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Thursday, 7 February 2013
Page: 510

Mr NEUMANN (Blair) (10:28): Former Prime Minister Paul Keating, on 10 December 1992, when launching the Year of the World's Indigenous People, delivered a speech in Redfern Park, which the previous speaker, the member for Hasluck, referred to. Mr Keating said this, in one part of his speech:

More I think than most Australians recognise, the plight of Aboriginal Australians affects us all.

He said that in Redfern. Tomorrow in Redfern, I will chair the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs at the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence. My electorate has been badly flooded and affected by the disasters in Queensland, but I have done almost as much media in relation to that event tomorrow as I have done in relation to the floods which have affected Ipswich and Somerset in my electorate. Tomorrow will have peak bodies, business bodies and Indigenous bodies. The National Farmers Federation will be there, and the Minerals Council will be there. That would not have happened 20 years ago before the Mabo decision. Tomorrow we will discuss and look at amendments to native title legislation.

The Mabo decision, which the High Court of Australia handed down on 3 June 1992, legally recognised Indigenous people as having a special relationship to the land that existed prior to colonisation. But we have lived with the fiction in this country that Australia is a monolingual country. There were 250 Indigenous languages at the time of white colonial settlement. We now have only 18 languages spoken strongly in the sense that they are spoken by significant numbers across all age groups. We should celebrate the languages, the culture and the customs of Australia's first people—the original owners of the land for thousands and thousands of years.

We have seen a groundswell of activity and interest in preservation, maintenance and vitalisation of language in custom and culture. For Indigenous people land and language are one; culture and country are one. I have had the privilege of meeting many Indigenous people and visiting them in their traditional lands in regional and urban communities across the country. Indeed, in my electorate I have one of the largest Indigenous populations in Queensland. In fact, the electorate of Blair is named after Harold Blair, a very famous Indigenous civil rights activist and opera singer. Neville Bonner, the formal Liberal senator, comes from my home town of Ipswich as well—well respected on both sides of politics.

The House of Representatives committee I refer to presented our report in September 2012, Our land our languages, which deliberately said 'our land' and 'our languages' because they belong to all of us, following our inquiry into language learning in Indigenous communities.

There were a significant number of submissions to the inquiry, supporting the formal recognition of Australia's languages in the Constitution. This recognition was recommended by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner in the Social justice report2009. The commissioner recommended that the government commence a process to recognise Indigenous languages in the preamble of Australia's Constitution with a view to recognising Indigenous languages in the body of the Constitution in the future.

In December 2010, the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples was tasked to report to the federal government on possible options for constitutional change to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their continuing culture, languages and heritage. The ATSIA committee in its report supported the recommendation of the expert panel that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages be recognised in the Constitution as Australia's first languages. The ATSIA committee held the view that the constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians and their unique culture, languages and heritage is an important step forward for the country as a whole—for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia—'to ease the plight', as former Labor Prime Minister, Paul Keating, said in his famous Redfern speech. Constitutional recognition of Indigenous languages became one of the committee's recommendations coming out of that inquiry—recommendation No. 8.

I want to commend the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Minister, the Prime Minister, the previous Attorney-General and the current Attorney-General for their advocacy in relation to the constitutional recognition of Indigenous people. Indeed, the current Attorney-General, the member for Isaacs, and I were both members of the legal and constitutional committee of the House of Representatives in the last parliament—he chaired it. We had a roundtable here in Canberra, and the issues in relation to constitutional recognition of Indigenous people certainly came to the fore during that roundtable and that meeting.

We have only had eight referenda pass out of 44, and only when both sides of politics support it and support it fully. It is the case that there needs to be not just preparation but also a groundswell of support for constitutional recognition to take place; a need for the raising of awareness and building a national consensus for constitutional change. This week the Prime Minister acknowledged that we still have a long way to go in 'closing the gap', although there have been changes and improvements.

