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Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples - 06/11/2014 - Public consultation for constitutional recognition

ROBERTS, Mr Ian, Chief Executive Officer, Anglicare North Queensland


CHAIR: Welcome. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. I now invite you to make a short opening statement. After you have spoken, I will invite members of the committee to put questions to you.

Mr Roberts : Thank you for allowing me to make representations on behalf of Anglicare North Queensland today. Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of this land, the Gimuy Walabara Yidinji peoples, and pay respect to elders past and present and also the Aboriginal peoples here present.

I have prepared a short statement. Anglicare North Queensland does clearly articulate in its mission that it is an active participant in caring for people in need—it places particular emphasis on caring for people in need—and transforming unjust structures in society. At a national level, the Anglican Board of Mission has invited Anglicare Australia to work together to support the Recognise campaign, with the aim of promoting it within our communities, such as the Anglicare parishes. At the recent Anglicare conference, we had the opportunity to discuss further our progress along those lines and to encourage church communities to embrace at the Anglicare and local parish level.

The Anglican General Synod has passed specific resolutions welcoming the commitment by the Commonwealth government to promote constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and is seeking a multiparty approach to such constitutional reform. The synod supports the principles of reforming the Australian Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and also to remove provisions that allow governments to discriminate adversely against people on the grounds of race. It commends the dioceses and church organisations on the material that they are producing and the work that they are doing, and it encourages all Anglicans to study and engage with the issues concerning constitutional recognition.

I would like to comment a little further on some of the progress made to date. In terms of rationale, the need for constitutional recognition of Indigenous peoples of Australia is both profound and inarguable. Today we must consider that the Constitution was founded on the beliefs and values at the time and consider those beliefs and values as they stand today. We must look to the intent of the Constitution now and what it currently stands for. It is important to have regard to the fact that it is the nation's blueprint founding document that sets the political and legal framework and, importantly, that it is a living document. It evolves through the progress of time—through referendums and change. So we must take the opportunity to redress the Constitution now to prohibit discrimination and to encourage unity and equality and the right for all its peoples to be different. Above all, the Constitution should encourage the right for all its peoples to be recognised, respected and protected.

In terms of identity, some would actually say that a review of the Australian Constitution could go beyond a review of the nation's founding document to a bill on human rights; but it clearly does not extend as such, except for certain provisions such as section 116 on protecting citizens from laws that discriminate on the grounds of race, ethnicity or nationality. A review of the Constitution is an opportunity to reframe our national identity, to acknowledge the history of our nation and to recognise those who inhabited the continent prior to more recent times. It is therefore an important moment in time in the life of the nation to acknowledge the past and to be honest about the history. It is about inclusion in society to reframe the context in which we all, including Indigenous communities, participate as members of society. It is about embracing the first peoples and other peoples of this land through recognition, respect and mutual advancement. It is therefore, as I have referred to before, a living document and, as such, it is a reference in time, in the same way that many countries have subjected their own constitutions to change over the years.

What is the purpose of the Constitution as it stands now? There is a recognition that the Constitution will foster respect and mutual trust and strengthen relationships in our communities. It will help provide greater emphasis on a strong commitment to redress disadvantage in many areas of health, employment and justice resulting from decades of social exclusion. It will promote our communities and have a real impact on the self-worth and social and emotional wellbeing of our Indigenous Australians. It is important not to underestimate the significance of this constitutional change as being both real and symbolic—both together. It is also important to recognise that some Indigenous peoples do not recognise the Constitution, and having recognition in the Constitution is part of a step towards reconciliation.

I am sure that many comments have been made about how to go about the process, but there needs to be clear evidence on what Australians are being asked to vote on and the rationale. We feel there should be a wider engagement with communities and that communities have the right to give their informed consent as first peoples of this land; a debate which is well informed and addresses public concerns; full multipartisan support from all political parties and federal and state representation; a clear time line for the referendum; a public education campaign with a clear message; and clear evidence of public support for progression to occur.

Importantly, regarding the language, I also feel, in taking lots of feedback from a number of representatives, there should be reference to first peoples of this land used as wording in the Constitution, as opposed to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and a language that demonstrates inclusion and reflects the uniqueness of first peoples, a strong connection with the land and caring for country. Therefore, it is a right for all its peoples to be recognised, respected and protected. It has been stated to me also that it is important for there to be recognition of the various clans and tribes as part of the Constitution, or at least a reference to them therein, because, as I said before, it is a living document—it is a reference point in time.

Mr NEUMANN: You have looked at the various options that we have suggested in our interim report. Do you have a preferred option? There are a number that differ in many ways—one is broader, one is more limited and one is just a rewrite to get rid of the racist provisions. Where does Anglicare lean in relation to that issue?

Mr Roberts : It has a very, very clear distinction in removing unjust structures in society. The preamble not showing substance rather than form does not necessarily address the issue of having a non-discrimination clause within the context of the Constitution. For example, a section 116A has been suggested to be included within the Constitution as a clause. That would help to establish inclusion of a non-discrimination clause and would add form as opposed to substance over form, which is essentially what occurs in the preamble. I know there is probably a debate as to whether or not the words in the preamble are appropriate to use at the beginning of the Constitution or in the bulk of the Constitution. But there are some certain inalienable rights with any nation, including removing unjust structures in society and ensuring that there is no discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnicity or nationality. That is an inalienable right. The Constitution is not a bill of rights, but I think there are certain rights that need to be upheld within the country's founding document.

Mr NEUMANN: Do you think there is any social welfare or even spiritual benefit to our country? Anglicare is the social welfare arm of the Anglican church. Do you think there is a benefit to us as a country from a spiritual or even social welfare aspect in terms of constitutional recognition?

