Transcript by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Indigenous Australians, Referendum on Constitutional Reform – Joint Press Conference with Prime Minister Gillard and Minister McClelland.


PM: I’m joined here today by Jenny Macklin in her capacity as Minister for Indigenous Affairs, and by my colleague Robert McClelland the Attorney General, and we’re here today to make an announcement related to the commitment of the Government to acknowledge the special place of our first peoples in the Australian constitution.

Can I start today by saying now is the right time to take the next step and to recognise in the Australian constitution the first peoples of our nation; now’s the right time to take that next step to build trust and respect, and we certainly believe that constitutional recognition is an important step to building trust and respect, it’s an important step to building and acknowledging that the first peoples of our nation have a unique and special place in our nation.

As we all know the Australian constitution is the foundation document of our system of government, but currently it fails to recognise Indigenous Australians. The national apology to Indigenous Australians, in particular the stolen generations, helped build respect between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. It helped generate the trust we need for closing the gap. When driving a national effort to close the gap in life expectancy and life opportunities between Indigenous and non indigenous Australians, a great deal of work is happening in early education, health, jobs, remote housing and services, governance and infrastructure, but more dollars are not enough. We came to office determined to reform the way dollars are used and determined to leverage them for long-term outcomes, ways that transform individual lives, family lives and the lives of communities, by rebuilding the positive social and economic norms that underpin daily life.

We came to government also knowing that change was needed on an emotional level, as well as a practical level. The recognition of Indigenous Australians, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, in the Australian constitution is another step, the next step in that journey. But of course, without the support of the majority of Australians in the majority of States, constitutional recognition cannot succeed. I’m pleased that we are starting the active work on this process of constitutional recognition with bipartisan and wide-spread support in the Australian Parliament. Of course, Prime Minister John Howard made a landmark address about this very matter to the Sydney Institute in 2007. Tony Abbott, the Opposition Leader, supports constitutional recognition, as John Howard did in 2007. The Australian Greens have expressed their support for such a referendum, as have the Independents in the House of Representatives, Rob Oakshott, Tony Windsor and Andrew Wilkie.

Now this broad-based support in the Australian Parliament gives us a rare opportunity in the live of our nation. Referendums are rarely carried and those that face Parliamentary opposition have far less of a chance. Support this widespread across the Parliament means we have a once in a fifty year opportunity for our country.

I’m certain that if this referendum is not successful there will not be another like it. So, to build the support necessary the Government will move to establish an expert panel by the end of the year, to progress the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the constitution. This expert panel will include Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, it will include community leaders, constitutional experts and Members of Parliament. It will lead a national discussion and broad consultation in 2011 to build consensus about the recognition of Indigenous peoples in the constitution. This expert body will work closely with organisations with expertise and history of engagement on this issue, and that includes the Australian Human Rights Commission, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples and Reconciliation Australia.

The panel will be asked to consider how best to progress constitutional recognition of Indigenous peoples and provide the best possible option on the nature of the amendment which could be put to the Australian people at a referendum.

Now, I’m certain the work of this body will give the referendum every chance of success. We will ask the expert panel to work throughout 2011 and to report to the Government by the end of 2011, but I do want to stress today the conversation that this expert panel leads is a conversation that needs to involve all Australians and we will be looking forward to their input. I’ll turn now to Jenny Macklin for some comments.

MINISTER MACKLIN: Thanks very much Prime Minister. This is a very significant day, particularly for our Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. For some time, Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been calling for the recognition that they deserve in our Constitution. Today, we see that going that step further.

Our Government recognises that we need mutual respect if we’re to close the gap, and the Government’s taken a number of steps to build that mutual respect. Of course, the National Apology was a very, very significant part of that journey. We also indicated our support for the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. We’ve moved to support the establishment of the National Congress of Australia’s first peoples, and we’ve also supported, financially, the establishment of the Healing Foundation to make sure that we can financially support different projects around Australia to help Indigenous Australians heal. These measures are very significant, individually and together.

