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Monday, 11 February 2013
Page: 815

Mr SNOWDON (LingiariMinister for Veterans' Affairs, Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, Minister for Indigenous Health and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Centenary of ANZAC) (17:19): I firstly thank all of those who have also spoken on this important piece of legislation, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People Recognition Bill 2012, which, if passed, will commit the parliament to placing before the Australian people at a referendum a proposal for constitutional change of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The principal purpose of this bill is to articulate the parliament's recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the original inhabitants of Australia and also their ongoing connection with their traditional lands and waters, cultures, languages and heritage. What I would like to do is contextualise this discussion. As you know, I am here as the member for Lingiari. I was first elected in 1987. Prior to my election to the seat of Lingiari I worked as a policy adviser to the Central Land Council in Alice Springs. Prior to that I was a school teacher and prior that I was a researcher at the Australian National University on government programs and their impact on Aboriginal communities. In one way or another, either directly or indirectly, I have been working with or for Aboriginal people for at least 35 years.

Over that period many things have changed. I can recall in the eighties the Aboriginal Treaty Committee, which had as its spearheads Dr Nugget Coombs and Judith Wright. I remember the advancing discussion around the issue of a treaty and recognition in those days and the public discussion that took place around it. I recall well the period after 1976 and the introduction of the Land Rights Act in the Northern Territory. I also recall the struggle that took place in this parliament in the mid-eighties around the issue of national land rights. I recall the divisive nature of the debate. I recall the resistance from the mining sector principally; from conservative governments, including Brian Burke and the Labor government in Western Australia; and from other conservative elements within the community. I remember well the division. I remember well the demonstrations and rallies, of which I was a part, on the front steps of Old Parliament House, regaling the then Hawke Labor government about the importance of looking at a land rights model which did not jeopardise the principles of the Northern Territory Land Rights Act, which was seen as a precedent in principle for all land rights across this country recognising the inalienable right of Aboriginal people over their lands. That was not to be the prospect of the national land rights bill. Had the national land rights legislation been passed, we would have seen the erosion of rights previously given by this parliament in the Northern Territory, and that was not seen as acceptable. Ultimately, as we know, the national land rights bill never went anywhere.

Subsequently I remember the discussions that took place around the formation of ATSIC. I remember the public rally and the discussion which took place around the 1988 Barunga Statement, which hangs so proudly in this parliament. The principles of that statement could well fit this bill. It talks about recognition. It talks about justice. It talks about understanding the imperatives of Aboriginal people, in this case from the Northern Territory. We can go back even further to the sixties and the bark petitions. This year is a significant anniversary of the bark petitions, which of course were a precursor to the discussion around land rights in this place, as well as the issues that arose at around a similar time—the treatment of Aboriginal people in the pastoral industry and the people who walked off Wave Hill et cetera. There is a whole combination of elements which go together to hear the voice of Aboriginal people screaming out for the recognition of rights and the recognition of justice over many years.

I was either a very close observer or a participant in some of these things. The key element for me, though, was the way in which Aboriginal people so proudly and so justly argued their own case, and they did it with such great dignity, until finally this parliament was forced as a result of an action by a Torres Strait Islander in the High Court to once and for all get rid of the concept of terra nullius in the early 90s. We then had native title being recognised. Again, I remember the divisive nature of the debates here in this parliament, of which I was part. I remember vividly the entrenched opposition from vested interests outside this place who claimed the world was going to end. I remember the disgusting maps used by conservatives to advertise what the impact would be of native title if native title legislation was ever passed. Thank God it is now history. I remember well the eloquence of Paul Keating in his Redfern speech in 1992, and I will come to that a little later.

For me, this is a really important piece of legislation for the people I represent. Over 40 per cent of my constituents are Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory—by far the largest proportion in any seat in this parliament. I am proud to represent them in this place and—let there be no doubt—I am here because of them in so many different ways. I have seen old men and old women who argued, for nearly four decades now, the justice of what we are now accepting as a principle in this parliament.

Many of those old advocates, those people of great wisdom, have sadly passed and are no longer with us. But if they were here they would applaud the way in which this parliament has now come together around these issues. They would say, I am certain: 'This is the place we need to be to have our rights properly recognised, to see that we are getting recognition at last for who we are and for how important we are as a people, as part of the national community, as part of the national conversation and as part of our national narrative.' That, to me, is ultimately what this is about: to say to these old men and women, 'The sacrifices you have made in the past and the sacrifices which are being made now have been to some avail.' We now have in front of us this Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill. I could not have imagined this a decade ago; in fact, quite possibly not even five or six years ago. But here we are in this place, people of goodwill, coming together to support this legislation.

I thought I should refer more directly to that wonderful speech by Paul Keating. Whilst I will not read it all I do want to refer to a couple of elements of it. This is surely one of the great speeches made by any great leader in this country since federation, and certainly in terms of the cause of recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their rights this is first among them. He said:

And, as I say, the starting point might be to recognise that the problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians.

It begins, I think, with the act of recognition.

How right he was and how right he remains in the context of this piece of legislation. He referred to the Mabo judgement:

By doing away with the bizarre conceit that this continent had no owners prior to the settlement of Europeans, Mabo establishes a fundamental truth and lays the basis for justice.

I agree and I think we now all agree. There is little division over this issue anymore.

He described Mabo as 'an historic decision'. Then he said:

The message should be that there is nothing to fear or to lose in the recognition of historical truth, or the extension of social justice, or the deepening of Australian social democracy to include indigenous Australians.

There is everything to gain.

How we know that now. Ultimately, later in this parliament we joined together in the Apology, which was so finely given by the former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. The Apology again addressed this issue of our history and justice, the understanding of the sacrifice and the hurt of the stolen generations. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating in his speech:

Where Aboriginal Australians have been included in the life of Australia they have made remarkable contributions.

He also said in this speech:

Ever so gradually we are learning how to see Australia through Aboriginal eyes, beginning to recognise the wisdom contained in their epic story.

This is now a fundamental truth—something which is now beyond debate in this country.

I want to conclude my contribution by reading the last 30 or 40 words from Paul Keating's speech:

I said we non-indigenous Australians should try to imagine the Aboriginal view.

It can't be too hard.

Someone imagined this event today, and it is now a marvellous reality and a great reason for hope.

There is one thing today we cannot imagine.

We cannot imagine that the descendants of people whose genius and resilience maintained a culture here through fifty thousand years or more, through cataclysmic changes to the climate and environment, and who then survived two centuries of dispossession and abuse, will be denied their place in the modern Australian nation.

We cannot imagine that.

We cannot imagine that we will fail.

And with the spirit that is here today I am confident that we won't.

I am confident that we will succeed in this decade.

We did not succeed in that decade but we will succeed in this decade. I think it is a tribute to this parliament that we have come across the aisle to support this very important piece of legislation that will, I hope, lead us to a referendum which will finally and once and for all give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the recognition, which is their just deserts.

Debate adjourned.