Mr Roberts : Absolutely, because recognition of all peoples, irrespective of their race, origin or nationality, provides a sense of identity and a sense of self-worth. As a religious organisation, we are concerned with people's social welfare and with their sense of identity, belonging and purpose. It is very important for us as an organisation, nationally, to support those who are disadvantaged in our community, spiritually, emotionally and physically. So the Constitution itself does actually provide a blueprint for all individuals to be protected and feel supported in society.

CHAIR: Senator Peris?

Senator PERIS: Thank you for your presentation. I am curious: how many Anglican parishes are there across Australia?

Mr Roberts : I will have to come back to you on that one. There are quite a few. I will have to confirm that with the bodies that be. I am really not able to clarify exactly how many parishes there are.

Senator PERIS: And do you have a national newsletter that gets dispersed to the parishes and on to the members?

Mr Roberts : Yes, we do. In fact, the Anglican Board of Mission Australia has actually written to all the bishops in council to encourage inclusion within the RECOGNISE campaign, and a number of Anglicare organisations, as were referred to by Shayne as the social service arm of the Anglican Church, have actually registered with the group RECOGNISE, and Anglicare South Australia, the diocese of Willochra, have engaged progressively, and all of the Anglicare bodies across the nation have been encouraged to participate in the journey.

CHAIR: Senator McKenzie.

Senator McKENZIE: Was the synod debate unanimous?

Mr Roberts : I do not have the results from the synod debate, but I can confirm that to the panel.

CHAIR: You may ask a supplementary, given that the other two have.

Senator McKENZIE: Well, no; mine was going to go to consultation, which I think—

Mr Roberts : The resolutions of the synod, once enacted, stand.

Senator McKENZIE: Absolutely, but I would be interested in the debate behind it, given the breadth of where people come to this particular issue from. In terms of the role of the church in previous successful constitutional changes, how confident are you that the church more broadly can play a similar role, given the change of the Australian public's attendance rate?

Mr Roberts : I think it is a multi-denominational response to an issue that is representative of the rights and obligations of people in society. So I would say that it is actually a multi-church response to the Constitution. Anglicans have committed themselves to support the principles of the Constitution and to redress what is believed to be a Constitution which needs to be reframed. But I believe it is actually a multi-denominational response that is required.

Senator McKENZIE: Is that a live conversation between the denominations now?

Mr Roberts : Yes. Currently there is engagement and, as I say, Bishop-in-Council actually have had a dialogue in respect of their engagement in relation to the Constitution.

Senator SIEWERT: Has Anglicare made a decision or do you have some thoughts on timing of a referendum?

Mr Roberts : In terms of timing of when the referendum would be, if you speak to several people from this part of the world, probably they will be saying we will be needing a referendum as soon as practicable. In terms of timing, from an Anglicare perspective, we recognise that we are on part of that journey and you do need to actually build up a sufficient amount of momentum and understanding and rationale for why there is a need for a constitutional change. I think referendums have not been necessarily that successful in Australia because there have been too many issues put to the general public in the referendum. So there needs to be a clear understanding of what the issue is, or the couple of issues are, so that when they do get presented and deliberated by the nation there is a clear understanding. So I think a public education campaign is really absolutely necessary, as is a wider engagement with various people and communities that would need to be involved in that dialogue as well so there is a clear understanding of the need for a specific change to the Constitution.

CHAIR: In terms of the breadth of the Anglican church and its various components, how strong is its connection nationally to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities?

Mr Roberts : I would say there is an extremely strong connection to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. We have engaged, I think, quite significantly through the Anglican national Public Affairs Commission, through the Board of Mission and through various representations. We have engaged through our national conference recently with the likes of people like Fred Chaney. We have actually got a very vibrant dialogue going on within our communities around the need for engagement—and constant engagement—of Indigenous peoples across the land. So I would say that there is a wide and vibrant dialogue that is occurring.

CHAIR: How strongly is that dialogue occurring within, say, families associated with the Anglican churches?

Mr Roberts : It is very difficult to answer that question in terms of an individual, peer-to-peer sort of relationship. But, you know, Anglicans are responsible for engaging with members of the community at a parochial parish level, and there is no turning away. So, in a sense, we are actually engaged on a personal and a family basis, and it has a very strong commitment to family.

CHAIR: The only reason I ask that is that one of the things I have continually said is that we have to have these conversations around kitchen tables, around barbecues and at social events so that the awareness becomes much stronger than it currently is, because, depending on locations we have been in, we have heard evidence from people and organisations that the conversations are commencing, but they are not at the level that I was asking about, in the sense that the process is starting to emerge of greater consciousness of that.

Mr Roberts : Right. I guess in the context of that, particularly in remote communities and engagement with community through yarning circles and community organisations, we have had those sorts of dialogues. There is strong resilience within Aboriginal communities, particularly in remote areas. There is a strong resilience and there is a lot to learn from the diversity and the strength of community. For example, Anglicare has engaged with those communities through yarning circles and through engagement with families and community. There is the work that we are doing in the Cape at the moment, across Mount Isa and McKinlay—all across that area. We are constantly having dialogue with community. There is a strong sense of resilience within those communities, and that is something we could build on and demonstrate: getting the message that we are not talking about communities that are not able to comprehend or dialogue on the matters that we are considering; there is a strong understanding and willingness for change and recognition. The people within those communities actually have a strong sense of resilience.

CHAIR: I thank you for that because it gives us a sense of the reach which your organisation has and the way in which you are engaging. Thank you very much for your evidence today. After leaving here, should you have further thoughts or additional information that you want to provide to the committee, please feel free to do so. I thank you for your attendance.

Mr Roberts : Thank you.