Constitution’s power to ‘enable’ race discrimination should be removed, MPs told

The Australian constitution’s power to “enable” and “permit” racial discrimination should be removed as a matter of urgency, the joint select committee on constitutional recognition has been told.

Australia is “the only country in the world that has empowered our federal parliament to make laws based on race,” former social justice commissioner Mick Gooda told the committee, “and that provision has been used against Aboriginal people since 1967.”

Gooda cited the Northern Territory intervention legislation in 2007 as a time where that power was used to the detriment of Aboriginal people.

“And given what’s happened in this place this week, it might be a good idea to have some restrictions around racial discrimination,” he said.

On Monday the Senate narrowly voted down a motion condemning “anti-white racism”, despite government senators voting for the controversial statement echoing alt-right rhetoric.

All past and present Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioners have co-signed the plan for constitutional reform within five years, saying a “failure of leadership” has led the nation into a state of inertia.

But in order for change to happen, “parliament will need to exercise leadership on this issue and unite Australians in the belief that there is no place for racism in our constitution,” the commissioners said.

The proposal was presented by the current commissioner, June Oscar, and co-signed by her four predecessors – Mick Gooda, Tom Calma, Bill Jonas and Mick Dodson.

They also recommended a parliamentary motion by which MPs and senators could “be held accountable to the Australian people, by indicating whether they support removing racism from the constitution or not”.

The commissioners also strongly support a truth and reconciliation royal commission.

“We can’t go to full reconciliation until there’s been a recognition of the truth of settlement in this country,” Gooda said.

“People say to get over it. I’d love to get over it. But when we see Miss Dhu dying in a jail or Mr Ward dying in the police van, we can’t get over it.”

Gooda said he believed in the generosity of Australians and saw an opportunity to build on that goodwill “because people are champing at the bit to do something”.