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The right time: constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians: address to the Sydney Institute, Sydney.

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11 October 2007


The Right Time:

Constitutional Recognition for Indigenous Australians

Gerard and Anne Henderson, members of The Sydney Institute, my fellow


Earlier today I released a small document on a big topic - Australian History. It’s a

road map for the teaching of Australian History in Years 9 and 10.

It takes forward a project I launched some 21 months ago, on Australia Day eve 2006.

I called then for a root and branch renewal of the teaching of Australian History in our


My sense - confirmed by work done for last year’s Australian History Summit - was

that Australian History in our schools had, to a worrying degree, fallen victim to

neglect and complacency. In some cases, it had simply gone missing. Vast numbers

of students had no exposure to a coherent and sequential understanding of our

national story.


I believed then, and I believe now, that if this country is to live up to its full potential

and its highest ideals we must turn this around. We’re not there yet. But I think we’ll

get there. I want to thank Gerard Henderson and many others too numerous to name

who have devoted their time and intellectual energy to this task.

Tonight my focus is another topic of utmost national importance; one that transcends

the past, the present and the future of Australia and that goes to the heart of our

national identity and shared destiny.

For my generation - Australians who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s - it has

been ever present; a subject of deep sorrow and of great hope. The challenge, and

unfinished business, of our time. It is the place of Indigenous people in the profound,

compelling and unfolding story of Australia. In the speech where I launched the

Australian History project last year I spoke at length on the secret of the modern

Australian Achievement - our national sense of balance. I said then that: ‘Balance is

as crucial to a well-ordered society as it is to a full human life. It should not be

mistaken for taking the middle road or splitting the difference. Nor does it imply a

state that is static or a nation at rest. ‘Quite the opposite. A sense of balance is the

handmaiden of national growth and renewal. It helps us to respond creatively to an

uncertain world with a sense of proportion. ‘Keeping our balance means we reform

and evolve so as to remain a prosperous, secure and united nation. It also means we

retain those cherished values, beliefs and customs that have served us so well in the


The sense of balance Australia has found in 2007 allows us now to go further and to

aim higher. The time is right to take a permanent, decisive step towards completing

some unfinished business of this nation. A little more than 100 days ago I spoke at

The Sydney Institute on the topic of the Government’s emergency intervention in

Northern Territory Indigenous communities. This intervention - and in particular the

public’s reaction to it - has been a watershed in Indigenous affairs in Australia. It has

overturned 30 years of attitudes and thinking on Indigenous policy. The response

from people around Australia has again highlighted to me the anguish so many

Australians feel about the state of Indigenous Australia and the deep yearning in the

national psyche for a more positive and unifying approach to Reconciliation.


A new paradigm

This new Reconciliation I’m talking about starts from the premise that individual

rights and national sovereignty prevail over group rights. That group rights are, and

ought to be, subordinate to both the citizenship rights of the individual and the

sovereignty of the nation. This is Reconciliation based on a new paradigm of positive

affirmation, of unified Australian citizenship, and of balance - a balance of rights and

responsibilities; a balance of practical and symbolic progress. It is this balance which

holds the key to unlocking overwhelming support among the Australian people for

meaningful Reconciliation.

Some will say: Surely we’ve been here before. What’s different now? Good

question. I’m convinced we are dealing today with a new alignment of ideas and

individuals; a coming together of forces I have not witnessed in 32 years of public

life. As always, the Australian people themselves are the best guide.

Let me quote from just one of the many letters I have received since the Government

announced the Northern Territory intervention. It is from Mrs Terry Meehan, now

living in Melbourne. Her late husband, Dr Ken Meehan, was the sole doctor of

Yarrabah Aboriginal Community in Queensland for many years, looking after some

2,000 indigenous people. She writes that: ‘His whole life was dedicated to the welfare

of mankind but especially indigenous peoples both in New Guinea and Australia. …

During my time as his wife in Yarrabah I watched with frustration and anguish at the

devastation alcohol abuse caused. ‘The local canteen only served full strength beer

and of course was run by the local council. The number of alcohol related deaths was

great - but we weren’t allowed to speak about it publicly at that time. ‘You have

taken a much needed step in order to make a difference to help these wonderful

people become a proud people.’

