Constitutional change for Indigenous peoples dominated talks at the Garma Festival in the Northern Territory — the annual celebration of Indigenous culture and Australia’s premier forum for discussing Indigenous affairs.
About 2500 people, including Aboriginal leaders and the Prime Minister, attended this year’s festival, which had ‘Makarrata’ — or ‘coming together’ — as its central theme.
Yolngu leader Dr Galarrwuy Yunupingu officially opened the event, which ran from August 4-7 at Gulkula, by asking politicians to take action on Constitutional change for Indigenous Australians.
“We live side by side but we’re not yet united,” he said.
Turnbull: ‘We’ll seriously consider proposal’
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said his cabinet would carefully consider the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’, along with the Referendum Council’s final report.
The statement was prepared in May by 250 Indigenous elders and leaders after regional meetings around Australia and called for a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution and a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations peoples.
It was backed by the Referendum Council report, released on June 30, which also recommended a Constitutionally entrenched Indigenous “voice to parliament”.
“It is a serious proposal that we will consider seriously and we’re going to thoughtfully and respectfully consider it,” Mr Turnbull said at Garma.
“Changing the Constitution is a very big challenge … but you can understand we’re taking this serious proposal very seriously indeed.”
He said the statement and the Referendum Council’s report would soon be the subject of cabinet room discussions, but added he thought it would be “ambitious” to expect a referendum before the end of the year.
He said the 1967 referendum, which removed sections of the Constitution that discriminated against Aboriginal people, was successful because it had overwhelming support and was clear.
“Precision and clarity, simplicity are your friends when you’re proposing changes to the Australian Constitution,” he said.
“But above all you need to have overwhelming support; overwhelming support for it.
“So there is a lot of work to be done.”
Mr Turnbull said some of the questions that had to be addressed were: what would a voice to parliament look like, is it more important to have Indigenous people providing advice to Parliament or as elected members within the Parliament; and what impact would the voice have on issues such as child protection and justice, historically the responsibility of the states and territories.
Mr Turnbull said Australia needed to look to countries overseas for how a system might work.
He said he was optimistic about Australia’s future as a reconciled country.
Shorten: ‘Why wait?’
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said he had suggested that a joint parliamentary committee be set up to look at the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ and the Referendum Council report.
He said the Labor Party was committed to an Indigenous voice to Parliament and supported a referendum.
“I have written to our Prime Minister; we’ve proposed a joint parliamentary committee — which they’re taking on board, having a look at – to be made up of Government, the Opposition and crossbench MPs — to work with Aboriginal leaders right across Australia,” he said.
Mr Shorten said the committee would advise the Parliament on how to set up a Makarrata Commission.
It would also formulate what a voice to the Parliament would look like and come up with a referendum question.
“There’s no reason why that couldn’t be done by the end of this year,” he said.
Mr Shorten said the Labor Party was open to treaties with First Nations Australians.
“For us the question is not whether we do these things, the question is not if we should do these things, but when and how,” he said.
He said Federal Parliament needed to get moving on the matter now.
The Uluru Statement had provided a map for the way forward and the next step was to formulate a referendum question.
Mr Shorten said it wasn’t a new proposition to include First Australians in the Constitution.
“Really, it’s about 117 years overdue as it is,” he said.
“There’s been discussion about Constitutional recognition in specific form for the last decade, including, but not limited to, the expert report, earlier parliamentary reports, now the Referendum Council.
“I think when you strip away all of the rhetoric and some of the fear-mongering, the proposition that the Australian people could be asked the question: is it legitimate to give Aboriginal people a say in decisions that affect them? … I don’t actually think that’s a revolutionary proposal.
“I think it’s an idea whose time has come.”
Photo gallery by Melanie Faith Dove, Peter Eve and Teagan Glenane.