Launch of The Forgotten People at Parliament House

Australia's foremost Aboriginal filmmaker, Rachel Perkins has launched The Forgotten People: Liberal and Conservative Approaches to recognising Indigenous Peoples, a book co-edited by Damien Freeman, visiting scholar at the PM Glynn Institute, and Shireen Morris, senior policy advisor at Cape York Institute.

Ms Perkins, founder of Blackfella Films and President of the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Foundation launched the book at a gathering in the Senate Alcove in Parliament House.

“Australia is desperate for a solution,” Ms Perkins said. “The guilt is too great among non-Indigenous Australians to not come up with something that works”. She said that devising such a solution is, among other things, a matter of courage. “Will we be too scared, or will we be strong enough to make a promise to improve the situation of our Indigenous peoples?”

She was joined by other national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, including Reconciliation Australia’s Justin Mohamed, Recognise’s Mark Yettica-Paulson, National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples’ Rod Little, and regional leaders including Cape York Partnership’s Fiona Jose and Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Land Council’s Sean Gordon.

The event was organised by the Constitution Education Fund Australia (CEFA) and its principal partner for Educating About Recognition, global law firm Baker & McKenzie, together with Cape York Institute and Melbourne University Publishing.

The Forgotten People takes its inspiration from the work of Julian Leeser, the federal member for Berowra and the former Director of Government, Policy and Strategy at Australian Catholic University, who also contributed a chapter to the book. Last year, he wrote an influential pamphlet with Dr Freeman calling for an Australian Declaration of Recognition.

Mr Leeser, who was the parliamentary host for the event, said, “We need to do some things to our Constitution to improve the policy-making process in relation to Indigenous peoples. That’s why I’m supportive of the package that’s been put forward in relation to an Indigenous advisory body to be in the Constitution, a Declaration of Recognition outside of the Constitution, as well as some changes to the race power to update and codify its form.”

Mr Leeser and Dr Freeman have worked closely with Cape York Institute’s Noel Pearson and Shireen Morris to develop a proposal for constitutional recognition that addresses Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ aspirations for practical constitutional reform, but also responds to the legitimate concerns of constitutional conservatives and classical liberals. Noel Pearson’s foreword to The Forgotten People urges a hunt for the ‘radical centre’ on constitutional recognition.

“The Australian people are hugely practical,” Ms Morris said. “They don’t just want symbolic recognition. We need to put in place some fairer rules to ensure the wrongs of the past don’t happen again; to make sure Indigenous Australians are treated in a fairer and more inclusive way. But we need to do so in a way that’s in keeping with the structure and style of the Constitution, and in a way that doesn’t create unintended legal consequences.”

Tim Wilson, the federal member for Goldstein and another contributor to The Forgotten People, spoke about the importance of symbolism.

“Mutual recognition and one-ness cuts through all the confusion about what constitutional recognition means to me, and how it could lead to a better country”, Mr Wilson said. “The strength of the country lies in our unity. In having a statement that ingrains itself in our culture, around mutual respect and the preservation of our liberal democracy, national values and culture, we could address many of the past disagreements. ”

Other contributors to the book include Cardinal George Pell AC, Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy in the Vatican, and Australian Catholic University’s Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Greg Craven. Another contributor, Dr Malcolm Mackerras, a visiting scholar at ACU, was in attendance at the launch, as was Dr Michael Casey, Director of ACU’s PM Glynn Institute.

Mr Leeser and Mr Wilson were joined at the event by several of their parliamentary colleagues, including Chris Crewther, Dr Mike Freelander, Andrew Laming, Dr John McVeigh, government whip, Bert van Manen, and opposition whip, Graham Perrett, as well as the Minister for Human Services, Alan Tudge, and former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott.

The Forgotten People by Damien Freeman and Shireen Morris. Melbourne University Press.

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