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Thursday, 7 February 2013
Page: 518


Dr STONE (Murray) (11:07): I am so pleased that this bill is coming before parliament in my time in this place, because I have spent most of my working life trying to redress some of the terrible discriminatory legislation and the day-to-day difficulties of Indigenous people. My interest comes in part from the fact that I grew up on my family's farm, which had been in the family for five generations and was surrounded by the evidence of the peoples who had owned—not occupied, but owned—that country before my farm family. That evidence was in the shape of what we called at the time 'blackfellas' ovens'—we now call them kitchen middens—and scar trees and lots of stone tools.

We have come a very long way in my lifetime in delivering justice for Indigenous Australians. In my time in parliament we have had the native title acts, and we have seen various attempts to address the horrific differences in health, educational outcomes and the length of time people spend in prisons, and now I am pleased to see that we are at last addressing the issue of constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians—Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders.

This bill is an interim step. It aims to help prepare the public to vote yes when it comes to this referendum. The Australian people are notoriously bad at supporting referenda, no matter how worthy the cause. We have a tendency to say, 'When in doubt, say no,' or, 'When we don't think it's broken, say no.' So it is important that we do have a time of awareness and information building so we can achieve bipartisan national consensus for the constitutional change.

I do think it is very important that there is a sunset clause built into this bill so it cannot be limping on forever. We have to very determinedly set forth to build that consensus across the nation, with proper engagement and consultation, and then make sure that we bring this whole business to a head with a referendum which is couched in the terms that are most likely to succeed.

In this pathway towards constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians, in December 2010 the government appointed an expert panel. Their specific charter or task was to consult, and particularly with Indigenous Australians, to see how we could build the national consensus towards constitutional change and to look in particular at what might be supported in a referendum.

The expert panel recommended a number of amendments and changes to the constitution, and I am very pleased to say the coalition supports those proposals in their various forms. We support them quite broadly; I support them categorically as an individual. Although, as I made clear in my opening remarks, I have a problem with the fact that we talk about 'occupation' rather than 'ownership'. The expert panel, for example, suggested that we insert a new section 51A in the Constitution:

Recognising that the continent and its islands now known as Australia were first occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, …

I would have put 'ownership'. The next point is:

Acknowledging the continuing relationship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with their traditional lands and waters,

Respecting the continuing cultures, languages and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and

Acknowledging the need to secure the advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,

These are very significant and important additions. It goes on to say:

… the Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

You would think: hasn't that already been in the Constitution a very long time? Well, no, the power of the Commonwealth to make laws with respect to all Indigenous peoples has only been with us for the last 50 or so years.

With respect to the business about discrimination against Aboriginal peoples and the removal of any reference in the Constitution, obviously we have to make sure our Constitution does not allow any racial discrimination or laws to be made that are to the detriment of any race, but I, like others, support the notion that in our Constitution there should be a capacity for us to make laws which are to the advantage of any race, particularly for Indigenous peoples, given there is so much to make up in terms of their life chances compared to other Australians.

The recognition of languages should be another important reference in the Constitution. The expert panel recommended there be a new section 127A inserted along the lines of:

(1) The national language of the Commonwealth of Australia is English.

(2) The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are the original Australian languages, a part of our national heritage.

I am a member of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander House of Representatives Standing Committee and I support this recommendation. We have just completed an inquiry into Indigenous languages in Australia and we found the overwhelming desire of Indigenous Australians is to retain or to resurrect, certainly to transmit, their traditional languages—and also the culture contact languages in some contexts, the Kriol languages which are now widely spoken.

This business of language learning is so important in Australia. We have neglected for so long to acknowledge in our school systems that our Indigenous children often come to school speaking a different language to English and then they are not given support with English taught as a second language.

If I can direct people back to that inquiry's recommendations. This government has not as yet adopted our recommendations. They should. I hope an incoming coalition government would look at those recommendations which acknowledge the importance of Indigenous language retention or resurrection. Certainly it is important to teach Aboriginal children who come to school or preschool with other languages using the English as a second language method. That is one of the critical ways we could assist Aboriginal children to make up the educational deficit that they now often experience.

