Invited to a meeting held at Parliament House Canberra to discuss constitutional change on 20 March 2008, I found most of the other guests were in to the Parliamentary Roundtable were in favour of changing the preamble to recognize the Aboriginal people.
The difficulty is the people rejected a new preamble to the Constitution in the 1999 referendum, and that preamble recognized the Aboriginal people.
The alternative is to amend the Preamble to the Constitution Act, which was approved in referendums in most States before Federation and then given legal effect by the then Imperial Parliament in 1900.
( The Western Australian referndum took place after the legislation was passed. Accordingly Queen Victoria, being satisfied this was the people's wish, added Western Australia to the Federation in her Proclamation which follows.)
A preamble to a document states what was considered relevant at the time. Can you imagine the reaction to a proposal amend the preamble to the Magna Carta, or the English Bill of Rights, the American Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of the United States?
If there is to be some special recognition of the Aboriginal people, it should not be by amending the Preamble. And until we see what is actually proposed it is difficult to know what it would mean.
We also hear that local government should also be recognized. But local government is a creation of the States; why should it be recognized in the Constitution?
If it is, why not also recognize the vast voluntary sector? At least some voluntary organizations were crucial in achieving Federation, especially the Federation Leagues and the Australian Natives Association.
There will be no end to the list of people organisations and others demanding to be recognized.
In the meantime John Stone has presented a powerful argument against the project, "Another divisive referendum out of tune with national thinking” (The Australian, 22/11)
He refers to the following words in the defeated 1999 referendum on a new preamble, "honouring Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, the nation's first people, for their deep kinship with their lands and for their ancient and continuing cultures which enrich the life of our country".
John Stone then asks:
Did one ever see a clearer example of Canberra-generated codswallop?
As any Torres Strait Islander will quickly tell you, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders are not one "people" but two quite separate "peoples".
Shying away from such truths is what has led us to the point where, as Gary Johns, himself a former minister for Aboriginal affairs in the Keating government, said in his generally excellent article ("Referendum must not be used to settle old scores", The Australian, November 11), "The long-run trajectory for Aborigines in Australia is integration. The experiment with separate development in the past 40 years has been a dismal failure".
As for "their ancient and continuing cultures" graphically chronicled in the 2007 Northern Territory Little Children are Sacred report, to take only one example, the less said about the violence-racked, female-oppressive, sexually predatory cultures of the Australian Aboriginal the better.
The former chief justice of the High Court, Harry Gibbs, in his essay "A Preamble: The Issues", published by The Samuel Griffith Society in 1999, summed up by asking whether a preamble should "incorporate any expression of opinion or values, however firmly held by those who may claim to be an elite, unless it is certain that those opinions and values are generally accepted by Australian society as a whole, and are likely to continue to command general acceptance?"
To this he gave a very firm "No".
In the event, while the republic referendum went down overwhelmingly, the preamble referendum (even though it was supported by all political parties) was even more summarily dismissed, gaining only 39.3 per cent of formal votes recorded.
In Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania the "Yes" votes were even more derisory: 32.8, 34.7 and 35.7 per cent respectively. Does Gillard really believe that by 2013 (say) Australians will deliver a different verdict?
This constitutional corpse was disinterred in 2007, when a desperate John Howard , clutching at a straw proffered to him by an opportunistic Noel Pearson, promised to revive it if re-elected. He wasn't, and we were spared the embarrassment of seeing an otherwise highly respected prime minister twice make a fool of himself on the same subject.Rather than sheepishly following his then leader,
Tony Abbott should now have the courage to say that Howard was just plain wrong.