Bede Harris recently gave evidence to the federal parliament’s Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition Relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, chaired by Senator Patrick Dodson, following the publication of his written submission to the Committee.
“My submission argued that a treaty would be a useful first step in recognising the constitutional rights for Indigenous people, but cautioned that because a treaty itself would not change the law, anything agreed to in a treaty would have to be put either into the Constitution or into statute.
“I therefore recommended that the Constitution be amended so as to confer power on the Commonwealth to enter into agreements with Indigenous people and to enact legislation to give effect to such agreements which would provide a mechanism for the establishment of institutions for Indigenous self-government.”
“What the history of the period 2007 – 2017 has shown is that the obstacle to the acknowledgement of constitutional rights for Indigenous people does not lie in uncertainty on how to achieve it. Rather it lies in an unwillingness on the part of governments to effect the necessary constitutional change and to bring the broad Australian public along in support of that project.”
Although Australia ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1975, the Constitution does not prohibit discrimination on grounds of ethnicity. Dr Harris said that such a prohibition should be put in the Constitution, subject to Parliament having the power to enact legislation redressing historical disadvantage.
Dr Harris noted the proposal contained in the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart requested that an elected advisory Indigenous body be established to advi
se Parliament on how legislation affected Indigenous people. He said that the government’s argument that this proposal would amount to the creation of a third house of Parliament was incorrect.
“The proposed body would have only an advisory role, the request for its establishment was modest, and that the government’s curt rejection of the proposal was dismissive of the concerns of Indigenous people,” Dr Harris said.