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Monday, 11 February 2013
Page: 803


Ms O'NEILL (Robertson) (16:24): I too rise with some hope and sense of anxiety, I expect. That was very well articulated by the member for Wentworth, because this Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012 is indeed adult reading for an adult nation, and we need to take the necessary precautions to ensure that all Australians come with us on the journey as we move towards this appropriate recognition of the reality of our country and history.

I am proud to be a member of the party that removed the final vestiges of the White Australia policy. I am proud to be a member of the party that handed the first tracts of land back to traditional owners and I am proud to be a member of the party that apologised to the stolen generations. I am proud to stand here in this place as part of a Labor government that continues to make important strides forward in the official recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our Constitution.

While we should be proud of these strides we made as a government and nation it is also important to recognise that there have been times we should be ashamed of: times that we have gone against our great professed Australian belief in egalitarianism, times in our national history that reveal us as a people failing to meet that sense of our best selves, times in our history where we have had a sense of what we should strive for to ensure we all move forward together and times when, through lack of generosity or fear, the historical record reveals us as far less than the best Australians we could be. So let this time, our time, not be one of those shameful times.

In order to advance Australia toward fairness we, the Gillard government, are introducing this very important bill to the House. On our journey toward community understanding of the substance of a referendum and a confidence that such a referendum will successfully achieve a positive outcome for the entire population—the first Australians and those of us who arrived a bit later on boats and planes—this bill is both an instrument that enables that conversation to occur and a record of our journey toward that day of constitutional recognition.

We find ourselves here, in this House of Representatives, with this Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill before us. It is a bill that will establish an act of recognition acknowledging the unique and special place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their descendants as the first people of our nation. It will serve as a stepping stone to holding a successful referendum that will change the Australian Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This should be a bipartisan goal, and I am very heartened by the comments of my fellow parliamentarians in this debate. This should be a goal that brings all Australians together, not one that divides us. This should be a goal that we can be proud of, not one tarnished by political gains.

As part of our commitment to recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian constitution, this government established an expert panel to lead a discussion with the communities to move this issue forward and to bring it to public consciousness. The expert panel consulted widely, and we in this place should be very proud of the high level of community engagement that was achieved during this process. When the report was handed to parliament in January last year we had a comprehensive set of proposals that would guide our government and future governments toward the effort of recognition.

We have already invested $10 million to help build public awareness and community support for change. In my role as the member for Robertson on the very beautiful Central Coast—Darkinjung and Guringai country—I meet wonderful, active citizens who deeply understand what we are seeking to achieve here. I commend a particular group from my electorate known as Friends of Mingaletta, formerly called Central Coast Citizens for Constitutional Change, and I acknowledge and put on the record today my regard for their work and advocacy in bringing more attention to this issue in the seat of Robertson. The Friends of Mingaletta have already held a number of community meetings, and they have brought together community leaders to enlist their support in promoting and publicising the need for constitutional change and engaging the wider community in that debate. It is a task that has presented quite a challenge and they have certainly risen to that challenge. They know that for this historic and necessary change to come about we have to pull together—we have to come together as a country. And, as the member for Wentworth indicated, there are those whose interest, perhaps, in making money above making a country might interrupt this journey in some way. We need to be very careful to engage our media in enabling an historic, forward-looking campaign to achieve the outcomes that this legislation sets in train.

We have to talk about this issue with colleagues; we have to talk about this issue in schools; we have to talk about this issue through social media and, importantly, we have speak about it in the parliament. Indeed, as parliamentarians we are called to lead discussions in our own communities in very positive ways about the issues that are at hand and being considered through this bill. We have to drive the conversation. We have to ensure that as every week and month passes more non-Indigenous Australians hear about this proposition—that more non-Indigenous Australians say 'yes' to recognition; that more non-Indigenous Australians say yes to closing the gap. Passing this act will continue that momentum for change.

