OPINION: Identity  key step to reconciliation

WHAT do Julia Gillard, Patrick Dodson, Tony Abbott, Christine Milne, Archie Roach, Barnaby Joyce, Mandawuy Yunupingu, Jack Thompson and Shirley Peisley have in common?

They all actively support the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian constitution.

They suggest that recognition in the constitution would end the separation of the past and move us forward together; would recognise indigenous cultures as part of modern Australia; would protect our identity in the constitution for generations to come; and would be the right and fair thing to do.

When the Australian constitution was being drafted at the end of the 19th century, there was very little thought given to how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples might be included in the nation.

The question of their status and rights barely registered with those who gathered to plan for a new nation. The only two explicit references to Aboriginal people (Sections 127 and 51 (xxvi)) were intended to exclude them from rights enjoyed by other Australians.

In many ways we have become a different and more inclusive nation.

And yet the document which names who we are as a nation still makes no mention of their place in this land and there are still clauses in the constitution which should make Australians blush in 2013.

Under pressure from independent MP Rob Oakeshott, the government committed itself to hold a referendum before the next election to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples in the constitution.

It appointed an expert panel to consult widely around the nation, and to bring recommendations for a way forward.

The referendum has been delayed to allow for greater education about the issues involved.

As a stage on the way, and as an affirmation of the importance of this issue, the Federal Parliament passed the Act of Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples on February 13 , with bipartisan support.

This is an important step, but it is not the same as recognition in the constitution.

Legislation depends on the whim of the government of the day.

We need the Australian people to agree to a change in our foundational document, something that can only be done by referendum - which the government has promised will take place within the next two years.

There is a need for a change in what is called the 'race powers'. These are set out on Section 51 (xxvi) of the constitution and allow the federal government to make laws in regard to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The problem is that the present wording allows governments to make laws that are detrimental to Aboriginal peoples.

This section should be amended so that it is possible for all parliaments to make laws for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples but only for beneficial purposes.

Section 25 of the constitution allows a state government to exclude some Australians from voting in state elections on the basis of their race.

This section is simply unfair and unjust and should be repealed.

Besides these specific issues, there is a need for a new section in the constitution that recognises the place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in this nation.

As the expert panel says in its report to the government, there is a need to acknowledge the place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our history and their continuing cultures, languages and heritage as integral to Australia's national identity.

It is time that, after years of exclusion and invisibility, the original inhabitants of this country are recognised as an essential part of this nation.

Inclusion should honour the culture and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, thus speaking of a new identity for our nation.

It would be an identity based on a fair and just telling of history. It would send a clear message that Australia will not accept racial discrimination anywhere in our life. It would be an important step towards reconciliation.

As a community we need to talk about these issues.

To assist this to happen, a series of workshops has been planned for the early part of this year. The first one is today, starting at 6.30pm at Warners Bay Uniting Church.

For more information, go to http://nlmuc.net46.net and follow the 'recognise' tab.

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