Date: 
Thursday 19 January 2012

The Australian Human Rights Commission has welcomed the release today of the Report from the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Commission President, Catherine Branson QC, said it was important to Australia’s future as a cohesive, inclusive and respectful society that the nation’s founding document and pre-eminent source of law, our Constitution, recognise the distinct place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia’s history and its future.

“Constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will benefit all Australians,” Ms Branson said.

“The Commission supports the Expert Panel’s recommendations and believes that coupling recognition with the removal of provisions in the Constitution that permit discrimination based on race will signal a national commitment to racial equality for all peoples in Australia.”

The Commission’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Mick Gooda, an ex-officio member of the Expert Panel, said recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution was the logical next step in the unfinished business of reconciliation and would take the nation closer to being one built on understanding and respect.

“Since the historic Mabo decision in 1992, our legal system has recognised the prior occupation and ongoing physical and cultural connection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to the lands and territories of Australia,” Commissioner Gooda said.

“It is right that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should now be recognised in the Constitution as the first peoples of this land.”

Ms Branson said the Commission supported the recommendation for a new section recognising that Australia was first occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and acknowledging their cultures, languages and continuing relationship with traditional lands and waters.

“The Commission also considers that any constitutional amendments must retain the power of Parliament to make laws that benefit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in order to address the ongoing inequalities experienced across many areas of life by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,” Ms Branson said.

She said the Commission’s faith in the Expert Panel’s recommendations was reinforced by the extensive consultative and inclusive manner in which it undertook its task.

“The Commission draws comfort and confidence from the fact that the Expert Panel engaged in widespread consultation across all parts of the country to hear the views of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.”

She said the Commission accepted there would be differences of opinion in the community about the best way to achieve constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“Efforts must now focus on building consensus to ensure the chance is not lost to shape a constitution that can be equally respected by us all,” she said.

To read the Expert Panel’s Report go to http://www.youmeunity.org.au/

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Media contact: Louise McDermott (02) 9284 9851 or 0419 258 597