COMMENT | In 1901 the voices of Aboriginal people were not heard, this will not be the case in 2016, writes Stan Grant.
Stan Grant

The Point
18 Apr 2016 - 7:14 PM  UPDATED 18 Apr 2016 - 7:14 PM

If the Australian Constitution were being drafted today it would be unthinkable that the views of Indigenous people would not be heard. But, that is exactly what happened at Federation.

In 1901 when the states came together to form this Commonwealth, it was assumed Aboriginal people had no place. We were seen as a dying race, expected to vanish. We were a problem.

The First Peoples of Australia were indeed mentioned in the constitution but only in terms of control and exclusion.

Section 127 excluded Aboriginal people from being counted among the population of the Commonwealth. 

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Section 51 (xxvi) permitted the Federal Parliament to make laws for the people of any race other than the Aboriginal race. 

This meant that states would make laws that would tell Indigenous people where they could live, if they could keep their children, or who they could marry.

These were amended by the 1967 Referendum. If anyone doubts that these reforms can lead to real political change, consider the advances of the 1970s - the establishment of the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs, land rights legislation, protection of cultural heritage, education and employment initiatives.

Still the battle continues for a fuller acknowledgment of Indigenous people, their rights and place in Australia.

In these respects, a referendum to recognise Indigenous people is unfinished business.

I am honoured to have been appointed by the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader to a 16-member council that will advise on a way forward to a referendum.

It is no easy task. Constitutional change is hard - only eight referenda have been successfully carried in our nation's history - and that is how it should be.

Our constitution can be argued to have served Australia well, we are blessed with a robust and resilient democracy, rule of law, and sound institutions. Those blessings - we know - have not always extended to Aboriginal people.

Opinion polls are favourable to recognition, still, winning the support of a majority of people in a majority of states will be a challenge. To many the constitution remains remote to their lives. Most people - unsurprisingly - have more pressing things to do than read our constitution. 

Some opponents argue that it is wrong to divide Australians along racial lines. I agree with them. But this isn't about race. This is in fact about removing race from our constitution. 

Being Indigenous is not based on race. There are Indigenous peoples in parts of the world of all colours. However, being Indigenous does confer sometimes special and unique rights enshrined in law - Native Title for example. 

There is wariness, confusion, and indeed some hostility towards the concept among the Indigenous population. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People have fraught histories with the state. Trust does not run high.

Some are concerned that recognition may negate or set back efforts for a treaty. Others simply reject the idea of being considered part of the Australian nation thus the constitution means nothing. 

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I understand these positions. I understand people need to be heard. This is part of the process to build consensus and support. Like any community we will not all agree it is foolish, and frankly insulting to our diversity and intelligence to suggest otherwise.

As a man raised in a strong Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi family, living an early life marked by poverty and transience, I have seen life from missions and small towns to the great cities of the world - London, Paris, New York, Rome, Beijing - I believe our place in Australia is fully connected with this country's social, economic and political life.

This is not assimilation, this is engagement as a strong secure people whose rights, culture and deep connection to this land are respected and embraced.

Our constitution is not a document of poetry, it is not a history text. If we seek redress or romance we can find that elsewhere. The constitution is a working document open to judicial argument, that sets out how we are governed. Change must bring improved governance. The challenge is recognition with substance.

Others will continue the fight for treaty and so they should.

In 1967, Australians voted in numbers never seen before or since in a referendum to say we belonged among them. I choose to believe in the goodwill of Australians, and I have heard from so many who want to shine light where before was darkness in our past.

In 1901 our voices were not heard. I am humbled that in 2016 a son of the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi will be heard.

We - Indigenous peoples - will be heard, and that can only be good for our country.

Stan Grant is presenter and managing editor of 'The Point'.