Two publics or one? The campaign to recognise Indigenous Australians in the constitution

Two publics or one? The campaign to recognise Indigenous Australians in the constitution

Join Tim Rowse for 'Two publics or one? The campaign to recognise Indigenous Australians in the constitution'

This paper is based on a work in progress for a book co-authored by Murray Goot (Political Science Macquarie). My paper will be a narrative of the debate triggered by Prime Minister Gillard’s appointment of an Expert Panel to come up with ways that the constitution could be altered to ‘recognise’ Indigenous Australians. The Panel reported in 2012, and its proposals included giving Indigenous Australians rights that could be litigated in the High Court. By 2014 this model of ‘recognition’ was being withdrawn by Indigenous leaders, acknowledging sustained criticism from ‘constitutional conservatives.’ Replacing that ‘rights’ form of recognition in 2017, was the proposal for a Voice to Parliament, an idea promoted by some Indigenous Australian leaders (Noel Pearson, among others) and moderate conservative MPs. This idea had secured an Indigenous mandate, in the form of the Uluru Statement by May 2017. The Morrison government has agreed to a process of ‘co-design’ of the Voice, but without committing to holding a referendum to give the Voice to Parliament constitutional status. A Voice might be legislated, but there is no certainty that it will ever be submitted to referendum.  My paper will highlight a feature of the debate about the forms that Indigenous constitutional recognition could take: the acknowledgment that there are two publics to be satisfied. One public is defined by the constitution: the voters en masse (in simple majority across the nation, and in majority in four out of the six States). I will draw attention to a potent popular conception of this public as ‘the nation’. The other public is the Indigenous public. The latter is not formally defined, but its existence is implied by the very idea that it could be ‘recognised’, and it is often evoked rhetorically as having its own distinct view on what would constitute ‘recogniition’. The Indigenous public has been represented as a ‘public’ by two kinds of mechanism: the ‘assemblies’ organised by the referendum council in 2016 and 2017 and the opinion polls that draw an Indigenous sample. A politic process that postulates two such publics is what we would expect in a settler colonial society, but how can we give weight to them both?  

About the speaker
Professor Tim Rowse is a former Professorial Fellow in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts and is Emeritus Professor in the Institute for Culture and Society. He is also an Editorial Fellow in the National Centre for Biography, ANU. 

Although much of what he writes can best be described as History, his formal training has been in Government, Sociology and Anthropology. He has taught at Macquarie University, the Australian National University and Harvard University (where he held the Australian Studies chair in 2003-4), and he has held research appointments at the University of Sydney, the University of Melbourne, the University of Queensland and the ANU. Since the early 1980s, his research has focused on the relationships between Indigenous and other Australians, in Central Australia (where he lived from 1989 to 1996) and in the national political sphere. In the 1990s, this and other interests led him to write two books about the life and works of Dr H.C. Coombs.

Event Details
11-12pm Monday 20 September, 2021
Venue: Room 4.69, RSSS Building
Chair: Helen Keane

Meeting ID: 880 5269 8281
Password: 0000

Photo by Diane O'Brien on Flickr.

Date & time

Mon 20 Sep 2021, 11am–12pm


RSSS Building, Room 4.69 and via Zoom


Tim Rowse


Beck Pearse


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