Towards a successful referendum
Is Australia ready to vote yes?
Current interest in constitutional reform builds on the growing awareness around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and issues by all Australians. Ten years ago, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation identified constitutional reform as unfinished business of the reconciliation agenda, calling for a referendum.
Recent events like the Reconciliation March in the year 2000, the National Apology in 2008, the Australian Government support for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the formal recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in several state constitutions, and widespread campaigns on Indigenous health have shown that Australians are standing up in support of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
At the federal level, bipartisan support for amending the Constitution has been maintained since 2007. Bipartisan support was reaffirmed by both major parties as election commitments in the federal election held in August 2010.
Australians are increasingly supportive of the opportunity to build positive relationships through constitutional reform. Key findings of Reconciliation Australia’s recent Reconciliation Barometer indicate over 85% of Australians believe the Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationship is important. Further, a newspoll survey found that 75 per cent of Australians support constitutional reform to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
Despite this, the 2009 National Human Rights Consultation highlighted a general lack of understanding by the Australian public of the nation’s political and legal system, constitution and referendum processes. Because of this, a widespread education and consultation campaign will be imperative to achieving a successful referendum.
What can be learned from past referendums?
There have been 44 referendums held since 1901 and only eight of these have been successful. The most successful referendum in Australia’s history was in 1967 where 90.77% of the nation came together in support of Indigenous rights. This is in stark contrast to the 1999 referendum which proposed to alter the Constitution so that Australia became a republic and insert a new preamble. The debate was characterised by political disunity and failed to capture the public’s imagination, the result was a no vote for both amendments.
The history of referendums in Australia shows that the Expert Panel must work to ensure that:
- bipartisan support is maintained
- popular ownership is gained
- there is extensive popular education.
What is the Expert Panel on Constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians?
The Australian Government has established the Expert Panel on Constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians. The Expert Panel consists of a range of respected and accomplished individuals, including Indigenous and community leaders, constitutional experts and parliamentary members. The Panel will be co-chaired by Professor Patrick Dodson and Mr Mark Leibler AC. The Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander Social Justice Commission, Mick Gooda, is a member of the Expert Panel.
The Expert Panel will lead a broad national consultation and community engagement program to seek the views of a wide spectrum of the community, including from those who live in rural and regional areas and will report its findings to the Australian Government by December 2011.
For more information on the Expert Panel see http://www.fahcsia.gov.au/sa/indigenous/progserv/engagement/Pages/constitutional_recognition.aspx
 In his 2007 pre-election commitments former Prime Minister John Howard committed to a referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples: The Hon J Howard MP, Prime Minister, The Right Time: Constitutional Recognition for Indigenous Australians (Speech delivered at the Sydney Institute, Sydney, 11 October 2007). At www.abc.net.au/news/opinion/speeches/files/20071011_howard.pdf (viewed 13 September 2010). His successor Kevin Rudd referred to the need to work on constitutional recognition in the National Apology: Commonwealth, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 13 February 2008, p 172 (The Hon Kevin Rudd MP, Prime Minister). At http://www.aph.gov.au/hansard/reps/dailys/dr130208.pdf (viewed 10 November 2010).
 The Australian Labor Party, The Australian Greens & The Australian Labor Party Agreement (2010), p 2. At www.alp.org.au/getattachment/255f5397-f9da.../government-agreements/ (viewed 25 October 2010). Coalition, Coalition Election Policy 2010: The Coalition’s plan for real action for Indigenous Australians (2010), p 4. At http://www.liberal.org.au/~/media/Files/Policies%20and%20Media/Community/Indigenous%20Australians%20Policy.ashx (viewed 13 September 2010).
 Newspoll Omnibus Survey February 2011 quoted in A National Conversation About Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Constitutional Recognition: Discussion Paper May 2011, p8, accessed online 5 June 2011, http://youmeunity.org.au/be-informed/discussion-paper
 National Human Rights Consultation Committee, National Human Rights Consultation Report, Attorney-General’s Department (2009), p 17. At http://www.humanrightsconsultation.gov.au/www/nhrcc/nhrcc.nsf/Page/Report_NationalHumanRightsConsultationReportDownloads (viewed 13 September 2010).
 G Williams and D Hume, People Power: The History and Future of the Referendum in Australia (2010), pp 252-254.
 The Australian Electoral Commission, Referendum Dates and Results 1906 – Present, http://www.aec.gov.au/Elections/referendums/Referendum_Dates_and_Results.htm (viewed 1 November 2010).
 Constitution Alteration (Aboriginals) Bill 1967 (Cth).
 Constitution Alteration (Establishment of Republic) Bill 1999 (Cth).
 Constitution Alteration (Preamble) Bill 1999 (Cth).