A Proud Tradition: The Liberal Party and the road to Constitutional Recognition

The Hon Ken Wyatt AM MP
Minister for Indigenous Australians
Member for Hasluck

A Proud Tradition: The Liberal Party and the road to Constitutional Recognition

11 OCTOBER 2019


‘Kaya wanju’ – hello and welcome.

I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land: the Noongar people and their elders, past, present and emerging.

I would like to take the opportunity today to talk about the road to Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians.

I will explore why we – as a Liberal Government – are trying to achieve something that has never been done before.

Winning the support of Australians to change the Constitution is a rare achievement – in fact it hasn’t been realised for some four decades – and no government, until now, has had the courage and conviction to attempt it for 20 years.

But I firmly believe that achieving Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians is something that is steeped in the history and proud tradition of the Liberal Party – and that we are at a time where we can forge ahead with the next step on the road to real reconciliation.


This year marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Liberal Party as we know it – derived from the understanding of the fabric of our nation as illustrated by our founder Sir Robert Menzies in his ‘Forgotten People’ addresses.

As a political party we have found success when we stay true to these philosophes and founding beliefs – the ‘Howard Battlers’ are the hallmark of our nation’s most successful conservative government.

And today, Morrison’s ‘Quiet Australians’ are challenging the loud voices in Canberra as to what are the true challenges facing this great nation and what should rank as priorities for the future.

But what is this Liberal way?

And what relevance does it hold when we discuss the place of Indigenous Australians and the road to Constitutional Recognition.

Our Party’s Federal Platform states that:

‘Liberalism is a set of democratic values based upon a central belief in the rights, freedoms and responsibilities of all people as individuals and upon a conviction that those individual rights, freedoms and responsibilities are the surest foundation of strong community life’.

In 2019 that is translated by our government into ‘if you have a go, you’ll get a go’.

As a government, and as Minister for Indigenous Australians, I am focused – every single day – on getting more children to school in the morning, reducing suicide rates in communities and creating jobs and economic opportunities for all Indigenous Australians – no matter where they live.

You’ll hear me say this a lot – because achieving these practical and important outcomes will shape our history – and future generations will judge our efforts by these measures.

Empowering individuals – empowering communities – and empowering Indigenous Australians will take more than a change to the Constitution; the establishment of a voice or refreshing our Closing the Gap targets and approach.

We are sewing a tapestry – then when completed – will help realise the potential of Indigenous Australians everywhere.

During my recent Vincent Lingiari Lecture I spoke of the need to shift the pendulum – permanently and positively – and see the efforts of government alongside the efforts of individuals realise long-lasting change.

All too often our achievements are short lived – conceived in a way to respond to an immediate problem – as opposed to developed in concert with those on the ground who best understand the challenges and have the most appropriate course of action in mind.

I’ll come back to this a little later.

What do I mean when I say that constitutional recognition is steeped in the tradition of the Liberal party?

Let me quote three statements for you –

We as Liberals are proud of this great nation and its achievements.

We find our strength in fellow Australians who consistently triumph over adversity.

And we respect the lessons of history that lay the foundations for an even better future.

These three statements – pride in achievement; strength from adversity; and respect of history – for me, sum up why we as a nation need to deliver Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians.

These aren’t beliefs or an understanding of the Liberal Party that are my views – although I do agree with them – these statements are again found in our Party’s Federal Platform – under the heading –

Modern Australia – the Challenge of Nation Building.

That’s how I view Constitutional Recognition, the establishment of a voice so Indigenous Australians are heard by all levels of government and closing the gap.

These are modern nation building – and important steps to heal our nation’s past and allow us to live out our future as a unified nation – built on understanding, respect and opportunity for all.

History tells us that we – as Liberals – can deliver such fundamental change.

The successful 1967 referendum under the Liberal Holt Government tells us that we can right wrongs in a way that brings Australians together.

This speech – your attendance here today – and the little things we do each day to better understand our past and gain an understanding of why this is important, forms truth-telling.

1967 was a form of truth-telling that led to Indigenous Australians being counted in the census – the world’s longest living culture being recognised in what is one of the world’s youngest nations.