The next step on this journey is to see the recognition of our first peoples in the Constitution. As we indicated in the election campaign, we are about to establish an expert panel to facilitate the discussion that needs to take place with the Australian people about the nature of this constitutional change. We’re releasing today the draft terms of reference for that expert panel and we’re calling on Australians to come forward with their suggestions as to who might usefully contribute to this expert panel.

As the Prime Minister has indicated, the work of the expert panel will be very important in building a consensus for change to our Constitution. It is the case that Constitutional change is difficult, but we are very optimistic that this change can be brought about through good will, and that’s the job of the expert panel – to build that consensus, to build the agreement across the political spectrum and across this very big country of ours. So this is a very significant day, a very significant step forward in that journey that we began with the apology.

MINISTER MCCLELLAND: Thank you. yes, as the Prime Minister said, the Constitution is our foundational document so therefore any amendments, obviously, are not taken lightly.

The expert panel, however, will enable the opportunity to obtain advice, not only advice and also consultation with the community, the Indigenous community and from the broader community, but as the Prime Minister indicted, advice from experts, including obviously, constitutional lawyers.

In this way the community can be assured that that foundational document, our constitution, that also contains the various checks and balances and safeguards, will be, that any amendments will be consistent, entirely consistent and appropriate given our constitutional framework, that will be an important thing.

As the Prime Minster indicated, and Jenny Macklin indicated, referendums aren’t easy. There have been forty-four in Australia – only eight have been successful. But one of those which was successful was the 1967 referendum to recognise Indigenous Australians, that had some ninety per cent of Australians supporting it. So with the historic opportunity, with bipartisan support, with goodwill, with consultation and appropriate advice, we are confident that this presents an historic opportunity for Australians. Thank you.

PM: Right, we’re happy to take questions. Yes?

JOURNALIST: (inaudible)

PM: Well, obviously the work of the body will be consultative work. There will be costs associated with the referendum, that’s right. The Government is also committed to a referendum on the recognition of local government, so we will, as part of this process, also be working- well, not this process, this process will be dealing with the referendum about recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peoples in our constitution.

During the first six months of next year we’ll also be working through the process about the local government referendum, and questions of cost can be dealt with at that point.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, do you anticipate holding the referendum at the next federal election in 2013 because of the consultative process, or is it still possible that it could happen in 2012?

PM: We are expressly leaving options open as to whether it is held with or before the next election.

JOURNALIST: What sort of options, I mean, what sort of changes to the constitution? I mean, it says in the release that we’ve got here that there are various ways it could be altered. What are some of the things that you’re looking at?

PM: I think it’s really important that we don’t pre-judge this process. That’s the very reason for having it, and the very reason for having it and bringing together this group in the form that we’ve specified – representatives of the parliament, representatives of Indigenous Australians, and experts – is to maximise understanding, agreement and consequently prospects of success for the referendum proposition, so I don’t think it would be wise for us to be engaged in, you know, shooting the breeze about what this referendum proposition may contain. It needs this process to maximise the prospect of success, and it should be a conversation that all Australians involve themselves in, but we fundamentally believe and gave this commitment at the last election to have this process of change, that now’s the right time in Australia’s history to take this next step forward, this next step to build trust and respect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Yes? That’s alright, you’re allowed to, you know.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible) do you therefore envisage a, something like the human rights consultation that Frank Brennan led with town hall meetings, these sorts of things? Will it go to that level? How much do you anticipate that would cost (inaudible)

PM: Look, to a great extent how this body will work will in fact be in its own hands, so that it can define processes which best engage the Australian community and best build constituencies of support for the referendum, but I’ll also turn to Jenny Macklin for some details on the working of the body.

MINISTER MACKLIN: Thanks very much, Prime Minister. I think that question is very important because if this question is to succeed we do need wide ranging support. We know it will be important for the expert panel to get out and discuss the issues with people right across Australia, but we also know that there are other groups who have experience on this question, like Reconciliation Australia, the Australian Human Rights Commission, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, they themselves are also wanting to participate in this discussion and I’m sure there will be many others, so we want to encourage that debate and discussion in as many different forums as possible.

