Hewson's view: Constitutional recognition of the First Australians imperative

Referendum commitment: A portrait of Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, wearing a booka made from kangaroo skin given to him by Noongar elders from Western Australia. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Referendum commitment: A portrait of Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, wearing a booka made from kangaroo skin given to him by Noongar elders from Western Australia. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

This week I caught the address at the National Press Club by Ken Wyatt, Minister for Indigenous Australians, indeed, the first indigenous Australian to hold that position. In that address, he committed the Morrison government to hold a referendum on the recognition of the First Australians in our Constitution within the next three years. Such recognition should be a priority - it is a national, indeed also an international embarrassment that it wasn't done decades ago.

The identity of a nation, and its standing in the world, cannot be defined if that nation is not prepared to recognise the significance and continuing consequences of its history. Australia certainly hasn't. We have not fully acknowledged the significance of the First Australians, either by giving them proper recognition in our Constitution, and direct influence in our political and governance processes, or in eliminating their many disadvantages relative to the rest of our population.

Morrison has a unique opportunity to define himself, and his government, and ensure its place in our history, by enthusiastically leading the process of essential consensus building, to build the broad-based community and bipartisan support for Constitutional recognition.

We have not fully acknowledged the significance of the First Australians.

This will not be easy, especially as it was almost immediately reported in the media following Wyatt's speech that the Coalition is "split" on the issue, with some "notables" stating their willingness to campaign for the "NO" case. Morrison must be encouraged to spend some of his political capital on this issue, as his main priority.

The Uluru Statement was a very significant document and the outcome of a very significant and inclusive process - the culmination of 13 Regional Dialogues involving Indigenous communities, from around the country, considering five options for constitutional change.

It was a national Indigenous consensus position on Indigenous constitutional recognition, which came out of a constitutional convention of 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates.

The Statement called for the establishment of a "First Nations Voice" enshrined in the Australia Constitution and the establishment of a "Makarrata Commission" to supervise the agreement-making and truth-telling between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The significance of such a consensus should not be underestimated, and certainly shouldn't be ignored, especially given past difficulties in establishing broad-based agreement in the Indigenous community.

It is an issue of great shame to our nation that, in the nearly 250 years since Cook arrived in 1770, the issues of recognition and disadvantage still remain unresolved. Indeed, it took until 1967 for the initial amendments to the Constitution to include Aboriginal Australians in determinations of population, and to empower the federal Parliament to legislate specifically for our First Australians. It then took a further 26 years to partially deal with the issue of Native Title, and a further 15 years for the issue of a National Apology to the Stolen Generations. These were all very important steps, but still collectively inadequate, and embarrassingly slow, for a nation accepting the realities of its history.

Already significant time has been lost, mostly because of the initial fob-off response to the Uluru Statement by both Turnbull and Shorten. This has encouraged the fallacious scare campaign asserting that the requested "Voice" would become a "Third Chamber" of the Parliament. This was never the proposal!

Opponents among "conservatives and the Right" are already arguing that the concept of a "Treaty" or "Makarrata" would be "divisive", "dividing Australians according to race", and as ditching the "strength" of our Constitution being "equality of all Australians". There have also been claims that these proposals are "the manifestation of radical identity politics" - echoes of the past Party mantra "How can a Nation have a Treaty with itself?" and so on.

Morrison's essential leadership would need to be prepared to debate these and other issues and, importantly, rise above day-to-day politicking, appealing to the "greater national good". It is a national imperative that we accept the reality of our past, and strive at every opportunity to give our First Australians proper recognition and respect.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.