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Recognition a step toward closing Indigenous health gap

Constitutional recognition of Indigenous peoples and their cultures could help close the health gap between Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders and the rest of the community, according to the AMA.Throwing the Association’s support behind Government proposals to change the Constitution to recognise Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders and remove references to race, AMA President Dr Steve Hambleton said it would be an important step in helping improve the health and wellbeing of Indigenous Australians.

07 Apr 2013

Constitutional recognition of Indigenous peoples and their cultures could help close the health gap between Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders and the rest of the community, according to the AMA.

Throwing the Association’s support behind Government proposals to change the Constitution to recognise Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders and remove references to race, AMA President Dr Steve Hambleton said it would be an important step in helping improve the health and wellbeing of Indigenous Australians.

“From our long engagement with Aboriginal communities and health leaders, the AMA knows the importance of strong culture and identity to people’s health,” Dr Hambleton said. “Taking this step to end discrimination and acknowledge our country’s Indigenous cultures and languages could help to bolster physical and mental wellbeing among Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders.”

An Expert Panel appointed by the Government has recommended a number of changes to the Constitution to recognise Indigenous peoples and their cultures, and to remove racial discrimination.

Specifically, the Panel – co-chaired by Professor Patrick Dodson and Mark Liebler – has proposed:

  • the removal of section 25, which recognises that the states can ban people from voting on the basis of their race;
  • the deletion of section 51(xxvi), which can be used to discriminate on the basis of race;
  • the insertion of a new section 51A to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and to preserve the Australian Government’s ability to pass laws for the benefit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;
  • the adoption of a new section 116A, banning racial discrimination by the Commonwealth; and
  • the addition of a new section 127A, recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages were this country’s first tongues, while confirming that English is Australia’s national language.

The proposed changes would need to be passed by a national referendum to come into effect, and history shows that this could be a difficult task. Just eight out of 44 referenda held since 1906 have been carried.

But advocates for the changes have been encouraged by wide multi-party support for constitutional recognition and strong backing from a broad cross-section of organisations including businesses, unions, churches and Indigenous groups.

The Government has accepted most of the Expert Panel’s recommendations (except for constitutional prohibition of racial discrimination, which it argues is already provided by the Racial Discrimination Act), and Parliament has passed legislation directing that work begin on building a national consensus for the proposed changes before they are presented in a referendum.

The new laws include a two-year sunset clause to ensure that “legislative recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait

Islander peoples does not become entrenched at the expense of progress towards the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution”.

A Parliamentary Joint Select Committee has been established to consider the Expert Panel recommendations, including those not reflected in the legislation, and to oversee work towards constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The Government said its legislation “reflects an intention to pursue meaningful change to the Constitution that echoes the hopes and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander

peoples and unites the nation.

“It is one part of the ongoing conversation that needs to happen in the lead up to constitutional change. In particular, the Bill will enable all Australians to become familiar with formal recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples ahead of constitutional change.”

Dr Hambleton, who chairs the AMA Taskforce on Indigenous Health, said much work needed to be done to improve the health and wellbeing of Indigenous people to anything like the levels enjoyed by the rest of the community, and thought the mooted referendum could be important in helping bridge the health divide.

“Constitutional recognition would be another important chapter in efforts to close the gap,” the AMA President said. “A referendum to make the necessary amendments to the Constitution could be a powerful moment of unity for all Australians.”

AR

 


Published: 07 Apr 2013