Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have lived on the land and seas around the Australian continent for more than 60,000 years. They are the First Peoples.
The rich languages, cultures and traditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples represent the world’s oldest continuous cultural heritage. This unique legacy is recognised internationally and is one of the things that sets Australia apart from the rest of the world.
Those lands and waters were colonised by Europeans, who took them without treaty or consent, and Australia’s Constitution, our most important legal document, contains no acknowledgement of the First Peoples of Australia. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were not given a voice in the convention debates of the 1890s, which led to the drafting of the Constitution in 1901, and few were able to vote for it.
Many laws and policies enacted since 1901 have discriminated against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Our Constitution could offer protections against unfair treatment. But at present it does not—nor does it recognise the special place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within the life of the nation.
Australians now have an opportunity to change this situation.
Much work has already been done on what form constitutional change could take, most recently by the Expert Panel appointed by the Australian Government in 2011 and by a Parliamentary Joint Select Committee that completed its work in 2015.
In December 2015, the Australian Government and the Opposition came together to appoint a 16-member Referendum Council to consult widely throughout Australia and take the next steps towards achieving constitutional recognition of the First Australians.
The council wants to hear the views of all Australians on constitutional change regarding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Through our consultations, we will ask you some fundamental questions, such as: Do you support constitutional change? And, if you do, What form do you think change should take? We will also ask what you think about some specific proposals for symbolic and practical reform and how they might ensure that the Constitution treats Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples more fairly.
Over the same period, the council will hold a series of Indigenous consultations to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the chance to say what meaningful recognition is to them. Indigenous people will design and lead these consultations.
The council will report to the Government and the Opposition on what people say and on how the Constitution might best be changed.
This Discussion Paper sets out some of the different options for change and outlines some of the issues to be taken into account.