All too often we allow the progressive arm of politics to define history – and take credit for substantial achievement and social change.

I won’t stand here and discredit the achievement of Labor government’s over the years – I don’t believe it serves any purpose – and in fact does nothing to assist today’s debate.

We should credit Gough Whitlam’s infamous meeting with Vincent Lingiari at the conclusion of the Wave Hill walk-off, a moment that paved the way for Native Title as we know it today.

We should credit Paul Keating and the delivery of the Redfern Speech – I was there – I can remember it as though it was yesterday – a moment of truth-telling in our nation’s history that led to Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations.

We should celebrate these moments as Australians – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – because these moments did shift the pendulum, and enabled future generations to have a more prosperous and rewarding life than those who came before them.

And we should equally celebrate our achievements – the 1976 Referendum, meant the thoughts; the views of Indigenous Australians was of the same worth as those who had come across the seas and their descendants – Australians one and all.

We should celebrate Neville Bonner – and his election to the Australian Parliament – a direct result of the will of the Australian people both in 67 and in 1971.

We are a Party of practical results – of action that positively changes lives and one that gives strength to the individual – and hope and opportunity from hard work, perseverance and determination.

That’s why I’m proud to be a Liberal.

It is through this philosophy, and record of achievement, that I take confidence that this government can achieve a referendum on constitutional recognition, and the establishment of a voice in this term of Parliament.

It is our next logical step on the road to reconciliation – and it is something that us Liberals should be proud to own and champion.


President Ronald Regan famously said that the nine scariest words in the English language were –

‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’.

He was right – nothing speaks as stronger against the beliefs of the Liberal party, the power of the individual and strength we take from the ‘fair go’ as those nine words.

When talking about how we achieve Constitutional Recognition and the truth-telling I’ve spoken about today I’d rather put to people –

‘I’m from the government – how can I help?’

Constitutional Recognition is too important to rush and too important to fail – and it’s something that I can’t, and won’t, be able to achieve by myself.

The Constitution belongs to all Australians – and every single voice is important – and as important as the one that came before it, and after it.

Our aim to achieve recognition in this term of parliament is ambitious – I don’t shy away from that.

But I’m optimistic – and I have great faith in the people of this nation.

I have great faith that they can help acknowledge the world’s oldest continuous culture on our nation’s birth certificate.

This is a truly Liberal approach to governing, policy making and delivery – the 150 other Australians who sit in the House of Representatives alongside me don’t hold all the answers.

The 151 Australians that sit in the Parliament represent the views of over 25 million Australians – we’re entrusted to make the right calls – but we can only do that through genuine engagement.

We are elected to share the voices of all Australians – starting at home, in our electorates. We should welcome all views – we should take the proposals of our citizens to Canberra and consider them diligently.

This is why we’ll take a deliberate approach to this that will capture all the voices in this debate – not just those loud voices in Canberra and the media.

We will realise Constitutional Recognition with the support of the quiet Australians – those whose focus isn’t on daily political point scoring, or defining and building legacies for themselves.

We will realise a positive result with the support of those who want to see more children get to school in the morning, more Indigenous Australians benefiting from the value of holding down a meaningful job, having access to proper health care and having hope and belief for themselves and their children.

These are the Australians I’m talking to – and the Australians I want to hear from; they’re the Australians I encourage you to reach out to, to listen to and to understand their perspective on why this is so important.

We won’t proclaim to know what’s best, and to force a process on the Australian public that fails to capture the voices of all Indigenous Australians.

To those who are critical of our approach, and question why we haven’t stormed out of the gates to deliver constitutional recognition I say this again –

This is too important to rush.

This is too important to fail.

I don’t want to rush this.

And I don’t want this to fail.

We cannot lose sight of this.


This has been the basis of much of the commentary in the media – our process verses that of the Labor Party.

My approach verses that of others who sit in our Federal Parliament.

But as I’ve explained to you this morning – I truly believe that this is something we – as Liberals – are best placed to realise.

Since 2013, the Coalition Government has maintained a non-partisan commitment to recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in the Constitution.

To deliver this, the Morrison Government is providing $7.3 million for the comprehensive co-design of models to improve local and regional decision making and options for constitutional recognition.