In November 2010 I became the chair of the House of Representatives ATSIA committee and took over what was then part-way through, the inquiry into the high level of involvement of Indigenous juvenile and young adults in the criminal justice system and how they interacted around the country. We handed down a report in June 2011 called Doing Time - Time For Doing: Indigenous youth in the criminal justice system.Essentially, we found that Indigenous juvenile incarceration rates had not improved since the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, some 20 years prior. Tragically, Indigenous juveniles and young adults are more likely to be incarcerated today than at any time since 1991. That report concluded that contact with the criminal justice systems represented a symptom of the broader social and economic disadvantage faced by many Indigenous people in Australia. We have reached the point in this country of intergenerational family dysfunction in many Indigenous communities. The problems of domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, inadequate housing, poor health and school attendance, and a lack of job skills and employment opportunities are impacting on the next generation of Indigenous Australians.

In our previous report we heard evidence of a lack of school attendance in the Northern Territory and Western Australia in particular. It was disheartening and frightening to think that young people would be so truant from school, their parents so lacking in interest in getting them there, and authorities so unwilling or reluctant to actually take steps to ensure they attend school. Completing school means that a person is more likely to get a job, more likely to get a better education at tertiary level, more likely to be included in the fabric of civil and community life and less likely to engage in miscreant behaviour and criminal activity. We found there was a loss of cultural knowledge in many Indigenous communities which had seen disruption of traditional values and norms of appropriate social behaviour being transferred altruistically and for the good of one generation to the next.

There has never been a more important time to stop this disconnection of Indigenous Australians from their culture and heritage and make sure that non-Indigenous Australians respect that Indigenous culture and heritage and embrace it. One thing I would like to see in this place—and we recommended this in our report—is that the Commonwealth parliament demonstrate its leadership and recognition and valuing of Indigenous languages by incorporating Indigenous languages in the Parliament House building and the operations of parliament. Sadly, that has not been done. I urge the government and both sides of politics to think about that. Why shouldn't we have that language and that culture better represented in the halls of Australia's greatest assembly, where people come from all over the country—community groups, lobby groups, churches and sporting organisations—to represent their communities and to hear, to learn, to laugh and to love? Why shouldn't that be in the halls of Parliament House? It should be.

Unfortunately, we have not made the progress that Paul Keating acknowledged we needed to undertake 20 years ago. We are making steps, and I am pleased that there is a bipartisan approach to the steps we need to undertake. Paul Keating, in his Redfern speech, acknowledged that there was a lot more to done. He acknowledged that it was complex and that they could not separate one Australia from another. I have been to Redfern on many occasions. It is just a few kilometres from the place where the first European settlers landed. And Paul, I am sure, saw the legacy of devastation and demoralisation that European settlement brought to Indigenous Australians. I speak to the Indigenous elders in my community, and many of the women are the ones who are most forthright in relation to this; they are the ones who are most concerned about the next generation.

There is a lot of great work being done in schools, communities and churches in my community by Indigenous people. In fact, Narella Simpson was recognised this week in the Queensland Times for the great work she does with Indigenous young people. She recently gave me a badge, which I was so pleased to get. It is fantastic. It features the Australian, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags together. She always comes and gives me a kiss and a cuddle and she is a great mother to a lot of Indigenous young people. She is involved in the Murri Baptist Church, a church which my father, when he was alive, and my uncle helped rebuild and paint. It is on Brisbane Road in Ipswich. It is a great little community and Narella is a great person. It is great to see the Queensland Times recognise a local community champion for what she does in the Ipswich community.

This legislation, I think, is particularly important and I urge both sides of politics to get behind it. The member for Hasluck made a terrific speech today in relation to this issue. I am pleased to see the bipartisan approach. I was pleased to listen to speeches on this issue just yesterday and previously by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. It has not always been the case. I am pleased there is a purposefulness in our community towards this. I think it is time that we recognised Indigenous language and culture and took steps in a legal and Constitutional way to put in place that which future generations will recognise was critical at the time.

Looking back, we now see how important Mabo was. Sure, it was lauded at the time, but in 200 years time young people who read the Mabo decision will say it was one of the greatest turning points in the history of Australia. I conclude on this note: if we as the leaders of our community and those representing the community in this place really want to show leadership in a formal way, there is something practical we can do in this community; we can start using Indigenous language in this particular place, in these halls of power. I recommend that we do so. I support this legislation and commend it to the House. I look forward to being in Redfern tomorrow with the member for Hasluck to hear the views of various Australian groups at the place where Paul Keating made one of the greatest speeches any prime minister has ever made.