Taking the next step towards positive and equal relations

3 July 2018

A failure of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to "learn from the past" has marred advancement of Indigenous recognition in the Australian constitution but there is a new momentum for change on the not-too-distant horizon.

Speaking on the eve of the inaugural First Nations Governance Forum in Canberra, ANU professor of law Mick Dodson said he was confident on the next referendum on Indigenous recognition would "lead to positive and equal relations between our country's citizens".

"While it is unlikely every problem will be solved on this front, it is essential that we make some strides towards a comprehensive rapprochement," Professor Dodson said.

Professor Dodson is co-convenor of the inaugural First Nations Governance Forum being held at Old Parliament House over the next two days.

The Forum will seek to find practical solutions to advancing policy objectives towards achieving constitutional recognition for Indigenous people in the Australian constitution.

Around 170 experts will attend the forum over the next two days and will also seek to learn from the experiences of First Nations models developed overseas, including in Canada, Scandinavia, the United States and New Zealand.

Central to discussion will be last year's Uluru Statement from the Heart which called for the establishment of a First Nations Voice in the Australian Constitution. One of it's key recommendations was for the establishment of a Makarrata Commission to oversee a process of 'agreement-making' and 'truth-telling' between governments and Indigenous peoples.

ANU chancellor Gareth Evans told the dinner that he was confident that there was enough goodwill in the general community for real reform to be embraced, despite the Uluru Statement "falling on profoundly deaf government ears".

He said while "consensus on meaningful constitutional change - change that is not just symbolic but substantive" still seemed a long way off, he was "genuinely optimistic that the necessary consensus is achievable".

Professor Evans said he was particularly drawn to the notion of the Makarrata Commission, which he described as "a negotiated conciliatory compact between indigenous and other Australians". He said it was an "idea whose time has come".

He said another compelling idea contained in the Uluru Statement was to give Indigenous people a voice in the decision making processes of Parliament when issues affecting First Nations peoples were being debated.

"This would not be a powerful voice, or a decisive one (that could) block measures or even initiate them. It would just be a formal voice; one that could not be easily silenced and one that would enable meaningful and respectful engagement."

Professor Evans said there were still "shamefully racist clauses" in the constitution which needed to be removed and that he would like to see a preamble added that captured "core Australian values, including an appropriately respectful acknowledgement of the identity and the role of our first Australians".

Professor Dodson agreed that reform was possible and that the forum would play a significant role in moving that national policy conversation forward.

"(However), the one indisputable thread running through the many tragedies in our shared history is that we fail to learn from our past," Professor Dodson said.

He noted a historical "failure of imagination and its associated failure of courage" in dealing with constitutional recognition and that "we ought to be addressing. the unresolved issues of dispossession and our inability to deal with old problems in a new world demands we do things differently".

He said the next referendum would hopefully "lead to positive and equal relations between our country's citizens".

"Lets call upon Parliament to correct the failings of 1967, to create racial equality by reflecting these heart-felt statements in law so our laws and hearts will be together synchronised. for a change not limping in the rear," Professor Dodson said.