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Monday, 22 September 2014
Page: 10136


Ms CLAYDON (Newcastle) (17:37): I rise today to welcome the interim report of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, tabled in June this year, and to welcome this opportunity to make a few brief comments on that report. Whilst not a sitting member of the committee, I take this opportunity to acknowledge the members of the committee for their work in the preparation of this interim report and to also commend the earlier work of members of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, which was formed back in 2010. I acknowledge and thank the 30 individuals and organisations who have made valuable submissions to the joint select committee and recognise the tens of thousands of Australians, right across the nation, who are actively contributing to the ongoing task of constitutional recognition. I understand that some 185,000 Australians have now signed a pledge on the Recognise Australia website, and indeed many more community and social networks have been activated around this issue.

The submissions to the expert panel were part of an extensive process of community consultation. The expert panel travelled to some 85 different communities across Australia, covering rural, remote and metro regions, and received more than 3,500 submissions—which suggests that this is definitely an issue touching deeply into the lives of many Australian citizens.

Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution is well overdue. It is a historical oversight, or indeed a historical wrong, that must be made right. I stand firmly with Labor in the belief that the sooner our Constitution gives recognition to our first peoples the better. Labor is committed to pursuing meaningful change in the Constitution, change that unites the nation and reflects the hopes, dreams and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

We know that multiparty support is critical for any referendum proposal to be successful, and as such Labor is working constructively with the government through the joint committee to make sure there is a political consensus on the content of a proposal to be put to the Australian public. Australia of course does not have a very good track record of voting yes in referendums, with only 8 out of 44 referendums delivering a successful outcome. So the joint committee's interim report is extremely important, and I know that its work has been based, as it should be, on the 2012 report from the expert panel on constitutional recognition. The committee's role is to secure strong, multipartisan support around the timing, specific content and wording of the referendum proposals that were effectively outlined by the expert panel in their report.

The expert panel, co-chaired by Mr Mark Leibler AC and Professor Patrick Dobson, made four major recommendations. The first one recommends deleting section 25 of the Constitution, which of course permitted states to disqualify people from voting on the basis of race, and section 51(xxvi), which allows the Commonwealth to make laws on the basis of race. The panel also recommended adding a new section 51A, 'Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples', that recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first occupants of Australia, acknowledges the continuing relationship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with their traditional lands and waters, respects the continuing cultures, languages and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and acknowledges the need to secure the advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The expert panel also recommended adding a new section,116A, which would effectively prohibit any racial discrimination. It says that governments should not discriminate on the grounds of race, colour or ethnic or national origin.

This new section, I suggest, is absolutely critical. It is more than reasonable to think that a modern democracy like ours should have a constitution that provides a guarantee against racial discrimination. Indeed, there is a very clear and compelling logic to how these proposals fit together in terms of granting constitutional recognition whilst at the same time guaranteeing no discrimination against any citizen. The argument is that these are two sides of the one coin, that you cannot have meaningful recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our Constitution if, on the other hand, you continue to enable laws that will be racially discriminatory. There is also a proposal for an additional section 127A, which is about the recognition of languages. Whilst recognising English as the national language of Australia, this section notes that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages were indeed the original Australian languages and are an important part of our national heritage.

To build the momentum needed for a successful constitutional change, a bill for an act of recognition to acknowledge the unique place of Australia's first peoples was passed with unanimous support through this parliament on 12 March 2013. Importantly, this act contained a sunset clause to ensure that this matter is progressed by parliament within two years, with that end date being March 2015. The previous Labor government invested some $10 million into helping build public awareness and community support for change. This important work is being led expertly by Reconciliation Australia via their RECOGNISE Australia campaign. I certainly hope that the joint select committee will consider, very closely, requests for additional and greater resourcing for public awareness campaigns as we get closer to the timing of a referendum. If this government is serious about constitutional recognition and the success of a referendum on the matter then this additional financial support for community education initiatives will be vital.

I would like to close now with words from the late Dr Yunupingu, Yothu Yindi's songwriter and lead singer, who leaves an enormous legacy and example for us all to respect and follow. Dr Yunupingu strongly believed that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be recognised in our nation's founding document. He said:

I want all Australians from all backgrounds, coming together for a better tomorrow. And I believe the time for change is now. So it's time for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians to be formally recognised by the Constitution. It's the right and decent thing to do. Please give us your support.

The current multi-party support and growing community support for constitutional recognition does in fact offer us a historic opportunity to acknowledge the unique status of our first peoples and to remove those discriminatory provisions from our Constitution. The Australian Constitution is the founding document of our Federation, for our laws and for our government, but it is silent on the special place of Aboriginal people in this country, except of course to give implicit endorsement of discrimination in sections 25 and 51(xxvi).

Here we stand some 113 years later, with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address this silence—to make amends for this greatest piece of unfinished business on our nation's books. As Professor Patrick Dodson noted this year in his Lowitja O'Donoghue Oration:

Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people goes to the heart of what type of nation we want to be—Are we people that shrinks from the uncomfortable truth of the past? Or a nation that is mature and capable enough to address a wrong and make our Constitution something we and the next generation can take pride in.

Opportunities to change the constitution come rarely. Labor believes the sooner our Constitution gives recognition to our first peoples the better. It is time to put an end to the constitutional exclusion of Aboriginal people from the national polity.

Debate adjourned.