No Constitutional Recognition for Indigenous Australians

January 2, 2020

Writing a preamble to the constitution could be more difficult than changing the constitution itself, former treasurer Peter Costello has warned those campaigning for constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians.

Mr Costello pushed for Australia to become a republic in the 1999 referendum, which also proposed a preamble recognising Indigenous Australians. The move to make Australia a republic was defeated 55 to 45 per cent; only 31 per cent of people voted for the preamble, with 61 per cent against.

“The thing that amazed me about that republican referendum – the preamble was defeated heavier than the republic,” Mr Costello said in an interview to mark the release of the 1998-99 cabinet papers by the National Archives of Australia.

The proposed preamble included the line: “We, the Australian people, commit ourselves to this constitution … honouring Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, the nation’s first people, for their deep kinship with their lands and for their ancient and continuing cultures which enrich the life of our country.”

“You’d say to yourself it’s just a preamble, it’s just words, it’s just recognition. Shouldn’t that enjoy wider support?” Mr Costello said. “Because it expresses values and history it can actually be more controversial. I think there’s a big lesson in that for the reconciliation movement. Don’t think just because it’s words it’s going to be easier; in many respects that’s harder.”

Indigenous groups have strongly criticised the Morrison government for ruling out including a “voice” to parliament in any future referendum on constitutional reform since winning the May election.

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