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Wednesday, 6 February 2013
Page: 262


Mr ANDREWS (Menzies) (17:07): The coalition welcomes the introduction of this bill in the House today and notes that it represents an important step toward, rather than a substitute for, constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The introduction of the bill follows from the Leader of the Opposition's proposal that both leaders—that is, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition—make statements to the House of Representatives affirming support for recognition in the Constitution and the commitment of both political parties to progress the matter in the next Commonwealth parliament. The government also established a parliamentary joint select committee, on the recommendation of the opposition.

In December 2010, the government announced the formation of an Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to consult throughout 2011 and deliver a report on possible options for constitutional change likely to be supported at a referendum of the Australian people.

The panel is co-chaired by Professor Patrick Dodson and Mr Mark Leibler AC, and the coalition thanks members of the panel for their work in advancing this very significant and important matter. In January 2012, the expert panel delivered a unanimous report which recommended a package of constitutional amendments it considered were capable of succeeding at a referendum. The intention of this bill now before the House is to provide a mechanism for continuing the work of that expert panel.

The preamble to this bill affirms the parliament's commitment to building the national consensus needed for the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our constitution and placing before the Australian people at a referendum a proposal for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The preamble also acknowledges the good work done by the expert panel but recognises that more consultation and consensus is required for a referendum to be successful. It is important to note that this preamble does not represent a proposal for a new preamble to the Australian Constitution.

The bill provides for an act of recognition by the parliament, on behalf of the Australian people, acknowledging the unique and special place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first inhabitants of Australia. It is chiefly a response to the expert panel and largely reflects the preambular elements of recommendation 3 arising from their report.

The intention of the bill is to build awareness and support in the wider community, as well as maintaining momentum towards a national consensus for successful constitutional change. The bill provides for a review to consider and advise a future parliament on proposals to submit to a referendum, based on the work already done by the expert panel. This review requirement sets out a process for progressing constitutional recognition into the future.

The bill also includes a sunset provision which limits the effect of the act to two years. This provision is intended to ensure legislative recognition does not become entrenched at the expense of continued progress. The bill will not establish any new rights or duties and will not restrict the scope of future issues for debate in regards to constitutional recognition.

The coalition has a long and proud history advocating for constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians. A coalition government was responsible for the historic 1967 referendum which gave constitutional recognition to Australia's Indigenous peoples and removed racially discriminatory provisions from the Constitution. In the 1998 election campaign, then Prime Minister John Howard spoke in favour of a constitutional amendment that recognised the prior occupation of Australia by Indigenous people and their place in the Australian community as well as their right to preserve their distinctive identity.

A commitment to hold a referendum to achieve this was made at the 2007 election, which Labor did not match until 2010. It has been the coalition that has consistently maintained a commitment to this cause. There is now bipartisan in-principle support for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The coalition has consistently reassured the government and the community of our support for the recognition of Australia's Indigenous people in the Constitution and we want to ensure that it occurs in the correct way at a time when it has the best chance of being successful.

While the coalition would like to see genuine and bipartisan progress on the constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians, little progress has been made to build the necessary community consensus given we are now less than twelve months from the next election. It is appropriate that a referendum to consider this issue is delayed until there is wide, long-lasting and bipartisan community support for constitutional recognition.

In order for any proposal for constitutional recognition to succeed, it must be able to secure bipartisan support right across this vast land. The government must recognise that an overly ambitious proposal—especially one that forms a basis for open-ended compensation applications, creates a perception of privilege or leads to legislative uncertainty—is likely to fail and set this cause back by many years.

The coalition has continually emphasised the importance of all interested parties being realistic and modest in their ambitions. In that respect, I refer in particular to the wise words of the interim report, which says at paragraph 2.39:

The committee believes that the Bill, together with the establishment of the committee itself, provides the Parliament with the political architecture necessary to build and maintain momentum toward constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The committee also notes that there are a number of processes underway to build this momentum; not all of these processes are set out in the Bill, nor is it necessarily practical or desirable to do so. Nevertheless, the committee does not underestimate the difficulty of securing the passage of appropriate amendments to the Constitution recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Only 8 out of 44 proposals to amend the Constitution have succeeded; it is 36 years since the last successful referendum. Controversial proposals are invariably foredoomed to failure. For that reason, the committee cautions that if the proposal is the victim of over-reach it will fail. While the committee does not seek to limit the scope of public discussion, it nevertheless considers that only a relatively modest proposal is capable of engendering the bipartisan consensus which is a pre-requisite to success.

We believe those are wise words of counsel and we commend the bill to the House.

Debate adjourned.