Australian Dictionary of Biography

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The Quest for Indigenous Recognition

2007 - John Howard's Commitment
by Andrew Bragg
John Howard in Wadeye, Northern Territory, 2005 (photo by Lyndon Mechielse).

I n October 2007, in a speech to the Sydney Institute, Prime Minister John Howard put the issue of constitutional recognition on the table. Around a month away from the 2007 Federal election, Howard committed to a referendum to formally recognise Indigenous Australians in the Constitution if he was to be re-elected. Howard’s proposal was ‘founded on the notion that we are all Australians together; bound by a common set of laws which we must all obey and from which we are entitled to equal justice.’

Howard’s speech forms somewhat of a ‘rule-book’ for successful referenda. Howard said: 'Reconciliation can’t be a 51–49 project; or even a 70–30 project. We need as a nation to lock-in behind a path we can all agree on.'

Leading up to Howard’s speech, Noel Pearson had been engaging with the prime minister about constitutional reform. Pearson was of the view that a Labor government could not unite conservatives and progressives on the reconciliation issue. Unification could not be achieved with a proposal that divided Australians or made Australians uncomfortable about their history. The proposal had to be framed as a unifying continuation of the great Australian project. As Howard described:

In the end, my appeal to the broader Australian community on this is simpler, and far less eloquent. It goes to love of country and a fair go. It’s about understanding the destiny we share as Australians—that we are all in this together. It’s about recognising that while ever our Indigenous citizens are left out or marginalised or feel their identity is challenged we are all diminished. It’s about appreciating that their long struggle for a fair place in the country is our struggle too.

Howard’s proposal was focused on symbolism. Yet, in its own way it was a bold proposal, and consistent with liberal tradition. As Sir Robert Menzies wrote:

We took the name Liberal because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments in no sense reactionary, but believing in the individual, his rights and his enterprise.

Howard’s proposal cascaded through various committees and inquiries for the next fifteen years, which coincided with the Uluru Statement in 2017. The concept of acknowledgement-style recognition morphed into a recognition that was to be practical and substantial: the Voice. It was not the end point, but it was an important contribution.


left arrow 2000: Walk Across the Bridge
2008: Kevin Rudd's Apology right arrow