Again, referring to the region in which I live—the seat of Robertson—I am privileged to have a very active and growing local Aboriginal community, ably represented by Sean Gordon, CEO of the local Darkinjung Aboriginal Land Council. I asked him to bring together some of his own thoughts on what this legislation will mean for the local Aboriginal population that he leads at this moment, along with other great leaders in our local Aboriginal community, and I would very much like to read those comments into the record now:

Darkinjung local Aboriginal council is located on the Central Coast of New South Wales representing 9,000 Aboriginal people on the Central Coast and is the fastest-growing Aboriginal community in Australia based on the 2011 census data. Our experience is similar to that of our remote communities although not to the same severity. What is clear is that Aboriginal people living within urban settings are more likely to be disconnected from country, language and identity due to colonisation and European settlement. The Act of Recognition bill is an important critical step towards Constitutional recognition. This bill provides an opportunity to introduce as an interim measure the concept of recognising Aboriginal people as the first people of this country. The bill is a step in the right direction as it establishes foundation to build the necessary support structures to gain bipartisan agreement within parliament; however, more importantly, the bill allows the Australian community, both black and white, to better understand the importance of recognising aboriginal people in the Constitution. The immediate impact of the Act of Recognition Bill, if recognised, supported and passed by parliament demonstrates that there is a genuine commitment to create a real and lasting change between black and white Australia and demonstrates a sign of good faith that governments care and acknowledge our history. The Act of Recognition bill should not be seen as the solution to address the existing problems between black and white Australians nor should it be seen as the solution to fixing communities. The bill should first and foremost be seen as the first step in a true recognition and a genuine reconciliation. This bill, if passed, will provide our future generations—our next generation of leaders—the opportunity to be proud of our history and proud of who we are as Australians. The bill will hopefully generate and sustain a new generation of leadership amongst Aboriginal people and communities and allow future leaders to concentrate on remedies and solutions to our communities without the burden of recognition or the lack thereof. Finally, if the Act of Recognition bill is passed, it will lay the foundation that is necessary to achieve constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians and demonstrate what we all know and love: that Australia truly is a great country.

Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, I want to thank Sean Gordon for those words and all the representatives on the land council for their contribution to our life—our cultural life and our physical life on the Central Coast. I have been taught to look with new eyes many times by my Aboriginal brothers and sisters, and I am sure that you have had similar experiences, as we are gifted with opportunities to travel around this great wide brown land.

This legislation makes the clear statement of recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first inhabitants of Australia. It acknowledges the unique history, culture and connection to traditional lands and waters. It also commits to closing the gap in life outcomes between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians and acknowledges that constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is an important part of that process.

This bill should not be a substitute for full recognition but, rather, it should encourage all Australians to become familiar with the need for and the importance of a constitutional change. Sunset provisions in the act will mean that a future parliament will reassess how to move forward with the change and will not allow this legislative instrument to become entrenched at the expense of a referendum. The apology did not bring a full and equal opportunity for Indigenous Australians and, sadly, nor will this referendum, even if it proceeds to a successful conclusion from the perspective we have been discussing here today. Nonetheless both are very important steps in bringing closer that goal and bringing it to reality.

As the Prime Minister's words echoed just the other day, there is much more to do to close the gap, and this bill is, in essence, part of the journey towards closing that gap. I do recall, as a student, accessing a book in the library one Friday afternoon. It was one of those Friday afternoons when perhaps I was avoiding a more onerous task, but I was browsing the shelves and pulled off a book and opened it up. Sometimes in our lives the pages that appear before us are very powerful. The story that was recounted on those pages was of a different interaction that might have occurred when the British arrived here in this country. I read several pages of an interaction in which the white arrivals spoke to the Aboriginal people and marvelled at the richness of their understanding of country, marvelled at the uniqueness of their language, marvelled at the sustainability of the way in which they lived and marvelled at the complex multikinship structures, and I often wonder what a different country we might be if that fantasy had been a reality. The moment for proper engagement and acknowledgement of the richness of Aboriginal culture passed at that time. It is important that at this time, while it is our duty and we are on watch, we make every endeavour possible to ensure that we reach out across the nation, that we engage in sound enabling education that draws us together with an acknowledgement of our common humanity and draws us to a much better and long overdue recognition of the place of the first peoples of this nation. I commend the bill to the House.