A major catalyst for the new alignment I spoke about is the rise of the Indigenous

responsibility agenda and the intellectual firepower which a new generation of

Indigenous leaders has brought to Australian politics. I’ve been reminded that, in fact,

the Indigenous responsibility agenda is an old agenda; the agenda of Faith Bandler

and Neville Bonner among others.


At its core is the need for Aboriginal Australia to join the mainstream economy as the

foundation of economic and social progress. This is at the heart of the work the

Australian Government is pursuing under the Federal Minister Mal Brough’s

leadership. The central goal is to address the cancer of passive welfare and to create

opportunity through education, employment and home ownership. We seek

partnerships which respect communal land rights of Indigenous Australians, but with

a view to encouraging wider economic opportunity based on those rights.

Towards a better balance

I’m the first to admit that this whole area is one I have struggled with during the entire

time that I have been Prime Minister. My instinct has been to try and improve the

conditions for indigenous people within the framework of a united nation and unified

Australian citizenship. I have never felt comfortable with the dominant paradigm for

Indigenous policy - one based on the shame and guilt of non-indigenous Australians,

on a repudiation of the Australia I grew up in, on a rights agenda that led ultimately

and inexorably towards welfare dependency and on a philosophy of separateness

rather than shared destiny. This nation spent (and wasted) a lot of time in the last 30

years toying with the idea of a treaty implying that in some way we are dealing with

two separate nations. To me, this goal was always fundamentally flawed and

something I could never support. We are not a federation of tribes. We are one great

tribe; one Australia. I still believe that a collective national apology for past injustice

fails to provide the necessary basis to move forward. Just as the responsibility agenda

is gaining ground it would, I believe, only reinforce a culture of victimhood and take

us backwards.

I said a couple of years ago that part of my problem with the old Reconciliation

agenda was that it let too many people - particularly in white Australia - off the hook.

It let them imagine they could achieve something lasting and profound through

symbolic gesture alone, without grappling in a serious, sustained way with the real

practical dimensions of indigenous misery. There had to be a fundamental correction

to the unbalanced approach to rights and responsibilities. This in no way diminishes

the importance of government responsibility in providing resources and services.


I acknowledge that my own journey in arriving at this point has not been without

sidetracks and dry gullies. There have been low points when dialogue between me as

Prime Minister and many Indigenous leaders dwindled almost to the point of non-existence. I fully accept my share of the blame for that.

On the night of the 1998 election I publicly committed myself to endeavouring to

achieve Reconciliation by the year 2001. In the end, that did not happen.

I recognise now that, though emotionally committed to the goal, I was mistaken in

believing that it could be achieved in a form I truly believed in. The old paradigm’s

emphasis on shame, guilt and apologies made it impossible to reconcile the goal with

the path I was required to tread. The challenge I have faced around Indigenous

identity politics is in part an artefact of who I am and the time in which I grew up.

I have always acknowledged the past mistreatment of Aboriginal people and have

frequently said that the treatment of Indigenous Australians represents the most

blemished chapter in the history of this country.

Yet I have felt - and I still feel - that the overwhelming balance sheet of Australian

history is a positive one. In the end, I could not accept that Reconciliation required a

condemnation of the Australian heritage I had always owned. At the same time, I

recognise that the parlous position of Indigenous Australians does have its roots in

history and that past injustices have a real legacy in the present.

I believe we must find room in our national life to formally recognise the special

status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the first peoples of our nation.

We must recognise the distinctiveness of Indigenous identity and culture and the right

of Indigenous people to preserve that heritage. The crisis of indigenous social and

cultural disintegration requires a stronger affirmation of Indigenous identity and

culture as a source of dignity, self-esteem and pride. This is all the more so at a time

when the blossoming of Indigenous art and dance - and the way it gives unique

expression to Australian culture - is something we all celebrate and share.

A rare convergence

The Australian people want to move. They want to move towards a new settlement of

this issue. I share that desire which is why I am here tonight. I announce that, if re-


elected, I will put to the Australian people within 18 months a referendum to formally

recognise Indigenous Australians in our Constitution - their history as the first

inhabitants of our country, their unique heritage of culture and languages, and their

special (though not separate) place within a reconciled, indivisible nation.

