Constitution needs to include Australia’s first chapter
Lowitja O’Donoghue, Chairperson of the first elected representative body, National Aboriginal Consultative Committee, with her deputy, Jim Hagan (second from left) and another NACC representative with the Governor General Sir Zelman Cown in 1978. The NACC discussed constitutional word changes as well as the Makarrata (Treaty) during their term. Image supplied
by Aden Ridgeway
I was born when Aboriginal people did not have the vote. It wasn’t until I turned five that any of us were counted as citizens. I grew up on an Aboriginal reserve, where most of the major decisions in our lives were controlled by white authorities. It can be hard, particularly for younger generations of Australians, to reconcile that such things happened so recently in our history. It seems such a far cry from where many of us are today. But I am barely into my 50s. Things have come a long way since the 1960s. But it’s important to understand that many Aboriginal people have experienced such exclusion. This is a story of change within our lifetime. Our task of putting these things right as a nation is not yet complete, because the constitution still does
not acknowledge the existence of the first Australians. It has not yet said: yes, you were here. It is also silent on the entire first chapter of Australia’s history. The one that reaches back tens of thousands of years and connects every Australian today - black or white - with the oldest living culture in human history. Our founding document still contains traces of the views that allowed the first Australians to be denied a vote in our own land. Those views are there in section 25, which says the states can ban a whole race of people from voting. They are also there in the ‘’race power’’, which lets governments make laws that can discriminate in any way against a whole race. I abhor the fact these provisions still exist. We need to fix this. I am not a newcomer to this
cause. The other day I came across a couple of old boxes in my garage. They contained my working papers from 1999, when Gatjil Djerrkura, Lowitja O’Donoghue and I consulted the then prime minister John Howard about the wording of a preamble to our constitution that would acknowledge the first Australians. Alas, that proposal sank along with the republic referendum. But many Indigenous Australians, and indeed Howard himself, continued to press the importance of constitutional recognition. Howard rededicated himself to the task in 2007, and it has long been the policy for parties across the political spectrum. Constitutional recognition would allow the first chapter in the Australian story to be acknowledged and heard. It would do this not just for Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander people but also for everyone else, because this is part of the shared story of every Australian. New Zealanders perform the haka before rugby matches, with Maori and white players joined in a celebration of their Indigenous culture. It is my hope that we can aspire to something just as uplifting here. That starts with having a constitution that proclaims how proud we all are of our long and impressive Indigenous history. When we talk about the things that bring Australians together, this is one that ought to be on the list. It is up there along with sportsmanship, fairness, egalitarianism, democracy and being a place that embraces people from all nations. This is part of that distinctive Australian identity. This is also about speaking three great truths. We were always here - and the great lie of ‘’terra nullius’’ is no
more. We have not come here as immigrants - whether by the first boat or the last. And we are still here and will be in the future. We make an enormous contribution to the modern nation and Australia’s national identity. Wednesday’s Act of Recognition passed in Parliament, signals the determination of political leaders of all hues to support recognition of the first Australians. It does not itself trigger a referendum. But the legislation has a twoyear sunset clause, which urges the nation to get cracking to create the preconditions for a successful ‘’Yes’’ vote. I want to see that day come sooner rather than later. I want Australians to have a chance to put right the final piece of work left from the 1967 referendum, when we removed from our constitution the ban on Aboriginal people being counted as citizens.
Back then, more than 90 per cent of the people voted to count us in. Now it’s time to write us in. Because that moment in 1967 forever changed the life of a fiveyear-old boy on the Bellwood Aboriginal mission at Nambucca - even if the neighbouring town of Kempsey recorded the highest ‘’no’’ vote in the country. He became a senator. I want every five-year-old child to know not only that they now count, but also that Australia sees their culture as an enormous source of pride. Former NSW senator Aden Ridgeway is a spokesman for Recognise, the movement to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the constitution. This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and is republished with the permission of the author.