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7 Reasons Why The Fight To Recognise Indigenous Australia Is Struggling

There is bipartisan support for recognition, so why is the campaign faltering?

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The campaign to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the constitution is increasingly resembling a runaway train.

Dan Himbrechts / AAP

On December 11 2014 at a gala dinner and fundraiser in the heart of Redfern in Sydney, Australia's most famous Aboriginal enclave, Prime Minister Tony Abbott delivered a stirring speech to an Indigenous and non-Indigenous audience.

Mr Abbott was speaking to a room full of supporters of the Recognise campaign.

Created by Reconciliation Australia, an independent, not-for-profit organisation promoting reconciliation between the Indigenous and non-community, the campaign exists to gather public support in favour of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders being included in the Australian Constitution.

The campaign has received $15 million over the last five years by the Federal Government.

Anglo-Australian males from middle-class families tend to have had a magic carpet ride through life. Still, this hasn't stopped the "whispering in my heart" that our most serious failure as a nation has been our difficulty in acknowledging the people we displaced.

Inclusion of the first Australians in the constitution has had bipartisan support from all Australian political parties for almost a decade, but ultimately it is the Australian public that will decide in a referendum, which the Prime Minister has suggested should be held in 2017.


1. Internal Divisions.

An expert panel, made up of influential Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians conducted an extensive consultation process with the public, tabling their findings in a report to the federal government in 2012.

The key recommendations were that the constitution acknowledge Indigenous people as the traditional custodians of Australia and amend the parts of the constitution that allow discrimination based on race.

Last week conservative Indigenous leader Noel Pearson, one of the expert panel members, broke away from those recommendations.

2. Alternative Options.

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Instead, Mr Pearson proposed a Declaration of Recognition, similar to the American Declaration of Independence, except it isn't legally binding and thus would not require constitutional change.

Backing a proposal drawn-up by constitutional lawyers Damien Freeman and Julian Lesser, Mr Pearson argues that poetry and symbolism is best left out of the constitution and that the referendum should solely be for the purpose of amending parts of the constitution that are discriminatory.

"Symbolic recognition of indigenous history and heritage can occur in a declaration, as one important element of a package of reforms to effect indigenous recognition. As I argued in my Quarterly Essay, poetry and symbolism can happen outside the Constitution. But practical reform needs to happen within it," Mr Pearson wrote in The Australian.

3. Prime Minister considering alternatives.

In addition to the key recommendations already on the table from the government-appointed Recognise panel, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said he'll carefully consider Mr Pearson's ideas before moving forward with the process.

4. Lack of faith from the Opposition.

Dan Peled / AAPIMAGE

The Prime Minister's commitment to investigate Mr Pearson's idea prompted Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten to say that the campaign was veering off course.


5. Indigenous leaders fearing tokenism.

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Liberal MP Ken Wyatt, the first indigenous member elected to the federal House of Representatives, Liberal, is the chair of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Indigenous Constitutional Recognition.

He says Mr Pearson's idea doesn't have widespread support amongst the larger Aboriginal community. Mr Wyatt told the ABC that anything less than constitutional recognition would be tokenistic.

"There is this notion that anything like that is tokenistic and people have now moved away from that," Mr Wyatt said, adding that, "The message has been very clear: substantive recognition, not tokenistic."

6. Confusion about what question will be asked.

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As factions begin to form behind the key players in the Recognition debate, the discussion is now about what the Australian public will be voting on and the question they will be asked when a referendum is eventually held.

The other big unknown question is whether or not Australia's political leaders can actually secure a 'Yes' vote at any referendum.

7. Referendums are rarely successful.

National Museum of Australia

Historically, it has been difficult to pass referenda in Australia because of the so-called 'double majority' rule, meaning a question needs to secure a majority vote in a majority of states. In 44 referendums since federation, only eight have been successful.

However, history may be on the 'Yes' vote's side.

The last Australia-wide referendum on Indigenous Australians was in 1967, when the public was asked if Aboriginal people should be counted in the census. With bipartisan support, the 'Yes' vote succeeded with 90% of the vote.