Remarks to the Indigenous Referendum Council

17 Jul 2017
Prime Minister
Indigenous Affairs


Thank you very much.

Can I just add to Linda’s remarks before we get on to the business of the meeting, that we are here on Gadigal country as Linda said - and we thank you for that beautiful Acknowledgement of Country.

And of course we have just a few kilometres from us what is now called La Perouse. Continuous Aboriginal settlement. Extraordinary. The Aboriginal community of La Perouse, resilient in the middle of the biggest city in Australia. Their ancestors saw the ships come, saw Captain Cook, Captain Phillip, and through all of those, the oppression and the injustice, have maintained that extraordinary spirit.

It is I think emblematic of the extraordinary resilience of the First Australians so that is I think a positive note of resilience and optimism that we should bear in mind here, as you acknowledged Linda, on Gadigal country.

Thank you Pat and Mark and all of the Council for the report. We are very pleased to receive it after 18 months of your work.

We’re not here of course to make a decision. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss with you the recommendation that you’ve made.

As you know, it follows a proposal, many proposals – but in particular the most recent lineage, it follows a proposal of Prime Minister Howard in 2007 that we should recognise our first Australians in the Constitution.

This report that you’ve presented us with is the fourth major report on the issue.

There was the 2012 expert panel report that was commissioned by Prime Minister Gillard, the 2014 Act of Recognition Review Panel and of course the 2015 Joint Select Committee Report provided to Prime Minister Abbott.

Of course many of you were on one or more of those panels.

The fact that Bill and I are here today demonstrates the bipartisan spirit with which the Parliament, each Parliament has approached this issue and which I hope will continue as we examine the recommendations.

It is wonderful that we are here together with First Australians who are Members of the Parliament, Malarndirri and Pat and Ken and Linda of course, who gave the acknowledgement right at the beginning.

You four are of course are indeed powerful voices in the Parliament of Australia and I thank you for the guidance you’ve offered us.

This also shows that the discussion about recognition has been going on for some time and that’s not just because we like talking about these big issues, but because it’s very complex.

We started the process with five options and we note that your advice has not provided a shortlist and it has, in fact, while it has considered the work of the Expert Panel and the Select Committee, very thorough work, it has essentially rejected the recommendations that those two groups and other groups has made.

Its simply recommended one constitutional change which on any view is a relatively new concept in the Australian debate about recognition. It is a latecomer in that respect.

So what we’re being presented with in your report, and indeed all Australians will be presented with, if this was to go to a referendum, would be one option which is a constitutionally entrenched advisory body - a Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice to the Australian Parliament.

It is clearly, as we know, its Parliament’s duty and Parliament’s duty alone to propose changes to the Constitution but the Constitution cannot be changed by Parliament. Only the Australian people can do that.

There’s no political deal, no cross-party compromise, no leader’s handshake, even between leaders as amicable as Bill and myself, can deliver constitutional change. To do that a constitutionally conservative nation has to be persuaded that the amendments respect the fundamental values of the Constitution and will deliver precise changes clearly understood that would benefit all Australians.

And we do not want to embark – I’m sure none of us do – in some sort of exercise in heroic failure. I have some considerable experience in trying to change the Constitution and know better than most how hard it is.

We need to ensure that any changes that are proposed are ones that meet both the expectations of First Australians but also will bring together all Australians because this is a vote of all Australians.

We are looking forward to having a frank discussion about that now, and to understand how you’ve reached your conclusions. In particular, to understand why the recommendations of the previous panels and committees that you were asked to consider where set to one side in favour of the new proposal. And also I’ll just add finally that we acknowledge the recommendation related to a Declaration of Recognition, which would be enacted by legislation as a symbolic statement bringing together historic recognition of our First Australians, our British institutions on which modem Australia was founded and of course our, today, 21st century multicultural nation.

We look forward to discussing all of that as well.

Thank you very much for your work.

It is very short on detail, couldn’t be shorter on detail in fact, but it is a very big idea. It is a very big new idea, so it’s worthy of considerable discussion here today.