The Bill recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as Australia’s first people and declares the government’s commitment to obtain broad national support for constitutional recognition within two years of the Bill’s passage through Parliament. This approach was supported by the Joint Committee, notwithstanding the Bill contains a sunset clause, although the Committee also supported the proposed review at the end of that period. This review is to include recommendations for a future parliament to consider how to best frame referendum questions in order to achieve the desired constitutional amendment.
While the Bill is a positive step towards constitutional recognition, it does not clearly set out how the Commonwealth government intends to engage meaningfully with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to determine the best model for change. It is also concerning that the Bill sets the focus on constitutional recognition of Australia’s first people rather than the full suite of measures proposed by the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, appointed by the Commonwealth government. After a lengthy public consultation period, the Expert Panel made a number of recommendations in its January 2012 report including removing sections 25 and 51 (xxvi) of the Constitution, the ‘race powers’, and recommended a new section be introduced prohibiting racial discrimination.
MADELEINE FORSTER is a lawyer presently seconded to the Human Rights Law Centre in Melbourne.