The following opinion pieces have been published by the President and Commissioners. Reproduction of the opinion pieces must include reference to where the opinion piece was originally published.
Indigenous inclusion is good for our constitution
Author: By Mick Gooda the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner
Publication: The Sydney Morning Herald, p. 13 Friday 9 July 2010
On this day 110 years ago Queen Victoria gave the royal assent to the Australian constitution. It remains a living document today - at various times relied on, argued about and revered. It can be divisive and cohesive.
Many things about Australia have changed since July 9, 1900: two world wars have been fought; humans have walked on the moon; our population has grown from fewer than 4 million to about 22 million. But one thing that has not changed is the place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as Australia's first peoples.
This fact remains unrecognised in Australia's founding document. It may seem insignificant to some but it upsets me, both as an Aboriginal man, and as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner.
Throughout school and civic life we are taught that the constitution is the fabric that holds us together. So what sort of message does it send when there is no recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our constitution? What message does that absence send after Australia lent its formal support in April last year to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?
The potential, almost subliminal, messages people take away from it - especially younger Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples - cannot be good for our self-esteem, sense of self-worth and value.
I reckon today, Constitution Day, is as good as any to begin a discussion about what an Australian constitution that gives full recognition to the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples might look like.
The national apology in 2008 was the crest of a new wave of commitment towards reconciliation in Australia. We owe it to ourselves as a nation to ride this wave further to give indigenous Australians the constitutional recognition we deserve.
This is not a new idea. Constitutional reform was flagged by the previous prime minister, Kevin Rudd, in the national apology as part of a series of efforts that could improve the life outcomes of indigenous Australians.
His predecessor, John Howard, went to the 2007 election with a commitment to working towards constitutional recognition.
We have already seen firm building blocks laid in parts of Australia. Victoria has already changed its state constitution preamble to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. So has Queensland. It now honours them as ''the First Australians, whose lands, winds and waters we all now share; and pay tribute to their unique values, and their ancient and enduring cultures, which deepen and enrich the life of our community''. In NSW, the government recently announced its intention to formally recognise Aboriginal people in the preamble of the state constitution.
And countries around the world that have supported the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples are looking to recognise and enshrine these rights in their constitutions.
As these moves have shown, this does not have to be a scary discussion. But let's not allow ourselves to get sidelined, especially by those who dismiss it as an act of mere symbolism that will not put food on the table of disadvantaged indigenous families.
It may not, but generations of legislation that treats Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people unfairly - whether it was the forcible removal of children or the Northern Territory emergency response - does play a role in making it harder for us to put that metaphorical food on the table.
Constitutional reform is more than just symbolism. The positive effect on our self-esteem, the value of our culture and history, and the respect it marshals from others can make real differences to the lives of indigenous Australians everywhere.
To achieve it, in the lead-up to the federal election let's get the major parties and independents to support constitutional recognition, at least in general terms. Then let's harness the strong public support for full reconciliation to build widespread and bipartisan support for constitutional reform. And once we have the political commitment and public support, we can sit down and work out what the constitutional words might be.
The constitution is a living document and the time is right to finally breathe Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life into it.
Mick Gooda is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner.