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Thursday, 7 February 2013
Page: 507

Mr WYATT (Hasluck) (10:14): I rise today to speak to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012. This bill is a short step in a long journey that we as Australians are taking towards healing hearts and minds. This bill represents not the first or the last stop on our journey but one along the way of recognising the important role that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples play and the place they hold in our nation's history, the current day and into our future.

In recent years our nation has made significant progress towards restoring the relationship between all Australians. Leaders on both sides of the political fence have been instrumental in achieving what we have thus far. Some 20 years ago, in December 1992, the then Prime Minister Paul Keating delivered the significant Redfern speech at the Australian launch of the International Year of the World's Indigenous People. Mr Keating said:

This is a fundamental test of our social goals and our national will: our ability to say to ourselves and the rest of the world that Australia is a first rate social democracy, that we are what we should be—truly the land of the fair go and the better chance.

…   …   …

Perhaps when we recognise what we have in common we will see the things which must be done—the practical things.

…   …   …

The message should be that there is nothing to fear or 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.

These words were an important beginning to a healing process for our country and, having been there at the time, it was quite a moving event. Other leaders have also contributed to the public sphere about this issue, making lasting impressions on Australia's culture through their words of leadership.

In 2008, in his national apology speech, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said to the parliament:

There comes a time in the history of nations when their peoples must become fully reconciled to their past if they are to go forward with confidence to embrace their future. Our nation, Australia, has reached such a time.

…   …   …

Because a time has come, well and truly come, for all peoples of our great country, for all citizens of our great Commonwealth, for all Australians—those who are Indigenous and those who are not—to come together to reconcile and together build a new future for our nation.

The Hon. Dr Brendan Nelson MP, then Leader of the Opposition, cited Neville Bonner in his response to the apology. The first Aboriginal Australian who came to this parliament was Neville Bonner. He said in prophetic words to the Liberal Party members who selected him:

In my experience of this world, two qualities are always in greater need—human understanding and compassion.

Dr Nelson said it well. These qualities are abundant in Australia and the reconciliation process has been a manifestation of this as Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians have walked together to strengthen our collective society.

The bill we are discussing today is not the final stop in our journey. Instead, this bill is a single point that allows us to look behind to see what we have achieved, and we have achieved much, and to look ahead to see the distance yet to travel. Yet, from this point forward, there is a greater understanding that there are ways that this parliament and the people of Australia can come together to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I believe the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, has picked up on a growing consensus in our nation. Mr Abbott said in his Closing the Gap speech:

There is a new spirit in this land. There is a new spirit which reaches out to embrace the Indigenous people of this country, so different from the spirit that was abroad when the Prime Minister and I were young. It is a tribute to so many people in this place and around our country that this is now the case.

This bill is a small step in a long journey that we as Australians are taking towards healing. It recognises the unique and special place of the first peoples of our nation. It is the product of a growing number of Australians who understand that for our nation to prosper in the future all Australians need to be brought on this journey together.

This bill is the result of the extensive work of an expert panel tasked with engaging the Australian public, both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and other Australians. The expert panel was charged with determining possible options for constitutional change. Additionally, the expert panel was tasked with refining proposals for a referendum and building support necessary for successful constitutional change. The expert panel chair, affectionately known as the 'father of reconciliation', Patrick Dodson, set about the expert panel being convened. He said:

We're gathered to take a remarkable step forward. Forward to a nation that acknowledges its history, its heritage in its founding document. Forward to a nation who stands up to be counted as opponents of racism and proponents of recognition.

The panel's engagement process was a thorough, national consultation open to many considerations. Over the past two years I have been a part of this expert panel and we have handed down a series of recommendations that this bill now refers to. The report reflects the gamut of propositions posed by all of the people involved in the consultation process, and it was the view of the panel that, out of the consultation process, we should encapsulate for the prosperity of this nation, and for its history, the range of propositions put forward by both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians. We thought that it should be captured so that the record of the day stands for the future for those who wish to reflect back upon it and take components of it to the next step in the history of this nation being as one.

Specifically, the report recommended the removal of section 25, which contemplates: the possibility of state laws disqualifying people from voting in state elections on the basis of their race; the removal of section 51(xxvi), which can be used by the Commonwealth to enact legislation to discriminate for or against people on the basis of their race; the insertion of new section 51A to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and to preserve the Australian government's ability to pass law for the benefit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; the insertion of new section 116A to ban racial discrimination by the Commonwealth; and the insertion of new section 127A to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages as this country's first tongues while confirming that English is Australia's national language. These suggested constitutional amendments need to be considered and a decision needs to be made by this parliament as to what the proposed changes are likely to gain, and what broad base of support needs to be obtained from the Australian community for it to be successful in a referendum.

As a member of the panel and, now, of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, I have been particularly conscious of the difficulty in securing amendments to the Constitution. Only eight of 44 previous proposals to amend our Constitution have been successful, and it has been some 36 years since the last successful constitutional referendum. For an issue as important as this it is important that any proposal has the united support of the parliament and that it is truly bipartisan in nature.

This bill highlights the grave importance of education and awareness in the Australian community. We are conscious that there are still some in our society who are resistant to change. Until there has been a broad-reaching national awareness about the options forward we cannot consider further action. The Constitution must reflect the views of all Australians, and any proposed changes must be given a fair hearing through public education and awareness before a referendum is considered. But I believe our nation will be ready for such a change in our Constitution when the appropriate time comes.

There is significant bipartisan support for constitutional recognition. The Prime Minister herself, in January 2012, said 'the recognition of Indigenous people in the Constitution is another step in that journey' of building trust and respect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. She said it is 'a step that is critical to our efforts to close the gap'. The Leader of the Opposition has also iterated his support of this issue, and in speaking on what he has observed in the attitudes held by Australians has said:

… we accept that millions of Australians' hopes and dreams are resting on constitutional recognition of Indigenous people. … It is very important that we should appropriately acknowledge the place of Indigenous people at the heart of modern Australia.

I commend much of the efforts that have been made thus far by groups including, but not limited to, You Me Unity. It is clear that although the consensus of the public has changed significantly since the process began, there is still some distance to go. This process will not be complete until the views of all Australians are reflected in our Constitution. This process will not be complete until the people of Australia have been given the fair opportunity to weigh up the options for constitutional change and make their personal assessment on this.

This bill highlights that it is an important process to hold a referendum when there is the most chance of success. It is impossible to predict at this point in our journey exactly when this will be. But most importantly we will need to understand that this is not a process that can be rushed. Awareness and support takes time to build. It is vital to note that this bill is not intended to act as a substitute for constitutional recognition. This bill merely foreshadows the importance of raising public awareness in order to achieve the recommendations of the expert panel. It is clear that the journey is one that, as a nation, has far to go. As the You Me Unity campaign declares:

It’s time for us to recognise the first Australians. Let's write the opening chapter of our national story into our founding document of law

One of the challenges that we will need to contemplate, as members of the Australian parliament, is our own role in influencing awareness within our electorates and within the roles that we play, and also the way in which we engage with the broader community. If a referendum is to be successful, then it requires 150-plus members of this parliament to play their active role in ensuring that the discussions are balanced, that the discussions contemplate where is that we need to take Australia in the future. To walk together as a nation, to build Australia in the way that does not reflect the past but reflects the opportunities that engage us in understanding.

It is not dissimilar to the period in which we had the bicentennial celebrations. When we celebrated that, it was fascinating watching the number of people who sought links back to the convicts on those early ships that came to Australia. When they found them, they were proud to announce that they had convict heritage. Australia had matured considerably to accept that there was a convict past, but it was the recognition of the connectivity of family to the past was equally important to them in the bicentennial year as it is today. I would hope that in the future the connectivity to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities of this country will become equally as important to every Australian, and that they will see the relationship that they have established either by marriage or through the work that they have done together, and they will walk together. Let us take this step—another step forward—towards healing the hearts and minds of all Australians. I commend the bill to the House.