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Pacific News Minute: Australia’s Cabinet Rejects Indigenous Proposal for Constitutional Reform


As you may have heard, the indigenous council that manages Uluru has voted to ban climbing on Australia’s most iconic rock, starting in 2019. The sandstone butte, also known as Ayers Rock, is sacred to the Anangu people.

But that milestone for Australia’s indigenous peoples comes just after the government in Canberra rejected a proposal that emerged from an historic gathering of community leaders at Uluru last May. 

Australia’s Constitution makes no mention of first peoples and, after a year of consultation, 300 leaders from aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander communities gathered at the sacred rock last May to make their case.

Instead of any symbolic language, they proposed what they called a “Voice to Parliament” – a representative body enshrined in the constitution that would serve as an advisory panel on issues that affect indigenous peoples. It would have no power of veto.

A statement issued by the Prime Minister, the Indigenous Affairs Minister, and the Attorney General rejected the proposal on three grounds: they said the body would inevitably come to be seen as a third chamber of Parliament. That, as such,  it would be inconsistent with the principle of equal rights for all and that what the statement described such a radical change would have no chance to be approved by a majority of Australians. In Australia, any change to the constitution must be approved by a referendum.

Indigenous leader and activist Noel Pearson told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, “Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has broken the first nation’s hearts of this country.”

The government promised to come up with a more modest proposal on constitutional recognition. Several indigenous leaders immediately said they would oppose it, no matter what it said. 

Over 36 years with National Public Radio, Neal Conan worked as a correspondent based in New York, Washington, and London; covered wars in the Middle East and Northern Ireland; Olympic Games in Lake Placid and Sarajevo; and a presidential impeachment. He served, at various times, as editor, producer, and executive producer of All Things Considered and may be best known as the long-time host of Talk of the Nation. Now a macadamia nut farmer on Hawaiʻi Island, his "Pacific News Minute" can be heard on HPR Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.
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