This is what we took to the Australian people – and this is what we are delivering.

There should be no surprise in our approach – we’re getting on with the job and getting on with what we said we would do.

Now our political opponents, and some in the media, are questioning this.

The Liberal Party is the natural party of government in this country.

Since our foundation 75 years ago we have held government for 48 years.

There are many reasons for this – not least the basic values we hold dear as a party – and our genuine and true connection with every segment of the Australian community – from our oldest Australians to our newest migrants – hard work, reward and opportunity makes up our DNA.

Another reason behind this ongoing success is the fact that we are truly represent the width and breadth of this great vast land.

From the cities, to the regions and to every corner of our continent you will find representatives from the Liberal, National, LNP and CLP parties.

Our coalition – between the Liberals and the nationals is the most successful political partnership in Australian history – and arguable worldwide.

We have real experience – doctors, educators, small business people, ex-service personnel – and it allows us to understand and forge connections in every community because of our diversity.

This is a massive part of our success – both at the ballot box and in government.

There are those who would have you believe that they have the answers and the know how to deliver this substantial reform overnight. Yet history, and their record when last in government paints a very different picture.

Let me assure you – your voice can be very loud when in Opposition.

The Labor Party will have you believe that you can put your faith and trust in them to deliver.

But we know what history tells us.

We know that in the last quarter of a century the Australian people have elected the Labor Party with just one majority government.

The Liberal Party have formed 7 majority governments in the same time.

We know that when in government – the Labor party go wanting.

Now I’m not doubting the beliefs of those members of the Labor Party who hold these views – but I do question their courage when in Government.

The Liberal Party is defined by courage in government:

  • The dismantling of the White Australia Policy

  • The delivery of the 1967 referendum

  • The buy-back of semi-automatic and automatic weapons following the atrocity of the Port Arthur Massacre in 1996 and

  • The successful delivery of the Same Sex Marriage Postal Survey in 2017, amongst other achievements.

These are just some of the times were we have stepped up and delivered positive change for the Australian people.

Following the re-election of the Howard Government in 1998 – Howard declared reconciliation a priority.

Prime Minister Howard did express support for some form of constitutional recognition of Indigenous people and a declaration of reconciliation, and the preamble taken to the Australian people as part of the 1999 referendum was the last time a government attempted to achieve such a step towards reconciliation in the referendum.

While it’s true that this is too important to rush and too important to fail, and while it’s true that the question we put to the Australian people must carry with it the support of the majority of Australians in the majority of States – we should not forget that between 2007 and 2013 there was no effort on the part of the Labor government of the day to advance constitutional recognition beyond that of the Expert Panel and a Parliamentary enquiry.

Since my election – almost ten years ago – we are talking about the Australian people having a say on this matter for the very first time.

The Morrison Government remains committed to working in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

This is epitomised in the COAG partnership with the Alliance of Aboriginal Peak Organisations.

We will continue to work and expand our co-designed Empowered Communities initiative to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are involved in local and regional decision making.

The Morrison Government will focus on practical action to deliver better outcomes for Indigenous Australians.

We are focusing on genuine engagement directly with communities.

And we need to celebrate our achievements –– we all too often allow ourselves to be divided by our failings rather than united by our success.

Again – this is why we must take this opportunity – our moment is now.


We’re all here today because we believe in the same things – we believe:

In Australia; it’s people and it’s future.

In the innate worth of the individual

In the equality of opportunity, with all Australians having the opportunity to reach their full potential in a tolerant national community.

In Liberalism, with its emphasis on the individual and enterprise.

We believe in ourselves – and in each other – in the power of our great nation and the endless potential of what we can achieve.

We can represent all Australians, and we can make our mark on history by healing the divisions of the past and by reaching the unfulfilled potential of Indigenous Australians.

That is what is before us.

Let’s together write the next chapter in the proud history of the Liberal Party.

Let’s together as Australians work to achieve Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians.

And let’s, together, do what the Liberal Party has always sought to do – build a stronger Australia for generations to come.

Thank you.


Authorised by K Wyatt, Liberal Party, Canberra