Feb 6, 2018

Australia Day Referendum

Last night I spoke in the Parliament about the idea of holding a referendum on January 26, to recognise indigenous Australians in our constitution, along with a second question about the move to being a republic.

I told Parliament:

In recent times, there has been an increasing level of debate about the significance of Australia Day being held on 26 January. There is no doubt that this has the potential to be a divisive debate. Indeed, it looks like some in the commentariat are looking for an argument, not a solution. Finding a way forward is more important than re-running old arguments. Our nation needs to reconcile itself with the past as a precondition of creating a better future, one in which we all embrace a common vision of what it means to be Australian in the 21st century. Instead of emphasising our differences, let us create a platform for unity. Australia Day is a time for acknowledging both the good and the bad about our past, assessing where we are as a nation today and contemplating our vision for the future.

All Australians must acknowledge that this commemoration of the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 is a difficult one for the First Australians. The arrival of Europeans disrupted the longest continuous civilisation on Earth and was accompanied by dispossession, violence, disease and trauma which are still felt today with the tragic gap in life expectancy, education and health outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. It is understandable that many Indigenous Australians refer to 26 January as ‘Survival Day’. Every Australia Day is a reminder that there is much unfinished business to achieve reconciliation, including recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in our Constitution, but also practical measures to close the gap on living standards, jobs, education and health outcomes.

The story of modern Australia is also one of migration since the 18th century. We are a nation which has welcomed millions of people from all parts of the globe, seeking a better life for themselves, their families and the generations to come. On Australia Day this year, as in other years, tens of thousands of people pledged their allegiance to our country and became citizens. Australia has been enriched by its multiculturalism—people who are loyal to Australia but have contributed their language, music, culture and of course food from their countries of birth. Australia has enormous natural advantages, but it is our people that make us the envy of the world and indeed ‘the lucky country’, and we’re confident enough that it’s only a matter of time before we have an Australian head of state.

One of the tasks of political leadership is to bring people together on the journey of change in a way that promotes unity and isolates division. It seems to me that the purpose of Australia Day—to consider Australia’s past, present and future—provides an opportunity. I’m a strong supporter of constitutional change to recognise the First Australians, and I’m in favour of a republic. A referendum held on 26 January to recognise First Australians in our Constitution, along with a second question about the move to being a republic, would be an exciting opportunity to forge a path forward for Australia’s future. It would mean Australia had a day that recognised our modern history of new arrivals; our continuous history of Indigenous Australians, dating back at least 65,000 years; and our declaration of confidence that we are a modern, independent state with an Australian as its head. I don’t declare that this proposal is the idea, just an idea, to avert a divisive debate about when to celebrate Australia Day.

I note Noel Pearson’s proposition in The Australian two weeks ago about celebrating both 25 January and 26 January. To me it has a certain logic because, increasingly, I witness more discussion about issues confronting the First Australians, past, present and future, around Australia Day. The Uluru Statement from the Heart has advanced a constructive proposal for a voice for first nations after extensive engagement, and that is not a proposal for a third chamber of parliament.

Australians want harmony based on mutual respect. The impasse on advancing reconciliation must be broken, and decision-makers, civil society and, most crucially, First Australians must be engaged in forging a new path forward. A necessary element will be ensuring that the First Australians have a sense of ownership over our national day of celebration.