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University of New South Wales Faculty of Law Research Series

Faculty of Law, UNSW
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Williams, George --- "Removing Racism from Australia's Constitutional DNA" [2012] UNSWLRS 40

Last Updated: 11 September 2012

Removing Racism from Australia's Constitutional DNA

George Williams, University of New South Wales

This paper is available for download at


This paper was published at Alternative Law Journal, Vol.37, No.3, at 151-155. This article may also be referenced as [2012] UNSWLRS 40.


The idea of a referendum on recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution was put on the national political agenda in the aftermath of the August 2010 federal election. This occurred without any announcement of what form the change would take. In effect, it was a commitment by the minority Gillard government to a referendum at or before the next federal election without a specific proposal for change.This poses a major challenge. Although Indigenous peoples have long sought recognition in Australia’s national and state Constitutions, common ground has not yet emerged on how this should be achieved. Hence, the task is not simply one of convincing Australians to vote Yes, but of determining what the amendment should be in the first place.

The fact that the federal government has not stated what Australians will vote on has opened up debate about the nature of Australia’s Constitution and the form that the change should take. In 2011 this discussion was led by a government appointed expert panel chaired by Professor Patrick Dodson, former Chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, and former Reconciliation Australia co-chair Mark Leibler. The panel’s report and its recommendations for constitutional change were released publicly in early 2012. Its recommendations, which mirror those explored in this article, have helped to frame the discussion, yet significant disagreement remains. The panel’s report has not galvanised community and political support around an agreed set of changes.

In this article I return to first principles. I examine the place of race in the Australian Constitution, and the implications this has for the debate. The Constitution and its history is examined with a view to determining what changes are needed to appropriately recognise Australia’s first nations in the document.

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