Torres Strait leader: "We must keep our sovereignty sacred"

Mark Royr Torres News 24 February 2012

Leaders in the Torres Strait insist the sovereign rights of First Peoples must not be signed away in a "compromised" preamble in the Australian constitution.

Torres Shire Council Mayor Pedro Stephen said what was needed was a treaty.

"The preamble needs to recognise our sovereignty under a treaty only," Mr Stephen said. "No treaty - no compromised preamble. We must keep our sovereignty sacred."

Mr Stephen was commenting on the Constitutional Review Panel report, which lays the foundations for reform aimed at recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in the Constitution.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard last week announced Reconciliation Australia would head up the national movement for the constitutional change.

Responding to Ms Gillard's announcement last week, Reconciliation Australia co-chairs Melinda Cilento and Tom Calma said this was both a great honour and responsibility.

"Achieving meaningful recognition in the constitution is fundamental to achieving real reconciliation for the benefit of all Australians," Ms Cilento said.

Last year, Ms Gillard appointed a 19-member expert panel to give advice on how constitutional recognition could be achieved.

Ms Cilento said the work of the panel had established a strong platform to build public support for constitutional change.

"As the peak national organisation building and promoting reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians, Reconciliation Australia is ideally placed to build on this work and lead the next phase," she said.

Dr Calma said Reconciliation Australia had long advocated for constitutional change to recognise the history, cultures and contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

"Throughout our campaign, we have had remarkable support from a range of organisations, community groups and individuals," Dr Calma said. "Working together we now have the opportunity to see this though to a successful referendum."

Mr Stephen said priority must be given to recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as First Nations of Australia and the Torres Strait in both the preamble and body of the constitution.

"If this is not accepted by the referendum then it should not be included in a compromised way," Mr Stephen said.

"Recognition should not come at the expense of our sovereign rights, not legitimise the constitution as a true doctrine of reconciliation."

Any recognition must be regarded in terms of the "limitations and opportunities" of the constitution, he said.

"Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander recognition by the constitution is constrained by its function, which is to legitimise the lie of Terra Nullius," Mr Stephen said.

He said these points had been made clear to the Constitutional Review Panel.

The panel travelled around the country conducting a series of public consultatoins before handing down its final report and recommendations on January 19, 2012 at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.

One of the report's recommendations is for a new section to be inserted into the constitution:

  • Recognising that the continent and its islands now known as Australia were first occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
  • Acknowledging the continuing relationship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with their traditional lands and waters
  • Respecting the continuing cultures, languages and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
  • Acknowledging the need to secure the advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Delivering the Closing the Gap report in Parliament last week, Ms Gillard said the campaign by Reconciliation Australia was an opportunity for all Australians to get involved.

"To find practical information and solid ideas and to discuss them - in their homes and with t heir neighbours, in their community meetings and in their workplaces, in their trade unions and in their churches," Ms Gillard said.

Ms Gillard wants Opposition Leader Tony Abbott to support proposed changes, because without bipartisanship the referendum is likely to fail.
However, the opposition has committed to recognising Indigenous people only in a preamble.

In order to be successful, the constitutional change will need a double majority - support from a national majority of voters in states and territories, as well as a majority of voters in a majority of states.

Since Federation, only 8 out of 44 proposals to amend the constitution have been approved.