WHEN the Australian Constitution came into effect in 1901, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were mentioned in no formal manner other than negatively.
Laws were expressly laid out to say indigenous Australians would not be counted as part of the nation’s population.
In fact, it was widely believed that the Aboriginal population would eventually die out, and in later years in policies reminiscent of Nazi racial eugenics, this annihilation of indigenous Australians was actively encouraged.
The 1967 Referendum amended the Constitution and removed discriminatory references to Aboriginal people.
However, now the Constitution does not mention Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at all.
Racism may be frowned upon in the community, but the inflammatory Section 51 of the Constitution still remains.
“The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to:
... (xxvi) the people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws ...”
We spoke to three local Aboriginal leaders who believe the Constitution should repeal its racist paragraphs, as well as acknowledge the contribution of indigenous Australians.
MICHELLE SULTAN, MOORTITJ KOORT ADVISORY COMMITTEE MEMBER AND ROCKINGHAM RESIDENT:
“I strongly agree we should be in the Constitution. I think that it is now time to be recognised as right now the only way they are recognised is by exclusion.
“I think it will be another step (to right past wrongs). I think some of the points that have been put forward by the panel working on this issue look at recognising Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people and doing away with discrimination on a racial basis.
“I think it’s important for all of Australia to support. It’s a step towards all Australians working together to find creative solutions to old and new problems.
“There are everyday problems that take up a lot of people’s time and energy and they’re just as important, but I think recognition is a step towards looking at those solutions, getting people more empowered about themselves and their communities.”
ASHLEY GARLETT, SMYL COMMUNITY SERVICES MANAGER OF ABORIGINAL PROGRAMS AND WAIKIKI RESIDENT:
“I absolutely think it’s important.
“It took many years for Aboriginal people to be mentioned in the Referendum, but in order for people to develop harmony and get education of our history, our people need to be recognised in the Constitution but also able to make rights as well for certain things in regards to lifestyle.
“Education mainly, employment, as well as housing and health, which is starting to happen but needs to be constitutionally recognised. It will never fix past mistakes but it will mend mistakes in terms of us not being recognised locally or worldwide.
“Aboriginal communities need to be at the forefront of Aboriginal issues – the Government needs to allow us to make those decisions on rights for our own people.
“I think it would better already existing relationships and partnerships and it will give people a better idea of why Aboriginal people fight for rights and why we’ve been fighting ever since European settlement.”
THERESA WALLEY, ABORIGINAL ELDER, WADJAK WOMAN AND PARMELIA RESIDENT:
“For too long we have had nothing – no education, the government has taken everything from us, so what else do we have?
“It’s too long we have been considered nothing. I know because I had nothing, I’ve had to battle for everything, any little bit of crumb (including amending the Constitution) is welcome.
“Funds for Aboriginal people went elsewhere, even when the money comes it’s often wasted.
“Being in the Constitution would help increase Aboriginal people’s self-esteem.
“It’s very hard to get a job locally; a lot of Aboriginal people go and work on the mines but they cannot deal with working against the Aboriginal culture.
“They can’t be happy to destroy and dig up someone else’s land. It’s against their culture. They do feel it.”
For more information on the campaign for recognition in the Constitution, visit www.youmeunity.org.au.