Mattias Åhrén; OUP, 2016; 288 pages; £70 (hardback)
Constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples has been on the political agenda since 2010. Despite the various reports by Parliamentary and expert bodies, recognition in state constitutions and by the Commonwealth Parliament, and considerable public support, constitutional change appears distant. In December 2015 another body, the Referendum Council, was established to ‘advise … on progress and next steps towards a referendum’. Once tentatively scheduled for May 2017, that vote is now unlikely to occur before 2018. No government has committed to a specific proposal and debate still rages on the precise content and form of recognition.
Mattias Åhrén’s exceptional new book on the status of indigenous peoples under international law does not refer to Australia’s haphazard and belated approach to recognition, or our stalled reconciliation process, but it does provide an illuminating, albeit sobering, reality check on the conceptual limits of non-Indigenous Australians. Debate over constitutional recognition, hemmed in, as it is, by both constitutional conservatives and the difficulties involved in threading the s 128 needle, occurs almost entirely in the absence of developments in international law. As Åhrén ably explains, a paradigm shift within international law has transformed a legal construct created to legitimate colonisation into one of indigenous peoples’ closest allies (pp 119, 232). Closer examination of the rights of indigenous peoples under international law lays bare the deficiencies in current debate on constitutional change.