Speech in House of Representatives - Constitutional recognition of Australia’s indigenous peoples

I would like to speak tonight about a topic very dear to my heart – the constitutional recognition of Australia’s indigenous peoples.

 

MARK DREYFUS QC MP

 

ADJOURNMENT DEBATE

 

Constitutional reform

 

23 February 2015

 

I would like to speak tonight about a topic very dear to my heart – the constitutional recognition of Australia’s indigenous peoples.

The Prime Minister is committed to constitutional recognition, and I give him full credit for that commitment. This project cannot succeed without his leadership. Bill Shorten and the entire Labor movement will work with the Prime Minister to lead the national debate which lies ahead of us.

As we lead that debate, though, we should be very clear about the proposition to be put to the Australian people.

The Prime Minister has recently made a habit of speaking not of changing the Constitution, but of ‘completing’ it.

I recognise that the Prime Minister wishes to alleviate the concerns of constitutional conservatives, but we should not accept this description of constitutional recognition.

No one should speak of ‘completing’ our constitution, because our constitution can never be completed. Though the Constitution is of course an enduring foundation of our national life, it can and must adapt and be adapted to our changing society.

The injustice of our original constitutional arrangements was not an oversight or an accident. Our Constitution is a political document drafted by imperfect men in a forum not dissimilar to this chamber. In some respects it reflects great wisdom. In others, as in its treatment of Indigenous peoples, those who framed our Constitution made serious mistakes.

Fortunately we are not bound, as Justice Deane of the High Court once put it, by the “dead hands” of those who framed the Constitution or by the values of their era. Indeed one of the wiser legacies of the framers is the trust they place in future generations of Australians to adapt and update the document they left us.

 They placed the principle of parliamentary sovereignty at the heart of our constitutional system, an expression of the belief that each generation of Australians must make decisions for their own time.

They established a High Court tasked with interpreting the Constitution and applying it to new problems and changing circumstances.

Finally, of course, the framers of our Constitution left us the power to amend the text of the Constitution itself by referendum. It is this power that we seek to exercise now, and we should not be shy about it.

Andrew Inglis Clark, the chief author of the Constitution and a figure too often overlooked, said in 1901 that the Constitution:

must be read and construed, not as containing a declaration of the will and intentions of men long since dead … but as declaring the will and intentions of the present inheritors and possessors of sovereign power, who maintain the Constitution and have the power to alter it, and who are in the immediate presence of the problems to be solved. It is they who enforce the provisions of the Constitution and make a living force of that which would otherwise be a silent and lifeless document

On my first day sitting as a member of Parliament, the House heard the newly-elected Prime Minister apologise to the stolen generations. On that February day in 2008, the Prime Minister proposed, among other things, that this country work towards the further task of constitutional recognition of Australia’s Indigenous peoples.

We have come a long way since 2008. We are, I believe, close to completing that task.

The case for change is strong – as strong as any in our constitutional history – so we should not hesitate for a moment to say that it is, in fact, change that we seek.  And we should know that even when that change is achieved, our work will not be done. If we do not reform our Constitution from time to time it will become, as Andrew Inglis Clark said more than a century ago, a silent and lifeless document.