Referring to his Neville Bonner Oration to the 15th ACM National Conference, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has told supporters of RECOGNISE, the movement for the constitutional recognition of the indigenous people, that for a referendum to succeed there should be no opposition from any group of substance.
Addressing the recent RECOGNISE inaugural dinner, he said he had invited his ”former colleagues at Australians for Constitutional Monarchy… to suspend their scepticism.”
”And I told them that it was impossible to cherish every single clause of a constitution, except the provision to change it.”
“Tonight” he continued, ” I say to my friends here at RECOGNISE, we have to temper our ambitions, because nothing would set back the cause of our country and the rightful place of Aboriginal people at its heart, than a referendum that failed.”
ACM’s National Convenor, Professor David Flint, responded to the Prime Minister by proposing that the people be involved from the beginning. This would be by following the Corowa process which involved a convention and which was the way we federated. He suggested other current burning constitutional issues be referred to the convention. This would include restoring the federation.
The text of the Prime Minister’s speech follows.
Thank you very much indeed. Thank you Aunty Donna for your Welcome to Country.
Thank you to everyone for being here tonight to support this very important cause.
I particularly welcome my Parliamentary colleagues, the Leader of the Opposition, and the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion.
About two years ago, I was discussing with Noel Pearson the merits of the expert panel’s recommendations.
And I have to admit, I was expressing concern about the expert panel’s support for an anti-discrimination clause in the Constitution on the grounds that it could turn out to be a one line bill of rights.
“You know what your problem is?” said Noel.
“You have never personally experienced the reality of racial discrimination!”
And that’s true.
Anglo Australian males from middle-class families tend to have had a magic carpet ride through life.
Still, this hasn’t stopped the “whispering in my heart” that our most serious failure as a nation has been our difficulty in acknowledging the people we displaced.
It started to nag at me about the time I first entered federal Parliament.
How could I hope to help guide the destiny of our nation and not do whatever I could to reconcile the first Australians with the rest of us?
So, almost every year as a Member of Parliament, starting with trips to Alice Springs in the mid-1990s that invariably included dinner with Charlie Perkins, I have tried to spend as much time as I could with Indigenous Australians in Indigenous communities.
I do not claim to be better hearted or more insightful than any of my predecessors, all of whom, at least in recent times, have acted with abundant goodwill for this cause.
But to the best of my knowledge, I’m the first Prime Minister who’s sought to run the country from a remote location over the best part of a week talking with Galarrwuy Yunupingu and the other elders of East Arnhem Land.
Our country has many challenges.
Our people face many problems.
But there is almost nothing that this generation of Australians could do that would more impress posterity than enabling black and white Australians to walk forward together, forever, as one united people.
So, I am a supporter of constitutional recognition because I want our country to transcend the “them and us” mindset to embrace “all of us” in the spirit of generous inclusion that has always marked Australians at our best.
Not “them” and “us” anymore – just us.
Like John Howard before me – and like Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, and at least 60 per cent of the population – I am a strong supporter of constitutional recognition.
But 60 per cent support for a principle does not guarantee success at a referendum.
I know that because I helped to defeat the republican cause that was overwhelmingly supported by the Labor Party, significantly supported by the Liberal Party, and backed by every big media outlet in this country.
So, the question, at a dinner like this, that we have to ask ourselves, is not whether we support constitutional recognition – of course we do – but whether we want it passed.
Because to be passed, constitutional change has to satisfy a majority of the people in a majority of the states.
In practice, it has to gain the support of both major political parties and all state governments and avoid the opposition of any group of substance.
A fortnight ago, I delivered the Neville Bonner Oration to my former colleagues at Australians for Constitutional Monarchy.
I invited them to suspend their scepticism.
And I told them that it was impossible to cherish every single clause of a constitution, except the provision to change it.
Tonight, I say to my friends here at RECOGNISE, we have to temper our ambitions, because nothing would set back the cause of our country and the rightful place of Aboriginal people at its heart, than a referendum that failed.
Now, I recognise your yearning for that rightful place and I recognise your impatience to get on with it.
I am pleased that my friend and colleague, Ken Wyatt, the first Indigenous Member of the House of Representatives, along with Senator Nova Peris, the first Indigenous woman in the national Parliament, and the other members of the Joint Select Committee, have put forward three options for change.
I thank Ken, Nova and the Committee for their tireless, painstaking, and conscientious work.
Their first two options, I fear, would run into the same problem as the expert panel’s recommendation.
It would subject too much legislation to judicial review of its merits.
The third option, I fear, doesn’t do enough to recognise Indigenous people – indeed, it hardly does so at all.
I appreciate the work that Marcia Langton, Megan Davis, Noel Pearson and others have done to reach out to constitutional conservatives because – make no mistake – we will be a diminished nation if we cannot find a way to acknowledge the first Australians in our nation’s foundation document.
But we must not underestimate the “lions in the path” of this vital project.
I am prepared to sweat blood on this.
This is at least as important as any of the other causes that this Government has been prepared to take on.
I want this to happen.
I want this to happen as quickly as it can.
I hope that it might happen on the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, the 27th of May 2017. That would be a richly symbolic time to complete our constitution.
But I do not want it to fail because every Australian would be the loser.
It is more important to get this right than to try to rush it through.
We will get constitutional recognition – and when it comes, I suspect, that it will take the form of a pact – a heartfelt pact – between Indigenous people and conservative Australia.
Indigenous people have to accept that any proposal put forward is worth doing because it does sufficiently acknowledge them as the first Australians.
And conservative Australia has to accept that any proposal put forward really is completing our constitution rather than changing it.
So this, it seems to me, is the way forward.
The Wyatt Committee will deliver its final report in the first quarter of next year.
Then, all the significant proposals need to be socialised among the people of our country.
To this end, I announce that the Government will provide a further $5 million to RECOGNISE.
People from all walks of life and all shades of opinion, from the city, to country and the outback, black and white, will need every opportunity to talk through their hopes and fears for our country’s future.
These consultations will accelerate and intensify in the new year.
The referendum should be held as soon as possible once we are comfortable that we have the proposal with the best chance of success.
Not a ‘guarantee of success’ because any proposal guaranteed to succeed might hardly be worth doing.
Nevertheless, a proposal that is, on a realistic assessment of any forces that might be against it, likely to succeed.
More than 100 years ago, Australians decided to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown.
This country we created, as a matter of undisputed fact, has an Aboriginal heritage, a British foundation and a multicultural character and it is high time that this reality was highly recognised in our Constitution.
Constitutional recognition will be a victory for Aboriginal people and will be the culmination of a long, long, long fight for justice.
To succeed, though, it will also have to be a victory for all Australians: a vindication of our magnanimity as a nation whose Constitution will finally belong to all of us.
To this solemn and sacred task, I pledge myself.