24 December 2015

Last week I was delighted to join Malcolm Turnbull at the first meeting of the Referendum Council.

The creation of this bipartisan council is an important step towards recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution.

With the collective wisdom and experience of its eminent members, the Referendum Council will lead national consultations and community engagement so the voices and ideas of all Australians, especially the first Australians, are at the centre of the recognition conversation.

I know many in the community are frustrated by the slow pace of progress to date, and the feeling that things are not moving as fast as they should.

But as the real work of the council gets under way, I want to make it clear at the outset that I and Labor will do everything we can to make recognition a reality.

Constitutional recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is an overdue act of justice. It is a national wrong that must be made right. We need to pursue change that goes beyond symbolism or poetry. Recognition can’t just be a nod to good intentions, it needs to be meaningful.

History tells us that constitutional change is difficult and it cannot be rushed. But this does not mean we should risk losing momentum by signing off on nothing more than a strategy for delay. I believe the council and its consultations will bring new energy and clarity to the recognition process, including a community consensus on the framing of the referendum question.

Without an agreed question, it’s impossible for supporters of recognition to advocate a concrete case for constitutional change. Instead we end up arguing in a vacuum, filled from time to time by the tiny minority that does not want to see any change at all.

Above all, the question we take to Australians must be shaped by real and substantive engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, guided by the principles of inclusion and respect and informed by an acknowledgment of culture and connection with land and sea. We need a proposal formed by the empowered voices of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, a case for change they can own, advocate and vote for with pride.

For all its incontestable merit, recognition alone is not a substitute for tackling disadvantage or closing the gap.

Recognition will not stop young Aboriginal people being put in jail when they should be going to university. On its own, recognition won’t create new jobs or fill the void left by cuts to essential community services.

But if recognition is about equality in the Constitution, it is also a bigger declaration of intent. It is a promise to pursue equality in every facet of our national life: from health, education and housing to jobs, justice and the right to grow old.

Turnbull is the fifth prime minister to pledge support to recognition and I am the fifth opposition leader. However, the answers will not come from us, any more than they came from our predecessors. Whether we succeed or fail depends on the empathy and imagination of the Australian people.

I am confident, as a country, that we can find it in our hearts to accord the first members of our Australian family a place of honour on our national birth certificate. When it comes to delivering historical justice, there’s no time like the present.

This opinion piece was first published in The Australian on Thursday, 24 December 2015