The benefits of reforming the Constitution
How will constitutional reform benefit non-Indigenous Australia?
There is nothing to be afraid of in extending recognition to the first peoples of this land, there is in fact a lot to be gained. Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution will:
- enrich the identity of the nation as a shared identity
- improve the effectiveness of the nation’s democracy by increasing the protection of the rights of all Australians
- make significant headway towards a reconciled Australia.
Constitutional reform will affect all Australians. At its core, recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution is about nation-building. Building a nation based on respect for the dignity and humanity of the first peoples of this land is something for all Australians to strive for. This process will encourage all Australians to examine what it means to be Australian and what place Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have in that collective identity.
How will constitutional reform improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?
Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution has the potential to:
- address a history of exclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the life of the nation;
- improve the sense of self worth and social and emotional well-being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples both as individuals, communities and as part of the national identity;
- enshrine the principles of non-discrimination in to our Constitution;
- change the context in which debates about the challenges faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities take place; and
- build positive relationships based on trust and mutual respect between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the broader Australian community
These benefits will make significant progress towards overcoming Indigenous disadvantage and move Australia closer to Reconciliation.
How will constitutional reform advance Reconciliation?
Building a nation based on respect for the dignity and humanity of the first peoples of this land will form an integral part of moving towards a reconciled Australia. Mick Dodson notes
There has never really been a moment in the history of our country where there’s been a formal recognition or acknowledgment of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first peoples of this country.
The changes that occur in the strengthening of relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians during the referendum process will be just as important as the changes that occur on the pages of the Constitution.
Achieving a successful referendum will require a united effort. Australians will need to walk together and talk together in order to create a constitution that truly reflects the heart and soul of the nation. In essence, constitutional reform is about reconciling our past, building a solid foundation for the Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationship and looking ahead to a collective future.
Will constitutional reform give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people more rights than other Australians?
No. Changing the preamble does not confer any new rights. Changing the body of the Constitution to include protection from discrimination would give all Australians the benefit of having their rights protected.
The push for constitutional reform is not about giving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples more rights, or advantaging them over the rest of the community. It’s about recognising their special place in the history of the nation, and ensuring that the Constitution doesn’t allow government to actively discriminate against any Australian on the basis of race.
Is constitutional reform merely a symbolic gesture with no practical outcomes?
No. Removing the discriminatory provisions from our Constitution will have lasting practical affects through the protection of human rights. Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in a preamble is largely symbolic, but that does not diminish its importance in any way.
Symbolic and practical outcomes are not mutually exclusive. The power of symbols is that they can inspire action. This in turn can result in positive practical effects that lead to an improved quality of life for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Symbols are also an important part of building nations. They are reminders of a collective past and provide guidance towards a future all Australians can aspire to together. The Australian flag, the national anthem, and the green and gold colours of national sporting teams, are all symbols that connect Australians to the nation’s identity and inspire feelings and actions about that identity.
The positive effects of symbolic recognition extend beyond Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to all Australians and a shared identity. As noted by Professor Larissa Behrendt:
Symbolic recognition that could alter the way Australians see their history will also affect their views on the kind of society they would like to become. It would alter the symbols and sentiments Australians use to express their identity and ideals. It would change the context in which debates about Indigenous issues and rights take place. It would alter the way the relationship between Indigenous
and non-Indigenous Australia is conceptualised. These shifts will begin to permeate them. In this way, the long term effects of symbolic recognition could be quite substantial.
 Professor Mick Dodson, The continuing relevance of the Constitution for Indigenous peoples (Speech delivered at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra, 13 July 2008). At http://www.naa.gov.au/collection/explore/federation/talks/dodson.aspx (viewed 31 January 2011).
 L Behrendt, Achieving Social Justice: Indigenous Rights and Australia’s Future (2003), pp 144-145.