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Making the republic important to a majority of Australians, Republican National Convention, 6-7 February 1999

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Media Release

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC)


8 February 1999

Republican National Convention, 6-7 February 1999

Address by Gatjil Djerrkura OAM 

Chairman, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission 


Making the Republic I
mportant to a Majority of Australians


Mr Chairman, fellow delegates,

I thank you for the opportunity to be with you today.

This historic meeting is taking place on the land of the Ngunawal people.

As is my custom I wish to begin by acknowledging them as our hosts and as Indigenous people who are seeking self-determination.

I also acknowledge you as fellow Australians who are also seeking self-determination.

In my view the forthcoming referendum will be an act of self determination for all Australians.

I am happy to join any congregation which is devoted to ensuring Australia discard the constitutional symbols of the past and determine a new future!

I am here because I am supporter of the republic.

I am here because I believe in the right of self determination.

Many Indigenous people however have more immediate concerns and I’ll return to this issue later.

It is important to link their concerns to what we are seeking to achieve.

Much is being made of the fact that this year is the 50 th anniversary of Australian citizenship.

In 1948, most Indigenous people did not have the vote.

We had to wait until 1962 until this became a reality for the majority of us.

Before the Kings and Queens of England ruled this country, we, the Indigenous peoples, had our own governments.

In many places, we still govern our own affairs.

Our heads of state were all born in Australia!

We did not need republican referendums.

Indigenous people are ahead of most Australians in thinking about constitutional change.

But be in no dou bt.

Constitutions are important for minorities such as us.

The Constitution defines our relationship with the political and legal systems.

It defines the way in which our rights are recognised.

Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory understood in October last year that a bad constitution that denies our rights is worth voting against.

They said so through the ballot box.

It is obvious given the preamble debate in recent days that many of our Federal political leaders have yet to heed, or are happy to ignore, the potent message delivered to the Prime Minister and CLP Government in Darwin in the Statehood referendum.

We are here to help develop strategies to achieve a republic.

It starts in my mind with one burning question.

What kind of republic do we want?

For my people there is a far more important question than asking: do we want a Queen or a President as our head of state?

We ask:

Are we able to fully express our human rights?

Shall we hunt with a President who recognises us as continuing custodians of our lands and laws?

Or should we gather with a Queen who recognises our rights to the same lands and laws.

We are part of this debate because we hope for change but let’s face it……..A narrow debate over an Australian or British head of state will mean little to a large majority of my people who are still waiting for decent health, housing, education and employment.

We have a vision of a future constitution in which we have a rightful place.

In the present constitution, we are invisible.

The legal fictions of the past have tried to wipe us out of the history books.

They almost succeeded.

A revised Constitution will repair the omissions of history.

ATSIC believes that a republic is inevitable!

To support a republic is to open up opportunities for constitutional reform.

Constitutional reform is our hope for redefining our relationship with the Australian legal system.

We see constitutional change as flowing from a new image of what Australia could be.

Australia was born out of colonialism.

Our British legacy reminds us of the colonial past.

We Indigenous peoples are colonised peoples.

Under the present constitution, we remain subjects of Her Majesty!

In the name of her ancestors we were dispossessed.

Our self-determination was not to free our land from the colonists like so many nations in Africa and Asia.

We look for the creative solution that brings us back from the footnotes of history to our rightful place as the first peoples of this land.

Symbolism is important and it can help us to write a better constitution.

In 2001 a new nation in which all Austr alians will have their human rights respected can be born.

We are the first peoples of this nation, with our unique and enriching contribution to a new national identity.

In rural and remote Australia at present, some people would deny us that collective identity.

Many of those people feel that they too do not have self-determination.

Unfortunately they blame us.

They see us as denying their rights.

They keep the spirit of the old frontier alive.

We should not carry this baggage with us into the new Australia.

There are many powerful forces and vested interests that work against a healing of this old division.

It will not be easy to overcome.

The spirit of the old frontier has no place in our new nation.

It takes maturity to choose right in building this new nation.

We must choose first the questions for the referendum.

This choosing is about symbols and the Constitution.

To choose republic ahead of monarchy is very symbolic but it has no substance.

It seems sensible to limit the question to the important issue of republic or monarchy.

The opposition will have less ammunition.

There is less chance of an underlying race agenda.

However, Indigenous people are more trusting.

We remember the success of the 1967 referendum.

We have great faith in the capacity of all informed Australians.

We do not want to lose our chance of recognition in the new Australia.

The way to remind people in Australia that we are doing a new thing is to include a referendum question on the Preamble.

However, the Preamble must contain the right symbols that will appeal to the imagination of the Australian people.

We must recognise the good work of the Constitutional Convention in helping to define the basis for the new Australia through their recommendations on a Preamble.

T he people must be offered a Preamble that includes an acknowledgment of the original ownership and continuing custodianship of the Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders.

The ATSIC Board would also like to see a Preamble that sets down principles for representative and responsible government that is inclusive of all its people.

The Board also looks for a Preamble that indicates a respect for the land and Indigenous cultural heritage, and a commitment to justice and equity for all.

There are those that say a Preamble does not really matter.

It might not for them.

It does for us.

I’d direct them to the preamble in the Reconciliation Act.

I’d ask them to consider the political importance of what is written in black and white in terms of the current political climate and think about its importance to ATSIC and indigenous people in general.

They may continue to argue that it is only the substantive clauses of the Constitution that really count.

We do not deny the importance of the substantive clauses but we believe that a nation’s vision is very important.

The vision is the way ahead and in time, we would expect that the vision in the Preamble would be reflected more and more in the substantive clauses.

It is a relatively short time since Indigenous people entered the mainstream political arena in Australia.

We are willing to participate and be involved at all levels of Government.

We are willing to make our contributions to a new nation.

And of course, we are here to see that the future offers us a very different deal from the past.

I thank you for your time.