unfinished – eliminating racial discrimination in the Constitution and helping to build a future based on acknowledgment, respect and negotiation. A renewed Constitution could engender national pride in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage in a way that all Australians can share.
For more information, see:
- APO NT submission to the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians, submitted 3 September 2011
- APO NT Submission to the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, submitted 24 February 2015
2017, marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Referendum.