Improving our country’s Constitution

The moves to recognise Australia’s First Peoples in our nation’s Constitution are starting to gather pace.  The federal government has pledged to hold a referendum on this by the time of the next election – that is, within 2 years – which is not a lot of time to build community awareness and understanding of the issues.

The Panel established to engage and seek community views has set up a website which has a lot of background information, as well as providing a chance for people to provde feedback.  The site is called YouMeUnity.

Below is a video on that site of an interview I did outlining what I believe the benefits will be from Constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR) is a group I have been involved with for a few years.  They are also running a campaign in support of Constitutional recognition and their website also contains a good amount of background information.

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  1. Andrew:

    I just finished watching your interesting video. Aboriginal peoples got the vote when I was only 12 years old. I remember wondering why they weren’t allowed to vote already, especially since they had fought in wars alongside other Australians.

    I would also like to see all Australian workers get equal pay, regardless of their race, religion or citizenship status. Anything less would be a recipe for racial and religious tensions, which I suspect the government may intend to use to outlaw race and religion altogether.

  2. Lorikeet – who doesn’t get equal pay now for religous, racial or other reasons than gender?

  3. Wondering, it’s true in a literal sense that some Indigenous people were voting before 1901, but as the link you provided also shows, it was only a few – and specific efforts were made to further preclude them after 1901.

    Indeed, until the 1967 referendum we had the ridiculous situation where some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were entitled to vote, but were not to be counted in determining the total population of the country – in particular for the purposes of determining how many House of Reps seats each state was entitled to in the federal parliament, and the per capita assessments for distributing Commonwealth grants (thus discriminating not just against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves, but also against those states which had a higher proportion of them living there.

    And as the article you linked to also states, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Queensland were not able to vote at federal level until 1962 and at state level until 1965 – even though as Lorikeet rightly points out they were allowed to fight in wars alongside other Australians (but denied access to the same assistance when they returned).

    Even after the legal right to vote was made universally available at law in the 1960s, efforts to ensure that those living in more remote areas had similar opportunities to cast their votes have been sporadic, including the Howard government defunding an Electoral Commission program aimed at making it easier for Indigenous people to cast their vote, and trying electoral law changes aimed at making it harder for them to cast an assisted vote – quite blatantly driven by a recognition that Aboriginal people in remote communities were much more likely to vote Labor.

    Even the Howard government’s action – later ruled to be in breach of the Constitution – in trying to eliminate any right for prisoners to vote was fairly obviously linked to the fact that there is a disproportionately large number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our prisons (who are disproportionally much less likely to vote for the Liberal/Nationals).

  4. Wondering:

    Underpayment of workers is happening in aged care and also on the land. Visa holders are being used to hold wages down, instead of the government increasing wages to attract Australian workers to jobs.

    Some visa holders get paid less than Australian citizens. You would be better off asking Andrew for more details, since he knows more about visas than I do.

    In 2009, the Australian Farmers’ Federation won the right NOT to pay penalty rates to anyone.

    Over the weekend, I was watching an interesting show about the participation of aboriginal peoples in war, during which time they were treated equally and given equal pay. When the war was over, they returned to their communities, thereby missing out on the financial benefits available to white Australians.

  5. question.
    don,t we need a referendum for any major changes to the Australian constitution. ore is it the case of the govt of the day making changes that would be not lawful with out a referendum from the people ,

    saying that i agree the country’s first ppl should be recognized in the constitution and respected accordingly .

  6. Yes RC, it does require a referendum to make any change (even minor ones) to the Australian Constitution. A referendum on this issue has been promised, although the date has yet to be set and the content(s) of the question(s) will be finalised after consultations throughout this year.

  7. mite sound silly but who sets the questions and who do they consult with
    i asked because i thought the constitution belonged to the people and iv never been consulted
    i know you are going to say that’s rite it dose and we get our say through referenda but we should also have a say on the question itself as well because we all know we have been cheated out of change before . because of the question itself and the way its asked .

  8. RC – in the end the Parliament decides the question (which is required under the Constitution as it stands).

    However, the public consultations are happening now. The website I linked to in my original post – – provides some different mechanisms and info for you to have your say.

    I think on this occasion, the government (and hopefully all parties) will wanting to the question/s to succeed (unlike the Howard Govt with the republic referendum). That won’t necessarily mean it will be the best question/s, but at least they won’t be intentionally framed in a way to help it fail.

  9. question
    is there any sort of penalty for a person or a govt who changes anything in the constitution with out the consent of the people .

  10. Wakeup – the real reason behind the proposed changes to the Constitution is to further disempower the people. Aborigines are already included in it and are just an excuse to coverup the real motive. Contact the organisation trying to expose the truth before its too late – then spread the word ie – Community Law Resource Group.

  11. Any evidence you can point to Patricia to back up your assertion that the proposed changes to the Constitution would “further disempower the people”?

    I had a look at a site of the Group you mentioned, and the one you linked to in your name, but couldn’t see anything making that claim, let alone justifying it.

  12. in the event of australia becoming a republic
    will we have to pen a complete new constitution or will the current one remain.

  13. No, it wouldn’t need a complete new Constitution. If the 1999 referendum has passed, the only thing that would have changed in the Constitution would have been references to the Queen and the Governor-General would have been replaced by references to the President, who would have been appointed by a two-thirds majority of the Parliament.

    Everything else would have stayed the same.

