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Monday, 11 February 2013
Page: 813

Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (17:09): I welcome the introduction of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012 into the House. This is an important step forward in the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our nation's Constitution, something I support. It is important that we maintain a bipartisan approach to their constitutional recognition and I welcome the Leader of the Opposition's proposal that both leaders make statements to the House of Representatives affirming support for constitutional recognition. I also commend the government on the establishment of a parliamentary joint select committee following the recommendation of the coalition. 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.

I join with my coalition colleagues in thanking Professor Patrick Dodson and Mr Mark Leibler AC for their work in consulting with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to deliver a report on possible options for a constitutional change. It is essential that we work together with this expert panel to achieve this necessary change to the Constitution and to take the important step forward in recognising our first Australians. Achieving meaningful change to the Constitution has long been a commitment in this place of the Liberals and Nationals.

It was a coalition government which was responsible for the historic 1967 referendum which removed racially discriminatory provisions from the Constitution. That referendum passed with the overwhelming support of the Australian people—more than 90 per cent of all votes cast and all states carrying it. In 1998 Prime Minister John Howard spoke in favour of a constitutional amendment that recognised the prior occupation of Australia by Indigenous peoples and their place in the Australian community as well as their right to preserve their distinctive identity. At the 2007 election the Liberals and Nationals made a commitment to hold a referendum on this matter, which took the Labor Party 2½ years to match. It is the coalition that has maintained its position on constitutional recognition and our commitment to seeing it pass. But we cannot do this alone.

Wagga Wagga based Wiradjuri elder Aunty Isabel Reid said it is time for the parliament to put politics aside and work together to achieve meaningful reform in this area, so I welcome the government's bipartisan, in-principle support of the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I am pleased that this is now a bipartisan endeavour but there is still much work to be done.

Given the fact that we are only months away from the federal election, little progress has been made to ensure there is necessary community consensus for this change at a referendum of the people. We just heard the member for Makin say that there have been only eight of 44 referenda passed. Thankfully, the fifth of those, on 27 May 1967, gave the Commonwealth power to make laws for Aboriginal people resident in the states and to include all Aboriginal people in the national census. But generally referenda fail, so it is absolutely crucial that when this referendum is put to the people it passes, as well as recognition in the Constitution for local government. We must make sure that when we do put it as a referendum it absolutely passes with the majority of the people.

Because of this, it is appropriate that we delay a referendum bill on this important issue until a time when there is wide, long-lasting and bipartisan support for constitutional recognition. The coalition has consistently reassured the government and the community of our strong support for the recognition of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Islander peoples in the Constitution and we want to ensure that this happens in the right way, at a time when it has the most chance of succeeding at a referendum.