At the centre of contemporary debate on constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It is a request for constitutional and structural reform, issued to the Australian people by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates attending the First Nations Constitutional Convention on 27 May 2017: 50 years after the successful 1967 Referendum removed exclusionary references to Aboriginal people in the Constitution.
The 1967 referendum gave the Commonwealth Parliament powers to make laws for Aboriginal people. But it rendered the Constitution entirely silent with respect to the place of First Nations people. They were left vulnerable to adverse discrimination and lacking a reliable mechanism to have input into laws and policies affecting them.
For decades, First Nations people appealed to politicians for structural reforms to alter the dynamics of policy development and law-making. These included the Barunga Statement in 1988 from people of the Northern Territory, presented to Prime Minister Bob Hawke; ATSIC’s 1995 Recognition Rights and Reform report, produced for a government Social Justice Package that was never delivered; and the final recommendations in 2000 of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation from ten years of consultation.
Liberal Prime Minister John Howard sparked the contemporary debate regarding constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in 2007, as the first of seven successive Prime Ministers from both sides of politics who committed themselves to constitutional recognition. An Expert Panel appointed by the Labor Gillard Government delivered a package of referendum proposals in 2012 including protection against racial discrimination, but there was immediate scepticism from the Opposition, and the Government never formally responded to the Panel report.
The issue was referred to working groups and parliamentary committees. Eventually, a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders issued the Kirribilli Statement in 2015 calling for direct engagement with their communities and substantive not minimalist reform. Soon after, Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull established a Referendum Council. Its Indigenous Steering Committee devised a deliberative consultation process, known as the Regional Dialogues, that culminated in a First Nations National Constitutional Convention at Uluru. The purpose was to consult with a diverse group of First Nations people from across the country to determine their response to reform proposals and ask participants what meaningful constitutional recognition was for them.
- This contribution has been drawn from Jason O’Neil, Diana Perche, James Murphy, & Peter John Chen (eds) The First Nations Voice Referendum: A Teaching Resource for Politics, International Relations and Public Policy (2023)