Recent research shows that Aboriginal people have lived in Australia for more than 60 000 years. When the British colonized the country more than 200 years ago, they brought guns, disease and violence, and they took the land of Aboriginal people.
Aboriginal people didn’t cede sovereignty, and there has never been a treaty.
Australia is still struggling with this violent past, and Indigenous people are still fighting for adequate recognition.
In recent years, some have argued that Australia’s First People should be acknowledged in the constitution.
From Sydney, Jake Atienza finds out more.
The inner-Sydney suburb of Redfern has been a hub for Aboriginal People and Aboriginal activism for decades.
Over the years, campaigns have been fought to end Aboriginal deaths in custody, and to gain land rights. In 1967 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People were finally recognized as Australian citizens.
But the Australian constitution makes no mention of the country’s First People , who are still among the most disadvantaged in the country.
“We have the highest incarceration rate of any group of people in the world,” stated Thomas Mayor, a delegate at the First Nations National Constitutional Convention. “There is a major problem of inequality in, you know, health outcomes, life expectancy that type of thing.”
Since 2015, government appointed delegates from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
communities across Australia have discussed constitutional reform.
They have debated if and how Australia’s First People should be recognized in the country’s foundational document: the constitution.
In June, the Referendum Council submitted its recommendations to the Australian government.
The key recommendation is to hold a referendum where Australians will decide if the constitu-tion should guarantee a representative body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, to have a say in the laws that govern them.
“The constitutional change that is being called for is a rather simple one, is to provide an opportunity for Australia’s Indigenous people to have a voice to parliament by having a say in those matters that are being decided for them in legislature,” explained Thomas Mayor.
Previous bodies representing Indigenous people were not enshrined in the constitution, and have been repeatedly dismantled and reformed by government.
And repressive policies targeting Indigenous people have been implemented without consultation.
In 2007, following a report into child abuse, the army was sent into Indigenous communities to implement policies including curfews, bans on alcohol and restrictions on welfare payments.
Known as the Intervention, the policy has been called a violation of human rights.
Nicole Watson was a Legal Advisor at the recent talks, and says Indigenous leaders want to en-sure this doesn’t happen again.
“Because of measures like the Intervention there is a sense now that Indigenous affairs is in complete disarray and people are anxious to get some means, I guess, and framework for us to exercise self determination that government can’t take away,” Watson commented.
But not all Aboriginal leaders agree that a representative body enshrined in the constitution is the answer.
“These bodies don't work for us because they are white constructions. We have our own system with our own constructions and that’s what’s worked for us,” argued Jenny Munro, from the Mudgin-Gal Aboriginal Women's Centre in Redfern, Sydney. She is one of seven delegates who walked out of the talks in protest.
Jenny Munro wants to see more emphasis on Aboriginal People receiving compensation for the land that colonizers stole from them, and recognition of Indigenous systems of governance.
The Referendum Council also recommends that Parliament pass a statement acknowledging that Indigenous People never ceded sovereignty.
The Council also proposes a truth and justice commission is established, to facilitate treaty-making between government and Indigenous communities.
Both can be pursued by government without changing the constitution.
Jackie Huggins co-chairs the National Congress of Australia’s First People. She says political viability is at the heart of ensuring an Indigenous voice in Australia’s political process.
“If we are going get anywhere I think we have to fight them, use the white man’s tool, as the great poet Audre Lorde said once, to dismantle the house,” said Huggins.
“So we have to fight them with their words, their language, their vocabulary, because if we don't, we continue to be marginalized and on the fringes.”
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull hasn’t formally responded to the Referendum Council’s recommendations yet.
But Jackie Huggins says she is confident about the current dialogue is a step in the right direc-tion.
“Hopefully Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People can be elevated to a position of respect and dignity and a rightful place in our society that’s never been there before,” she said.