Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has met with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull today to discuss the referendum for recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Constitution.
It comes almost one month after Mr Turnbull and the Coalition reclaimed government in the federal election by the narrowest of margins.
Celebrating the Coalition’s win are the 296,000 Australians who support a referendum for constitutional recognition of our Indigenous community.
They have history on their side.
There have been only eight successful referendums in our nation’s history. Of those eight, seven have passed under a conservative government, including the landmark 1967 referendum that recognised Indigenous people in the census.
But first, everyone needs to agree.
The aim of the change is to identify Indigenous Australians as the first inhabitants of our country and remove two clauses of the constitution that permit discrimination based on race.
Treena Clark, the media officer for Recognise, a movement supporting recognition, says constitutional reform is key to fixing racial discrimination and to celebrate our nation’s story.
“The Constitution talks about lighthouses, shipping beacons, buoys and coinage, but still includes no mention of the first Australians, and the first tens of thousands of years of Australian history,” Ms Clark said.
“It’s important that the Constitution recognises Australia’s full history, not just the period from British settlement.”
For a referendum to be possible, however, the Indigenous community needs to agree on its terms and the referendum question, a task that so far has proven difficult.
Alice Haynes, who runs the Facebook page “Vote NO to Constitutional Change”, supports racial equality and inclusion, but says she will “oppose constitutional recognition all the way”.
“The proposal that Recognise have made public is totally unacceptable and is a train wreck in the making,” she said.
“If the government really wanted to show that they care, then they can sit down at the table with us for discussions for a sovereignty treaty.”
Ms Clark said she respected the diversity of opinion that surrounded the issue but refused to comment on whether this inability to agree was causing potentially fatal setbacks for their campaign.
“Australians don’t agree on everything, so Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people should not be expected to either,” she said.
Despite this difference of opinion, Mr Turnbull has said a referendum next year would be “feasible”.
However, it appears that the Indigenous communities are not the only ones who cannot see eye to eye.
While constitutional recognition may not have been a key election issue, it sparked a brief political storm last month.
Mr Shorten put a treaty on the table early in the campaign. He acknowledged the Labor government would be in favour of a treaty with the Indigenous people, in addition to constitutional recognition.
He agreed Indigenous Australians deserved a place in our nation’s “birth certificate” and said, “Do I think we need to move beyond just constitutional recognition to talking about what a post-constitutional recognition settlement with Indigenous people looks like? Yes I do.”
Mr Turnbull slammed his comments and accused him of putting constitutional reform at risk, contradicting Recognise, which states recognition and a treaty are both possible.
But Indigenous journalist Stan Grant, who is now a member of the Referendum Council that advises the government on how best to recognise the Indigenous community in the Constitution, has recently come out in support of a treaty as well as recognition.
The change up within Parliament could also create potential problems, with One Nation’s Pauline Hanson – who actively opposes constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians – securing a senate seat.
The Coalition has indicated its desire for a May 27, 2017 referendum on the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, which Mr Shorten today said would happen in “a perfect world”.
Mr Turnbull said the key would be deciding on a referendum question Indigenous Australians could agree on and the rest of the nation could support.
Supporters of constitutional reform can only hope that history repeats itself, a conservative government will once again lead voters to a yes result and everyone can agree on terms and conditions. No buts. – Amber Greasley
Image of Malcolm Turnbull against Aboriginal Art from Michael Loke’s flickr account, created by Peter Moon