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Thursday, 7 February 2013
Page: 532

Ms GRIERSON (Newcastle) (12:06): I too rise to speak in support of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012, which will assist in achieving the ultimate goal of constitutional recognition for Australia's first people. As the member for Newcastle, it is worth noting that in 1993 it was Newcastle City Council that first signed a statement of commitment recognising prior Aboriginal occupancy of our land—the first agreement of its kind in the nation. The first female lord mayor of Newcastle, and of course of Australia, Joy Cummings, in 1977 was the first lord mayor in Australia to raise the Aboriginal flag over any city. So I think we have been on that path to reconciliation for a long time.

The bill before the House recognises the unique place that Indigenous Australians hold within our nation. For too long in our history since colonisation our nation's first people have been subject to gross injustices that have had an adverse intergenerational impact. As the world's oldest living culture, this has been greatly disrespectful to the original inhabitants and traditional custodians of this land. In his Redfern address Prime Minister Paul Keating said, 'It begins with an act of recognition.'

Certainly reconciliation has come a long way since 1991 and today we seek to pave the way towards a more absolute act of recognition, with Indigenous Australians being rightly recognised within our Constitution as our nation's first people. Currently, of course, our Constitution does not acknowledge Indigenous Australians as the First Australians—another one of the many injustices that we must correct as a nation. This bill is an interim measure towards constitutional recognition as we as parliamentarians, along with community leaders and Australian society as a whole, continue the task of raising awareness and the task of building a consensus for this momentous change.

Historically, Australia has succeeded in constitutional reform relating to the recognition of Indigenous Australians. In 1967, the constitutional referendum received overwhelming support, with over 90 per cent of voters indicating that they believed that Indigenous Australians ought to be recognised as citizens. We would like a 90 per cent result for a referendum in the future. In 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd at the time delivered the historic apology to the stolen generations. He stated then that the symbolism of reconciliation must be accompanied by an even greater substance. 'It is not sentiment that makes history; it's our actions that make history,' he said. That is why I am pleased that we are progressing our quest to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians as well as gain constitutional recognition for them.

In 2010, the Labor government established the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians. Its role was to conduct wide-ranging consultations around the nation and to engage with local communities, reporting on potential options for change to the Constitution that would likely succeed if a referendum were to be held. In January 2012, a year ago, the expert panel recommended constitutional amendments capable of succeeding at a referendum. Further to that, it noted that careful consideration around timing would be required if a successful referendum were to be held. Thus, circumstances would need to be ideal for success. I note some objection recently by Aboriginal people to being British subjects, which would be implied by the Constitution. I have to say that, as a supporter of Australia becoming a republic, I quite understand that objection, so for me it would be wonderful to see these two things happen at the one time.

Besides issues such as this one, there are currently low levels of community awareness about constitutional reform and therefore low levels of support for this move. It is important that the government of the day get it right when it comes to this reform. Our government agrees with the expert panel that a referendum must be held at a time when it has the most chance of success. In agreeing to work with the opposition, the government established a joint select committee to achieve this objective. The committee reported in January 2013 and, much like the expert panel, heard from a range of people and agreed that a deferral of a referendum would be ideal in succeeding. In one submission, the Redfern Legal Centre wrote that its consultation with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians indicated a lack of awareness about this issue and it therefore welcomed the bill's approach of setting up a timetable for constitutional change rather than attempting to introduce constitutional change at this stage.

The bill's sunset clause provides recognition that this legislation is just an interim measure, appropriate to ensure that this symbolic parliamentary decision would not cloud eventual constitutional recognition. The sunset clause does not undermine the value of this legislation. Much to the contrary, each and every action and step we take is a step towards greater recognition and understanding of Indigenous Australians and their right to be recognised as Australia's first people in our Constitution.

In his Senate occasional lecture on 5 August 2011, Aboriginal leader Professor Mick Dodson noted that we must 'achieve the symbolic recognition in our Constitution that many of us desire' and that we must:

… make substantive change that is required … to reset the relationship, positively, between the first Australians and the rest of the country.

I agree with Mick, and one of the best conversations I have had in my time as a member of parliament was when sitting next to Mick Dodson on a plane from Broome to Perth—a conversation we continued with dinner at the house of Sharryn Jackson, the former member for Hasluck. Those are the conversations all Australians should have, and those are the conversations that build wonderful relationships and wonderful understanding. It is all those relationships that matter. They start on a one-to-one basis. So let us hope that everyone here takes up that challenge.

This week, Prime Minister Julia Gillard handed down the fifth annual Closing the gap report to parliament, marking a significant step as our government meets and delivers on the first of the target deadlines: access to early childhood education for all four-year-olds in remote communities. This monumental step will give each and every Indigenous child a better start in life. As the Prime Minister stated, preschool only takes us to the schoolyard gate, but as an educator I know that early intervention is always key to future success. So it is one achievement I think we should be very proud of.

The Prime Minister noted that significant progress has been made to halve the gap in Indigenous mortality rates for children under five within the decade from 2008. Having visited remote communities as part of the ATSI committee of parliament, the member for Murray, Sharman Stone, and I have both become concerned that there is just not enough prenatal support for young women having babies. Unfortunately, their first intervention is often when they arrive at a strange hospital in a strange town, in many instances not having English, to have their babies without that prenatal midwifery help that we would take for granted in our communities. It would be wonderful to see Indigenous women being trained as midwives, and we have recommended that the ATSI committee look particularly at those issues in the next term of government.

