Section 25 of the Australian Constitution provides, to this day:
Provision as to races disqualified from voting
For the purposes of the last section, if by the law of any State all persons of any race are disqualified from voting at elections for the more numerous House of the Parliament of the State, then, in reckoning the number of the people of the State or of the Commonwealth, persons of that race resident in that State shall not be counted.
In other words, a State can, under the Constitution, disqualify an entire race from voting, and the members of that race will not be included in the quota for representation of that State in the Commonwealth parliament.
You only have to read the Constitution to realise how deeply racist it remains. This represents important unfinished business for Australia.
Our Constitution is the founding document of our nation. Some of its contents may be symbolic, but it is no less important as a cornerstone of our polity for that: symbols matter. Much of its contents have real practical consequences.
We, the community governed by the Constitution, have the right to change it so that it reflects our values. It can be amended by a majority of voters in a majority of States.
In thinking about our Constitution, it is good to consider the type of Australia we want to see in the future.
It is imperative that Australia becomes a republic, so that we are, at least in our forms of government, independent from other nations. It makes no sense to have our head of state a person from a foreign country who attains that office by inheritance.
Pressing though a republic is, it ought not to be accomplished without a just settlement with the First Australians. That must have priority.
After a lengthy and consultative process, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have spoken.
In their Uluru Statement from the Heart, the outcome of the 2017 National Constitutional Convention, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples make a simple request that all Australians should endorse:
We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.
We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.
Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.
We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.
In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.
The Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull, after cabinet consideration of the Uluru Statement, dismissed it with the words:
The government does not believe such an addition to our national representative institutions is either desirable or capable of winning acceptance in a referendum.
He said that the voice to Parliament ‘would inevitably become seen as a third chamber of parliament’ – but provided no justification for the assertion. It is plainly wrong.
Ironically, in the light of s 25 of the Constitution, quoted above, and which allows the exclusion of entire races from voting, he said:
Our democracy is built on the foundation of all Australian citizens having equal civic rights … a constitutionally enshrined additional representative assembly for which only Indigenous Australians could vote for or serve in is inconsistent with this fundamental principle.
Yet another attempt to build reconciliation between First Australians and those of us who have come after has been cast aside with casual contempt.
Our Constitution badly needs an overhaul. The implementation of the Uluru Statement should be the first priority.