In her speech supporting the then Bill, Prime Minister Julia Gillard referred to ‘the “great Australian silence” which fell upon our founding document’ as ‘the unhealed wound that even now lies open at the heart of our national story’. The Act commenced on 4 April 2013.
The Act is unusually short, with only 5 sections; its preamble is nearly as long as its two substantive sections. Section 3 recognises that Australia was ‘first occupied’ by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, acknowledges the ‘continuing relationship’ of Indigenous people with ‘their lands and waters’ and ‘acknowledges and respects the continuing cultures, languages and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’.
Section 4 requires the responsible Minister to review the proposals of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as well as other proposals, and assess the level of community support for constitutional reform within 12 months of commencement.
Section 5 establishes a two year sunset clause in order to put in place ‘a clear timeframe to build towards change and ensures the focus remains on the ultimate goal of constitutional recognition’.
There are some positive aspects to this Act: it offers recognition of the history, culture, languages and heritage of Indigenous Australians, but in no way protects Indigenous Australians’ rights and relationships to land, language and culture. The Act anticipates the process of constitutional reform, and its passage through the lower house was celebrated with bipartisan support and the involvement of Indigenous and non-Indigenous representatives; the work of the Expert Panel was also acknowledged.
We now have two years to discuss and debate the question of how best to promote constitutional recognition of Australia’s Indigenous peoples. Promotion of the recognition referendum is being co-ordinated through the ‘Recognise’ organisation, see <http://www.recognise.org.au>.
MELISSA CASTAN teaches law at Monash University.