From the Archbishop

It's time to recognise our first peoples


By Archbishop Philip Freier

On 26 October the Australian Government gave its response to the Referendum Council’s report on Constitutional Recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Significantly, it rejected the idea of providing a constitutional “Voice to Parliament” as proposed by the “Uluru Statement from the Heart”. There is a great risk that the importance of the Government’s decision will be lost in the noise of the other political issues in these final months of 2017.

It may be helpful to repeat what I said about constitutional recognition of Australia’s First Nations People at the 2016 Synod. We had learned in August of that year that the proposed referendum on constitutional recognition, scheduled for May 2017, was not going to proceed. Instead, some time in 2018 was proposed as the earliest likely date.

With the Government’s rejection of the Referendum Council’s proposal last month, settling a proposition for a referendum question seems even more distant. I hope that this does not signify a reduced commitment to bring this opportunity for important change before the Australian people. There has been a long history of this issue being deferred.

At the 1999 referendum two questions were considered and both were rejected by the electorate. One was whether to become a republic, the other was whether to insert a preamble to Australia’s Constitution.

The proposed preamble included the words, “Honouring Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, the nation’s first people, for their deep kinship with their lands and for the ancient and continuing cultures which enrich the life of our country”. This proposal to insert a preamble gained only 39% support across the country.

In the negotiations following the inconclusive election of 2010, Prime Minister Julia Gillard promised a referendum on constitutional recognition for Indigenous people before the 2013 election. This never happened. Next, the successful candidate at the 2013 election, Tony Abbott, took to the election a commitment to release a draft proposal for constitutional change within a year of taking office. But once again matters became bogged down and did not proceed.

Further dates that received earlier political support, when proposed, soon passed, especially the highly symbolic date of 27 May 2017, the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum that gave the Commonwealth powers to make laws that were specific to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Back in October 2016 I said: “In my view it is highly likely that Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people will want any constitutional change to confer on the Commonwealth treaty-making powers with the First Nations people of Australia. This will be controversial and will need strong bipartisan commitment between government and opposition parties to gain the public’s confidence.”

We need to do all we can to encourage our politicians to unite around the cause for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It is an important reform that cannot be allowed to drift indefinitely. It is a reform that also needs the highest confidence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to succeed.

Read more from Dr Philip Freier, Anglican Primate of Australia and Archbishop of Melbourne, at