Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | Australia

17 June 2016

The Opposition leader should heed the lessons of history when it comes to a referendum on Indigenous recognition or risk undermining the outcome, writes John Hewson.

Comments by Bill Shorten this week in support of a treaty with Indigenous Australians brought back memories of the republican referendum of some years ago.

At that time, the Chairman of The Australian Republican Movement, Malcolm Turnbull, was warned to focus on the simple question of whether or not Australians wanted to become a republic, rather than try to move onto the detail of proposals as to how the president should be appointed.

The warning was to avoid the detail, as the movement would easily split into two camps – those that wanted a popularly elected president, and those who preferred some other means of appointment.

The danger being that the then Prime Minister, John Howard, an unreconstructed monarchist, could frame a question, for a particular model of republic with a head of state appointed by the Parliament, that would be easily lost.

Even though a republican model of one form or another had won a majority of the opinion polls prior to the referendum, the question was lost. Indeed, nationally nearly 55 per cent voted “No”, with none of the states recording an overall “Yes” vote.

In the aftermath, Turnbull blamed Howard for the defeat and claimed, “History will remember him for one thing. He was the prime minister who broke this nation’s heart”.

Clearly, this experience still loomed large in Turnbull’s memory when, this week, he claimed Shorten was out of line in his comments on a treaty.

Appearing on ABC’s Q&A program, having supported the recognition of first Australians in the Constitution, Shorten went on to pose and answer a question to himself – specifically, “ Do I think we need to move beyond just constitutional recognition to talking about what a post-constitutional recognition settlement with Indigenous people looks like? Yes I do”.

“Could it look like a treaty?” asked host Tony Jones. “Yes,” replied Shorten.

In response, Turnbull commented, “To introduce another element, a treaty, the terms of which is unknown, the nature of which is unknown, adds a level of uncertainty that puts at risk the constitutional recognition process.” The Prime Minister added that Shorten should have been “more disciplined and more focused”.

Just as the detail as to the process to appoint/elect a president was divisive, both within the Republican Movement, and within the broader Australian community, so too is the concept of a treaty divisive, both within the Indigenous community, and across the nation more broadly.

Proper and fulsome recognition of first Australians in the Constitution is one of the most important challenges before our society today, and absolutely fundamental to the evolving process of reconciliation, and to the challenge of effectively closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

I suggest it needs to be handled sensitively and managed carefully, with bipartisan support at every stage.

Up until this election campaign, the bipartisanship has been carefully developed and managed, and therefore unquestioned. All major parties had supported recognition, the only debate being confined to whether and how to also remove remaining racially discriminating sections.

Shorten risked undermining all this by introducing the concept of a treaty, especially in an election campaign, in a sense catching Turnbull short, not to mention significant sections of both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

Referendums are notoriously difficult to win, requiring a double majority – a majority of the six states, and a majority nationally. Only about 18 per cent have been successful since 1901.

It would be another tragedy if, given the overwhelming support for constitutional recognition in national opinion polls, the referendum were to be lost because divisive elements were allowed to have a bearing on the fundamentally important drafting of the question.

The process should be a staged one. The first stage should be a simple question as to whether or not the Australian people want to recognise first Australians in the Constitution. Later stages could address other dimensions of the process.

This piece was also published by the Southern Highland News.

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Hewson, John. 2016. "Australia Needs Bipartisanship On Recognition - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.