My goal is to see a new Statement of Reconciliation incorporated into the Preamble of

the Australian Constitution. If elected, I would commit immediately to working in

consultation with Indigenous leaders and others on this task. It would reflect my

profound sentiment that Indigenous Australians should enjoy the full bounty that this

country has to offer; that their economic, social and cultural well-being should be

comparable to that of other Australians. I would aim to introduce a bill that would

include the Preamble Statement into Parliament within the first 100 days of a new

government. A future referendum question would stand alone. It would not be

blurred or cluttered by other constitutional considerations. I would seek to enlist wide

community support for a ‘Yes’ vote. I would hope and aim to secure the sort of

overwhelming vote achieved 40 years ago at the 1967 referendum.

If approached in the right spirit, I believe this is both realistic and achievable.

I see this as a dignified and respectful Reconciliation process. It is founded on the

notion that we are all Australians together; bound by a common set of laws which we

must all obey and from which we are entitled to equal justice. It rests on my

unshakeable belief that what unites us as Australians is far greater than what divides


A positive affirmation in our Constitution of the unique place of Indigenous

Australians can, I believe, be the cornerstone of a new settlement. I sense in the

community a rare and unexpected convergence of opinion on this issue between the

more conservative approach which I clearly identify with and those who traditionally

have favoured more of a group rights approach. It is a moment in time which should

be seized, lest it be lost. Reconciliation can’t be a 51-49 project; or even a 70-30

project. We need as a nation to lock-in behind a path we can all agree on. I hope the

steps on Australian History that I announced today can also make a practical

contribution. As I said at the time of the Australian History Summit, you can’t have a

proper comprehension of Australian history without an understanding of indigenous


history and its contribution to the Australian story. Summit participant Jackie Huggins

has written that an Australia where all our young are taught the continuing story of

indigenous Australians as part of our nation’s history ‘may not seem like such a

remarkable outcome but it is’. Indeed, she argues, ‘the teaching of our shared story is

the key to reconciliation because it allows us to understand each other and to build

healthy, respectful relationships’.

There is a window to convert this moment of opportunity into something real and

lasting in a way that gets the balance right. But I suspect it is small. Noel Pearson has

made the point to me that Australia seems to go through 30 to 40 year cycles on

indigenous affairs: periods of reorientation and attempts to find new solutions

(assimilation in the 1930s; equality and self-determination in the 1960s and ‘70s)

followed by decades of denial of the lack of progress in between. Some will no doubt

want to portray my remarks tonight as a form of Damascus Road conversion. In

reality, they are little more than an affirmation of well-worn liberal conservative


Their roots lie in a Burkean respect for custom and cultural tradition and the hidden

chain of obligations that binds a community together. In the world of practical politics

they owe much to the desire for national cohesion Disraeli spoke to in 19th Century

Britain - another time of great economic and social change. And in a literary sense

they find echoes in Michael Oakeshott’s conservatism and the sense of loss should

precious things disappear. In the end, my appeal to the broader Australian community

on this is simpler, and far less eloquent. It goes to love of country and a fair go. It’s

about understanding the destiny we share as Australians - that we are all in this

together. It’s about recognising that while ever our Indigenous citizens are left out or

marginalised or feel their identity is challenged we are all diminished. It’s about

appreciating that their long struggle for a fair place in the country is our struggle too.


I am a realist. True Reconciliation will become a reality only when it delivers better

lives for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. That, quite frankly, will be the

work of generations. I’m also an incurable optimist about this country. I always have

been. And I always will be. I’m in no doubt that if we continue to get the big things


right Australia’s best years are still ahead of us. My optimism has always found its

greatest nourishment in the character of the Australian people. Reconciliation - at its

best - is, and must be, a people’s movement. Now, for the first time in a long time,

we can see the outline of a new settlement for Indigenous policy in Australia.

It stands at a point of intersection between rights and responsibilities; between the

symbolic and the practical. It is, to be sure, less an end point than a point of light that

can guide us to a better future. We’re not there yet. But if we keep our balance, we

can get there soon.