Steady progress is being made in education. In 2006, 47 per cent of Indigenous 20- to 24-year-olds had a year 12 or equivalent qualification. In 2011, this had risen to 54 per cent, but this is still substantially behind the 86 per cent reached for non-Indigenous Australians. So we are halfway, but we have a lot of work to do. Educational success has been mixed. Seventy-eight per cent of Indigenous year 3 students reached or exceeded the 2012 benchmark in writing, but the figure declined in reading after improving in the years to 2011. I must say that under the National Plan for School Improvement—of course, I give a Gonski—we would love to see measures specifically designed to support Indigenous students and additional resourcing as well.

During a recent visit to the Northern Territory I was very concerned at the mandatory teaching in English for the first four hours of each day. Yes, we know English is an important language for ongoing success in our society, but for any child a first language is the way to learn and if the first language is not English then it is a wonderful foundation for any other language learning. I am concerned that sometimes our educators in states and territories are perhaps not employing the best methods.

We have made, and we will continue to make, great strides but much is still to be achieved. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reported in December 2012, that more than 17,000 dental and 9,000 ear checks have been carried out, along with around 3,000 ear, nose and throat checks as part of the Child Health Check Initiative Closing the Gap program since 2007. I am blessed with a friend—a very eminent person in this field of audiology—who upon retirement decided to go out and be part of the Northern Territory intervention. She described to me the first time she looked into a young child's ear and she had no idea what she was looking at. There was no tympani: the structure had completely eroded away. We were discussing this she said, 'Yes, we are making a difference, but there is so much to be done'. So, to people like her who volunteer to apply their wonderful expertise, I say thank you.

Reconciliation Australia research released this week shows that only half of those surveyed felt proud of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services cultures—a very different result to the 95 per cent who said they were and who came from an organisation with a reconciliation action plan. Reconciliation Australia says that such plans have an enormous impact on reducing mistrust and ignorance, and on building real personal relationships between first peoples and other Australians. It was wonderful to see the RA Program here today this week from Reconciliation Australia and it is very exciting to know that they will be funded for another four years.

Another initiative that is making a real difference to improving those conversations has been NITV. Indigenous broadcasting reached a momentous landmark in 2012 with the launch of Australia's first ever free-to-air national Indigenous television station, broadcasting live from Uluru in December. I know Minister Jenny Macklin speaks highly about that amazing day. It is a federal government initiative to begin that broadcasting opportunity, and I congratulate the minister for her tireless efforts towards the betterment of Indigenous Australians. It was wonderful when recently I switched on to NITV and watched the Freedom Ride on the Freedom Bus again. I remember it, but many young Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people will not recall the struggle and they will not know the progress that had to be made and that has been made in this country. That is something that I think is really contributing.

There are other wonderful things that mainstream Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are enjoying, things like the success of The Sapphires and Samson and Delilah, and to see these on the national and international stage winning awards and exceeding their own expectations has been wonderful. It is incredibly important that Indigenous stories are being told and are also being listened to.

Approximately 3,500 Indigenous people live in my electorate of Newcastle. It is higher than the New South Wales and Australian averages and we host a number of Indigenous cultural, language, education and arts centres, all of which enhance and add to the rich dynamic of Newcastle. Over the 12 years that I have been the member for Newcastle, I have seen wonderful progress and development. I have seen pride built, but one of the most important things has been the east coast language centre, and this federal government's funding for Indigenous language. It has been almost like a revivalist movement, and it is wonderful to see the great pride that it gives young people to hear someone—another Indigenous person—speaking to them in their native language. That has been amazing.

Overall, there have been some wonderful programs running. I think over $1 million in funding was just recently made available for NAIDOC Week, which has become a real celebration for us in our city. Youth arts programs at The Loft have also been highly successful, and in September Newcastle's newly refurbished NovaSkill Indigenous and industry skills centre was opened, benefiting from over $700,000 from the federal Labor government. The centre is already benefiting local Indigenous students across a range of trade and business areas: building and construction, hospitality, aged care, retail, IT and services. And Newcastle university is a standout in that it has trained almost 75 per cent of the Indigenous doctors in this nation, having started a long time ago in 1986.

The late Dr Ross Ingram was the first Indigenous person from New South Wales to be accepted into our medical school; today we are seeing Indigenous medical specialists. Professor Ian Anderson has noted that Indigenous Australians enrolled in first-year medical studies have reached national parity with non-Indigenous counterparts; that is a great tribute to the contribution made by the University of Newcastle.

Finally, in 2012 the federal government provided $10 million to Reconciliation Australia to promote public awareness and community support for constitutional reform. And now the Prime Minister has announced a further $14.4 million for that work.

Credit goes to Reconciliation Australia and to all those around the nation who have pushed for this reform, from organisations such as You Me Unity, along with the minister and the tens of thousands of individual advocates around the nation. As the minister has stated, we cannot underestimate the challenge of achieving consensus with a referendum across the country, but this change will come when the timing is right.

In supporting the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012, I pay my respects to all Indigenous people of this land and to their elders past and present. I also register my strong support for constitutional recognition of Australia's first people.