New PM heralds a new era for First Nations constitutional recognition

26 MAY 2022

New PM heralds a new era for First Nations constitutional recognition

The new Australian Labor Prime Minister’s election night affirmation signals his government will not stand between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people on the question of political equality, and that recognition will no longer be ‘a small ambition’.

By Professor of Political Science Dominic O’Sullivan (pictured, inset) in the Charles Sturt University School of Social Work and Arts.

Few people watching the acceptance speech by the Prime Minister-elect late on Saturday night  could fail to note his opening remarks prioritising a First Nations Voice to Parliament and all  that entails for reconciliation.

“I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet. I pay my respects to their elders, past, present and emerging. And on behalf of the Australian Labor Party, I commit to the Uluru Statement from the heart in full. … ”, Mr Albanese said.

Recognition ─ more than symbolism

As I’ve noted elsewhere, constitutional recognition for Indigenous people is an important concept for every citizen.

How and where political authority is exercised — and by whom — determines how fairly and effectively Australian democracy works.

A symbolic act that just acknowledges Indigenous prior occupancy without making any substantive changes to the constitution or opportunities for meaningful Indigenous political participation doesn’t   do much to improve people’s lives – which should be the ultimate point of any policy measure.

Some people argue that recognition can never be more than shallow and symbolic.

But in my book Sharing the Sovereign: Indigenous Peoples, Recognition, Treaties and the State I’ve argued that recognition is a theory of political freedom, which means that every person is equally entitled to help influence the society in which they live, and equally entitled to make decisions about how they will live.

A Voice to Parliament is one example of what these ideas could mean in practice.

Sovereignty ─ a common misunderstanding

In Australia, sovereignty is often understood as an absolute political authority that the state exercises over and above the people.

But in practice, sovereignty may refer to the people’s authority to determine how and by whom they will be governed.

It is the authority to elect parliaments and to amend the constitution, the authority to share in public decision-making.

Sharing the sovereign means ensuring political structures give people meaningful opportunities to influence and make decisions.

The former government’s Referendum Indigenous Voice co-design final report, made less far-reaching assumptions about how Australia should and shouldn’t recognise a distinctive Indigenous presence in public life.

When set against this report, the new government’s support for a referendum to establish a guaranteed Voice to Parliament is hugely significant.

Taken alongside truth-telling and Makarrata, the Voice to Parliament was only one part of the Referendum Council’s proposal, so there is still further potential for politics to work differently and inclusively.

Over the election weekend the national debate has moved decisively from the question of whether everybody should be meaningfully included in the public life of the Commonwealth, to how they should be included.

A successful referendum will give constitutional certainty to the Voice, thereby giving Australia a better chance at recognising Indigenous peoples’ human rights.

Recognition will no longer be ‘a small ambition’.

In effect, the new Prime Minister has declared, “It’s time!”.

Media Note:

To arrange interviews with Professor Dominic O’Sullivan contact Bruce Andrews at Charles Sturt Media on mobile 0418 669 362 or

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