Recognising the original people

Public consultations looking at how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples can be recognised in the Australian Constitution are being held around the country, including one in Lismore in late August, as a precursor to a national referendum.

Late last year the Prime Minister appointed a 20-member Expert Panel on the Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians to travel around the country, consult the community and report back to government. The panel includes Page MP Janelle Saffin, Independent MP Rob Oakeshott, Greens Senator Rachel Siewert and Indigenous Liberal MP Ken Wyatt, illustrating the widespread support for Constitutional recognition of the country's first people.

“We're there deliberately, representing all those views… we all think Aboriginal people should be acknowledged in the Constitution, but how they are recognised is why we're doing the public constitutions,” Ms Saffin said.

Ms Saffin said the Australian Constitution, drafted more than a century ago, contains no acknowledgement of Indigenous people. She said not many people realise the Constitution has provisions in it that can discriminate negatively against Aboriginal people and said it was a significant symbolic and practical gesture.

“When you look at the Apology, that really had a positive impact on our community. People I talked to who had never thought about it or thought it would mean anything were quite taken aback about how much it did mean to them in the end,” Janelle said. “I think it's about time for Constitutional recognition… it's the founding political and legal document of our nation, it would be absolutely appropriate to acknowledge, in a very positive way, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”

Ms Saffin said there was a range of ideas on how Constitutional recognition could be achieved – from a preamble to a specific article or both – and the key was to find the right platform that a majority of Australians could agree on.

“(The Constitution) is not easy to change, but when we have changed it by referendum, it's been with an idea that people feel comfortable with,” she said.

A discussion paper has been released as a starting point for the consultations, which sets out background information about the Constitution, how it can be changed and the potential benefits for all Australians from Constitutional recognition.

The discussion paper is available site at People are encouraged to give their views by attending a consultation, writing or emailing a letter, or making a submission via the website.

The panel will make recommendations to the Prime Minister in December on options to change the Constitution.

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