I want to remind us though, as I often do when I am speaking on Indigenous affairs in parliament, about where we have come from in Australia in relation to our previous responses to Indigenous Australians: their citizenship rights, their rights in terms of being paid as workers, their rights to be educated and to have decent health services provided. It is such a short time in our Australian history since citizenship rights were being debated as a possibility for Aboriginal Australians.

New South Wales parliamentary papers in 1938 said:

It has been said from time to time that Aboriginals should be given full citizenship rights. Briefly as far as can be seen at present, the majority of Aborigines, as defined by the Act,—

that is, the protection act of New South Wales—

have all citizenship rights except the following:

(a) They cannot exercise franchise at Federal elections.

(b) They are prohibited from obtaining liquor.

(c) If Aboriginal blood predominates they cannot receive maternity allowance or old-age or invalid pension from the Commonwealth Government. …

(d) Residents on stations have been debarred from receiving relief work provided by the Government of this State.

(e) Family endowments payments are in general, made to Aboriginals by means of orders for goods instead of in cash.

(f) Certain restrictions may be imposed on Aboriginals in accordance with the provision of the Act.

Despite the restrictions mentioned, including some which I would have called some fundamental human rights, it was concluded that Aboriginals in New South Wales did actually have all citizenship rights. The recommendation of the Public Service Board was therefore that the New South Wales parliament should not rush into this business of citizenship for Aboriginal people because, they concluded:

Generally speaking the restrictions imposed by the present law of this State—

in relation to citizenship—

are in the interests of the Aborigines, and at the present time the Public Service Board's inquiries indicate that in general the opinion is that they should not be lifted, even though there are numerous Aborigines who might with justification be placed on an equal footing with the general community.

The general opinion of those most competent to speak appears to be however that their education has not yet reached the stage where the restrictions can be lifted as a general policy, without harmful effects on the majority.

That was the citizenship rights debate in 1938 in New South Wales. The citizenship debate in Western Australia in 1944 went along similar lines except they decided to have a certificate of citizenship granted to an Aborigine in 1944. They therefore declared:

… any adult person who is a native within the meaning of the Native Administration Act, 1905-1941, may make application for a Certificate of Citizenship to a resident or stipendiary magistrate or Government Resident in the magisterial district in which he resides.

This was subject to the condition on the applicant that, amongst other things:

… for the two years prior to the date of the application he has dissolved tribal and native association except with respect to lineal descendants or native relations of the first degree, and—

(a) that he has served in the Naval, Military or Air Force … and has … an honourable discharge; or

(b) that he is otherwise a fit and proper person to obtain a certificate of Citizenship.

However, there were some other conditions which meant that the magistrate could, unfortunately, bar the granting of this citizenship. For example, if the applicant has contracted 'leprosy, syphilis, granuloma or yaws', they could not become citizens. They must of course be 'industrious in habit and of good behaviour and reputation' and so on.

These debates are recent in Australia's history. They are cruel when you read them now. You wonder how our parliaments of various states could have had democratically elected representatives of the people making such laws and such pronouncements about fellow human beings. Requiring someone to have 'dissolved all tribal and native associations' if they are seeking citizenship of Australia, a country that they had owned, is quite extraordinary. But that was the way it was.

We have come a long way. We have not yet achieved constitutional recognition, accepted by a referendum in this country, but I am saying that it is more than time. We need to stand up amongst the league of other nations in the world who do right by their indigenous peoples; in this case it is our fellow Australians. I very strongly support this bill. I know that it is going to have bipartisan support in this parliament and I hope that, within the next two years, we will see the Australian public give their overwhelming support to this referendum with the same resounding 'yes' as they did for the 1967 referendum, which brought Aboriginal Australians under the same roof in relation to citizenship rights in this country.