In the weeks since the Expert Panel reported to the Gillard government on the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, there has been a torrent of gloomy predictions from media pundits. Some say the panel’s recommendations for reform have overreached and are bound to fail.
This is all very premature. There is a long way to go in this process, and the true measure of the panel’s ideas is yet to emerge.
One of the most important questions is whether constitutional recognition is capable of making a difference to the everyday lives of indigenous peoples.
In thinking about what difference constitutional change might make, it may help to recall the legacy of the 1967 referendum. Even though the constitutional amendments were modest, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to look back on that day with a sense of pride and achievement.
The latest push for constitutional recognition has the potential to have an even bigger impact. Not only could it be a moment of nationbuilding and reconciliation, but there is scope for the constitutional changes to go further than the 1967 amendments in making a real difference in people’s lives.
If only for this reason, we should put aside the gloomy predictions and give the expert panel’s recommendations the detailed debate and analysis they deserve.
Dr Paul Kildea is referendums project director at UNSW's Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law.
This article first ran in the Australian Financial Review. More than Mere Symbolism - AFR 10 February 2012.pdf