Recognising Indigenous Australians in the Constitution

A time for change

Many Australians would be surprised to learn that the Australian Constitution does not recognise its Indigenous people, or provide them with any rights or protection. The issue has been brought to the forefront recently, with the Australian Government opening discussions which may pave the way for change.

Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, has convened an Expert Panel to lead discussion on how to bring the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to fruition. The panel is undertaking extensive consultation with the Australian community and will report their findings in December this year. A constitutional referendum is likely to follow.

"The role of the Expert Panel is crucial because it gives everyone a say on how we might be able  to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our nation's founding document – the Constitution," says Co-Chair of the Panel and Melbourne Law School alumnus, Mark Leibler AC [LLB(Hons) 1966].

"We hope that the recommendations we put to government will result in Australia's first successful referendum in almost 40 years."

While his background lies in tax and corporate strategy, Leibler's strong passion for social justice and Indigenous rights landed him the position of Co-Chair of the Expert Panel. In 2000, Leibler was appointed to the board of Reconciliation Australia and also served as its co-chair from 2005 to 2011. His firm, Arnold Bloch Leibler, was the first law firm in Australia to successfully launch a Reconciliation Action Plan.

"Recognising  Indigenous  Australians in our Constitution will not only benefit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people - but all Australians," says Leibler.

"Taking this important step shows that we value Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; that we are proud of their contributions and  are prepared to acknowledge their history. It's about dignity, equality and respect for what makes Australia unique and what we can all be proud of – being home to the oldest living cultures in the world."

Senior Lecturer and Melbourne Law School's  first  Indigenous  employee, Dr Mark McMillan shares similar views. As a member of the Wiradjuri nation from Trangie in NSW, McMillan is hopeful that constitutional recognition will make a positive mark on Indigenous Australians – both as nations and as individuals.

"For me, as an individual Wiradjuri man, I think that constitutional recognition will go a long way – both legally and socially - in creating a new pathway and narrative where Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples can create a shared future.

"Australia is out of step in recognising its Indigenous people. Nations like Canada, the United States and New Zealand have all legally accepted the unique place of their Indigenous people within their constitutional arrangements – whether it's expressly stated in the Constitution, or through treaties or constitutional establishment clauses.

"Indigenous Australians hold a unique place in history, so it's time for this to be acknowledged within the governing system we have here in Australia."

As part of its Courting Controversy Lecture  series,  Melbourne  Law School held its own panel discussion about the legal implications of constitutional recognition, and options for reform. The panel included former Prime Minister of Australia, the Rt Hon. Malcolm Fraser, Professor Cheryl Saunders and Dr McMillan.

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 6, October 2011.