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Thursday, 7 February 2013
Page: 536

Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (12:21): Australia remains the only Commonwealth country without a treaty with its Indigenous inhabitants. We have never properly acknowledged that Indigenous Australians never ceded sovereignty. We have never properly acknowledged that what we call 'settlement' was accompanied by violence, at times and in places extremely brutal. Until we acknowledge this, and until we acknowledge it in the form of a treaty, these wounds at the heart of our country are going to continue to fester.

I was proud, like many others, to celebrate Australia Day. For me, the values that I celebrated on Australia Day are what I think to be the very important, uniquely Australian values of multiculturalism and egalitarianism. But, Australia Day, which of course happened very recently, is a difficult day for Australia's first peoples. I went to a number of events where we were warmly and generously welcomed to country by people to whom we owe a debt. The first event of my day on Australia Day was to join with a number of Indigenous Australians and a number of non-Indigenous Australians in Fitzroy to mark the serious parts of our history that are often overlooked. I long for the day when everyone in this country can celebrate Australia Day; when it is a day where we mark not only those values of multiculturalism and egalitarianism that bind us all together but when it also becomes a day where our first Australians can celebrate because we are celebrating a treaty.

But at least we are taking a step towards recognising Indigenous Australians in the Constitution, and at least we are able to debate this legislation this week. It is appropriate that we are debating it this week because part of 'closing the gap' on Aboriginal health is taking steps to improve social and emotional wellbeing, and an act of recognition is an important part of that work.

The committee that looked into this bill heard significant evidence about the importance of recognition of wellbeing. The comments of the Human Rights Commission are particularly relevant today. The human rights commissioner focussed on how a lack of recognition impacts on the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, particularly young people. The Australian Greens agree that at each step toward what we hope will be full constitutional recognition, it is crucial that the process improves emotional and social wellbeing amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Also, it is crucial that it takes care to avoid creating significant uncertainty within the process, which could trigger distress or disengagement by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

My colleague Senator Rachel Siewert has made additional comments for that inquiry, and will address our concerns in greater detail when this bill reaches the Senate. The Australian Greens will support the passage of this bill as an important step along the path to constitutional recognition. However, I do want to note that we are disappointed that there has by now not been further progress towards substantive constitutional recognition.

Ultimately, the Australian Greens believe that recognition needs to occur in the Constitution, along with concrete action to address the racism that remains in the text of the Constitution. The Australian Greens have a long history of supporting Aboriginal rights and promoting recognition and reconciliation. We want to see further reforms and the end of policies that have a disproportionally negative impact on people, such as income management. For this reason we will continue to work towards constitutional recognition, but we will not settle for symbolism over substance. It is also clear to us that there is still significant work to be undertaken to reach agreement, not just on the most popular model of recognition but to ensure that the final model is the most appropriate model—and one that has the support of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

There is still insufficient clarity about what the next steps towards recognition are. Reconciliation Australia, which has been empowered to promote constitutional recognition through the Recognise program, demonstrated to the committee examining this bill how difficult it is to advocate for a successful referendum when the model of that referendum is still unclear, and the enduring problem this presents to their work to build public awareness.

Although the bill provides the trigger for a review that will investigate the way towards constitutional recognition after one year, it is clear that there will also need to be significant multi-party commitment and leadership in order to build the understanding and excitement of the Australian people to get behind an important history-making campaign to say 'yes' to recognition and 'no' to racism. For the Australian Greens this bill is a good step forward, but constitutional recognition will remain firmly on the agenda as the ultimate goal.