On 13 February 2013, on the fifth anniversary of the National Apology to the Stolen Generations, the House of Representatives passed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012, recognising the unique and special place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Nation. The bill received Royal Assent on 27 March 2013, and came into effect on 28 March 2013. Under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Act 2013 (the Act of Recognition) the Minister for Indigenous Affairs appointed a Review Panel on 27 March 2014. The Review Panel was tasked with assessing levels of public awareness and support for amending the Constitution to recognise Indigenous peoples and levels of community support for different proposals for constitutional change.
On the basis of the evidence before it, the Panel recommends:
1. A ‘circuit breaker’ needs to be rapidly identified to settle the final form of words and draw debate on the model to a conclusion. This will build a sense of national urgency and provide renewed certainty that the country will proceed to a referendum. Delivering on the commitment to form a special committee to guide the referendum, a Referendum Council of trusted national figures is recommended.
The Referendum Council would:
- Have legitimacy in the eyes of the nation, be seen as apolitical and include both Indigenous and non-Indigenous members.
- Advise on the final proposition and gain agreement to it from Indigenous peoples, constitutional experts, parliaments and the wider public.
- Draw on the work of this report and the Joint Select Committee.
- Ensure that the final proposition is legally sound, clear, easily understood and does not significantly increase constitutional uncertainty.
2. The Parliament, state and territory governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples publicly re-declare their commitment to constitutional recognition and working in collaboration towards a referendum.
3. Timing parameters for a referendum should be settled as soon as possible to provide certainty and focus. A referendum should be held no later than the first half of 2017. If the pre-conditions outlined in this report can be met earlier, including widespread support for an agreed proposition, then there remains a case for an earlier referendum.
4. The Government should continue to support and resource Recognise, and its partner organisations, to finalise an increased public awareness strategy that builds a better understanding of why recognition is important in the wider community. This strategy should:
- include a focus on the enduring contributions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and cultures on the life of the nation;
- focus on real Australians telling real stories;
- draw on social research and historical facts;
- target a wide audience, but with a focus on those groups that have the lowest levels of awareness;
- ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are engaged in community education activities as broadly as possible; and f. be educational in nature and include raising awareness of the role of the Constitution.
5. The Parliament should amend the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Recognition Act 2013 to demonstrate continuing commitment and ensure the Act does not sunset in March 2015. The Act should be extended for no more than three years, to align with the timing of the referendum.