JOURNALIST: How many people do you think will be on the panel?

MINISTER MACKLIN: That too is something that we want to discuss over the next few weeks with all the interested parties, so the Prime Minister is today writing to the leaders, to the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Greens, and the Independent Members of Parliament, inviting them to participate. We’re also going to discuss the membership with the main Indigenous organisations that I’ve just mentioned. We’ll also discuss it with other community leaders over the next few weeks. We hope to have the panel established by the end of this calendar year.

JOURNALIST: If this is passed, what sort of impact will this have on the lives of Indigenous Australians, like you mentioned six or seven (inaudible) – what would happen with this one?

MINISTER MACKLIN: Well I think that’s why both the Prime Minister and the Attorney and I are all emphasising the critical role of respect, if we’re to close the gap. We understand how critical it is if we’re to close the gap, that we put the investment in that’s needed, into health and education, supporting people to get a job, having a decent home to live in. But we also know how critical it is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are respected, that they respect themselves, that their place in Australia is written into our Constitution, and understood to be that special place that I think so many of us understand.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you say that, what would you say to those that look at this as a token gesture?

PM: We are progressing two agendas here, and as Jenny Macklin has just said, they need to be done together. I think, frankly, in the Australian debate for too long there’s been some sense that there’s a false divide between working practically and working to generate trust. I think these two things go together, and what the apology to the stolen generation certainly reinforced in me, and I believe it reinforced in the life of our nation, is that by taking a step to put out an arm of friendship and treat people with respect builds trust so that the very practical things you then want to do – about getting a job, having a home, appropriate health services, kids in school – can work better because there is that sense of trust and respect.

I think we all know in our own lives that to make a life, of course, you have to have physical things around you and services that you can rely on, but to make a life you too have to feel that you are somehow recognised and respected. That’s inherit in how we understand our own way of being. I think it’s inherit in how we’ve got to move with Indigenous Australia so we make a real difference in the lives of Indigenous Australians and do the things we want to, like close the gap on life expectancy.

JOURNALIST: PM, just on another matter, your meeting with Hillary Clinton. How did that go? Could you characterise that for us, and also looking forward to your trip overseas?

PM: With Hillary Clinton, I did have a good day in Melbourne yesterday, and I think Melbourne was showing a very good face to the world. I had the opportunity to spend some social time with Hillary, having lunch together, and very much enjoyed that.

Of course, the formal talks are proceeding today, involving our Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Defence, and both Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Defence Gates, so those formal talks are in train, but I did have the opportunity for a wide-ranging conversation with Hillary when we had the opportunity to walk through Melbourne and have lunch afterwards, and then of course I hosted the dinner at Government House last night.

The essence of the security dialogue that will be happening today – Afghanistan a big part of it, our role and our security dialogue about our region of the world, the Asia-Pacific, and the fact that the US is increasingly engaged in the Asia-Pacific. There is dialogue on some of the new challenges we face in this age – space junk, cyber security threats and the like.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible) US and Australia have different positions on dealing with Fiji. Is that something that’s going to be discussed? Is that a problem?

PM: When it comes to Fiji, we obviously support pressure being maintained so that there are democratic elections in Fiji. The Australian Government is very sceptical that the elections which are supposed to be held in 2014 will actually occur. It’s important to us, to the US, to the world generally, that we keep working together to maximise pressure on Fiji to give the Fijian people the appropriate opportunity to go out, exercise a vote and pick their government.

So, we’ll be collaborating and discussing these questions with the US and more generally. Fiji continues to be a major issue of concern for me, for the Government, in our region, and we want to work with others to keep pressure on so elections do happen for the people of Fiji.

JOURNALIST: Would you consider adopting a more US approach so you have a direct (inaudible)

PM: I think the best thing is for us to be discussing how we can best work together so that we maximise the pressure on Fiji.

OK, thank you.