• The forum will consider the future path of constitutional recognition. (Pixabay)Source: Pixabay
After twelve nation-wide dialogue meetings across the country, more than 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives will meet in Uluru to discuss if and how Indigenous Australians will be recognised in the Constitution.
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23 May 2017 - 10:10 AM  UPDATED 23 May 2017 - 10:10 AM

Indigenous leaders and community members are meeting in Uluru this week to discuss if and how Indigenous Australians will be recognised in the Australian Constitution.

The national convention is the culmination of twelve community dialogue meetings which have taken place around the country since December last year.

Lessons of 1967 referendum still apply to debates on constitutional recognition
Painting the 1967 referendum as a ‘success’ in terms of effective reform for Aboriginal people is problematic, writes Gabrielle Appleby, Associate Professor, UNSW Law School, UNSW, and Gemma McKinnon, Associate Lecturer, Law School, UNSW in The Conversation.

The historic meeting will see more than 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives gather in the Red Centre, hosted by the Mutitjulu community, to discuss possible options.

It's the first time a model for change has been formally considered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Referendum Council Co-Chair, Pat Anderson, says the process is an opportunity for Indigenous Australia to finally have their say.

"This is the process, the opportunity, the vehicle, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to tell all Australians not just the politicians - but to tell the Australian public what we want and why we want it," she said.

But many delegates are unlikely to back a minimalist approach and instead push for substantive, genuine reform, while many others have criticised the process, calling for greater discussion on treaty and sovereignty at a grass-roots level.

Alice Haines from the Anti-Recognise campaign says the process is flawed.

"There doesn't seem to be representation of all communities. Sit down with our community elders and leaders and family representation so we can discuss our future and ask us what we want, ask our people what we want,” she told NITV.

Pat Anderson admits the process has not been perfect.

"We're urging Aboriginal people to jump into this busted commodore and drive it wherever we want to drive it. That's the analogy I've been using because that's all we've got," she said.

The historic meeting falls on the eve of the 50th Anniversary of the 1967 Referendum - that saw the Commonwealth make laws for Aboriginal people, and count them in the census for the first time. 

Minister for Indigenous Health and Aged Care Ken Wyatt told the ABC he would like to see a proposal that had the best chance of a yes vote at a referendum.

A modest reform of the constitution better than no reform at all
Opinion: Dr Hannah McGlade, Senior Indigenous Research Fellow Curtin University, says the case for moderate reform makes sense in the light of radical constitutional changes failing at referendums in the past.

People come with different passions, and their passions and their views can sometimes overtake what is logical to convince all Australians,” he said.

Constitutional propositions are not readily accepted by Australians – we can see that with the low level of success for referenda.”

Labor Senator Pat Dodson hopes the gathering will provide certainty on how to move forward.

“People are talking about treaties, they're talking about entities, and they’re talking about meaningful changes to policy implementation and strategies," he he told reporters in Canberra.

"There's a smorgasbord of things there, hopefully out of that will come some clarity and real direction for the Parliament and hopefully the Parliament can respond positively to it.” 

“There has to be a way to ensure that Aboriginal people can bring the government to the table to discuss and negotiate those matters." 

While Greens Senator Nick McKim says a treaty is needed.

“Ultimately there's unfinished business in Australia and until we've got a treaty there will always remain unfinished business,” he said.

The historic meeting will be a political free-zone, with both leaders declining invitations to attend the closing ceremony on Friday, saying their presence may hamper the outcome.

"I think it is a wise decision to have it as a politician-free zone, which means that the people can discuss without any impediments what might be possible," Labor frontbencher Linda Burney told ABC radio on Thursday.

Instead, the outcomes will be delivered to the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten in a report next month, in the lead up to National Reconciliation Week from 27 May.

KEY PROPOSALS FOR REFORM

  • drafting a statement acknowledging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians, and inserting it either in the Constitution or outside the Constitution, either as a preamble in a new head of power or in a statutory Declaration of Recognition
  • amending or deleting the ‘race power’, section 51 (xxvi) and replacing it with a new head of power (which might contain a statement of acknowledgement as a preamble to that power) to enable the continuation of necessary laws with respect to Indigenous issues
  • inserting a constitutional prohibition against racial discrimination into the Constitution
  • providing for an Indigenous voice to be heard by Parliament, and the right to be consulted on legislation and policy that affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • deleting section 25, which contemplates the possibility of a State government excluding some Australians from voting in State elections on the basis of their race.