Changing Australia’s Constitution to recognise Indigenous people won’t be a quick fix for the country’s problems, a top New South Wales academic has warned.
Professor Duncan Ivison, deputy vice-chancellor of research at the University of Sydney, said people shouldn’t expect too much from Constitutional change.
He said it was an important step, but needed to be supported by something like a treaty between Indigenous Australians and the government.
“If you look around the world, in New Zealand you’ve got the Treaty of Waitangi that sets out a whole range of mechanisms and principals for how the Maori and the New Zealand State ought to frame their relations,” he said. “You also have political structures that reflect those principles.
“In Canada you have the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal rights in the Canadian constitution and then a structure of treaties that govern that relationship.
“There are all kinds of problems and challenges with each example. No one is probably 100 percent happy with all of that, but I think that is the kind of complex structure that ultimately the situation calls for in Australia.”
Professor Ivison, one of Australia’s top experts in political philosophy, said experiences in Canada, New Zealand and the US had shown constitutional reform on its own was not enough.
“We know that along with Constitutional recognition you also need to think about ‘What does this mean on the ground for the communities’?” he said.
“We want to see better health care, we want to see better employment outcomes, that’s not something a Constitution can provide so we need to reflect on how it works itself through our political system.”
Professor Ivison also questioned whether the process of Constitutional recognition needed to be turned on its head.
“There’s a bit of a sting in the tail that comes with recognition and that is the recogniser has a lot of power,” he said. “If I’m someone seeking recognition I need that other person to grant me recognition.
“One thing I’m asking is maybe we should flip that and say, ‘Well, maybe in this case it’s not so much the Indigenous peoples who need to seek recognition’. Maybe the State needs to justify its legitimacy to them rather than the other way around.”
Professor Ivison said a series of national and local initiatives were needed to reach a just settlement between Aboriginal people and the State.
“There are two sorts of extreme views,” he said. “One view is, ‘Get over it. We’ve all got to get on with how to live together. There’s no issue here. Forget about it’.
“And there are people who will say the fact that settlers came here and unjustly appropriated and stole and essentially robbed Indigenous people of their land and communities means the State is irredeemable. There’s no way of making good on that history.
“I think we need to reject both of those views, but it means taking seriously how you can today, understanding what we know about the past, come up with a set of terms, a just settlement, between Aboriginal people and the State.”
He said political reforms could be part of the process.
“Among the things that could emerge are different ways of representing Indigenous voices in parliament,” he said. “Late last year we had some ideas about an Indigenous parliament and Indigenous Assembly. These are great things to discuss. They should be part of the overall debate about what the ongoing relationship should be.
“At the end of the day it’s got to be a relationship that gains the consent of the Indigenous communities in all their complexity and diversity.”
Meanwhile, Victoria has taken another step forwards in its move towards a historic treaty with Indigenous people.
Victorian Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Natalie Hutchins this week announced the formation of a Treaty Interim Working Group.
The group will provide advice on the process and timing for a treaty, community engagement and look at options for a permanent Victorian body to represent Aboriginal people.
Its members are Mick Harding and Tim Hatfield, who were nominated by the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council; Lidia Thorpe and Gary Murray, nominated by the Victorian Traditional Owners Land Justice Group; Janine Coombs and Jeremy Clark, nominated by the Federation of Victorian Traditional Owner Corporations; Tarneen Onus-Williams and Douglas Briggs, nominated by the Koorie Youth Council; and Muriel Bamblett and Wayne Muir, the Aboriginal Controlled Community Organisation.
Ms Hutchins has also appointed six people to the board — Paul Briggs, Jill Gallagher, Vickie Clarke, Aunty Di Kerr, Lawrence Moser and Geraldine Atkinson.
Aboriginal Victorians will be able to discuss the group’s work and the next steps for the Victorian government at the next State-wide forum in December.
More than 400 people attended the last forum held in May.
“For the first time in over 20 years work is underway to build on the existing relationship between government and the Aboriginal community to empower that community to achieve long-term generational change,” Ms Hutchins said.