  14. A few weeks ago, I’m sure someone from the DLP who is highly knowledgeable about the Constitution told me that there are proposals to change it in ways that are negative. I can vaguely remember an allusion to a High Court challenge, but will need to check it out further.

  15. From what I have seen so far about the DLP Senator, I’d be surprised if there is anyone in the party “highly knowedgeable” about anything: on the carbon tax he is reported as questioning why people are to be compensated for the side-effects … duh. I’d have thought anyone running for politics would know this is normal practice.

  16. thought i herd on the news today that the alp will now be know as bobs
    glp . or mabe the bobs ghp ( god help us party).

  17. i see a few things that need to be changed in the constitution first we need a bill of rites
    then we need to delete reference to the crown because our constitution is a charter constitution we need to make it a covenant constitution to become truly our own
    then we need to change the words
    from (a right to be dealt with according to the law ) to (a right to due process of the law)
    to change anything in the constitution every citizen in Australia has the rite to have there say
    no one can change even the spelling of a word without the approvall of the majority .
    to do this there needs to be a referendum if not it would not be legal .
    therefore i think to change OUR the citizens of this country’s constitution would be very difficult and take some years to accomplish.

  18. From what I have seen so far about the DLP Senator, I’d be surprised if there is anyone in the party “highly knowedgeable” about anything: on the carbon tax he is reported as questioning why people are to be compensated for the side-effects … duh. I’d have thought anyone running for politics would know this is normal practice

    Senator Madigan is on the scrutiny of New Taxes “Carbon Tax” Committee so I’m sure he is quite aware of the pros-and cons of this toxic tax. Travelling with him its now obvious that should this tax pass legislation then many of our regional towns and cities will suffer considerably. Perhaps you should be asking the government on why with all its resources it failed to release the enormous damage that will follow. Its seems the big poluters will be the winners with heavy compensation while medium size companies (which are numerous) in regional centres will suffer greatly.

  19. I am torn on this issue.
    On one hand I believe that we could benefit from a modern constitution that is more representative of our society than the document drafted in the late 19th century.
    On the other hand I am afraid of the unforeseen consequences of explicit statements in the constitution.

    Disclaimer: I am going to attempt to describe a constitutional amendment from our past without checking facts, so if I get details wrong please help me out ;)

    Our existing constitution relies heavily on unwritten assumptions or covenants.

    An unwritten covenant was broken which destabilised the government.
    One of these assumptions was that if a senate member is unable to complete their term they would be replaced with a member of the same party. In 1974 a Queensland ALP member of the federal Senate died and was replaced with a member not sanctioned by the ALP by the Premier of QLD Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. This was a key contributor to the hostile senate of 74-75 and the dismissal of the Whitlam government.

    The precedent that this set was quickly legislated against by the parties who had benefited from it.
    Following the double dissolution and the subsequent election, the Fraser government amended the constitution to explicitly state that a senate member who doesn’t complete their term in office can only be replaced with a member from the same party. (my paraphrasing as per memory, hope it makes sense)

    Unforeseen Consequences.
    It is now common practice in Australia for non-independent Senators to retire mid-term. They are then replaced with a non-elected party member who will take the benefit of incumbency to the next election.

    I believe our existing constitution does not explicitly guarantee the right of free speech, however it is assumed to exist. If we were to explicitly define Freedom of Speech in the constitution it would then be subject to technical definition and interpretation. This could quite possibly lead to a reduction in individual rights or a greater reliance on legal mechanisms for clarification.

  20. Good post Fisher.

    I largely agree and am equally torn. The reason the tax Act is two inches thick and keeps an army of accountants and lawyers employed is exactly the problem you describe.

    on the other hand the unspoken assumptions you describe are also problematic – on balacne i think the less so.

  21. Sorry all, my earlier post was rushed and I had other matters on my mind and I wandered waaaay off track.
    I had intended to promote understanding of our fellow Australians and participation in the referendum while at the same time being extremely aware that explicit statements within the constitution can create new problems.
    Watch the video, then head on over to ANTaR to learn more and between now and the referendum make an attempt to increase your understanding of Indigenous Australians and the society that created our original constitution.
    If you feel you can contribute to the proposal, the ANTaR site is the perfect place to do so.
    If you can contribute your views. A referendum is the closest

  22. fisher
    i remember what peterson did and how it brought down the govt but i don’t remember any referendum to change or amend the constitution back then if fraser amended the constitution without a referendum how did he get away with it . if it was changed with out consent from the owners of the constitution (the people) is it legal .

  23. Where were you in 1977 Red Crab? The referendum was on 21st May.. it was to approve changes to the Senate Casual Vacancies part of the Constitution. Maybe you weren’t old enough to vote then. It was the same referendum which added Advance Australia Fair as “the national song”. Both were passed. There was also a question about retirement of judges, and an attempt to tie Senate elections to H of R elections, which failed, narrowly.

  24. thanks appy
    id forgotten i was in queensland then
    untill we as a nation in our own rite can get rid of any reference to the crown out of our own constitution it will never truly be a genuine constitution of our own
    example refer to the western Australian referendum to brake from the commonwealth because of discriminative practices by the federal govt that was passed by a majority of 68% and dismissed buy some comity in England . it needs to be changed but the question is how and can the govt be trusted . i dont see anyone there at the moment that i would trust with such an important undertaking .

  25. we don’t need to break from the commonwealth just remove reference of the crown from the constitution.

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