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Tuesday, 15 October 2002
Page: 5187

Senator RIDGEWAY (6:50 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the documents.

I would like to briefly comment on the government's response to the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation's final report to the parliament. Overall, the Australian Democrats are very disappointed with what is a minimalist response to a 10-year process. Considering that the council's final report contained only six recommendations and that only part of one of those recommendations has been responded to, we question the adequacy of the government's response to what we regard as one of the most significant social issues confronting Australia, particularly in the last decade. By aiming at the lowest common denominator position on reconciliation, I think that the government has failed to take up the challenges or commit to the implementation of the Roadmap for Reconciliation, developed by the council after 10 years.

We are concerned on two fronts. One is that reconciliation appears to be no longer treated by the Commonwealth as an issue of national importance. Secondly, as a result of its relegation to the too-hard basket by the government, we question whether we can still say with confidence that reconciliation does enjoy full cross-party support in this parliament, as it did 10 years ago when the enabling legislation for the council was passed. As the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Dr Bill Jonas, said, the Howard government's commitment to practical reconciliation means practically nothing to Indigenous Australians. To use his words:

Practical reconciliation amounts to `business as usual'. It involves little innovation or change to service delivery arrangements to address Indigenous marginalisation in a holistic manner. It simply manages the inequality that Indigenous peoples experience, rather than providing a detailed, comprehensive plan for overcoming this disadvantage. It is a cruel illusion of equality that perpetuates Indigenous people's position at the bottom rungs of our society.

In the light of the government's response, it is obvious that it is not prepared to take up the leadership challenges that the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation identified it must if we are to achieve true and lasting reconciliation in this country. I think we have to ask whether the government is prepared to look at enshrining in legislation the principles that are contained in the declaration towards reconciliation and the road map, as recommended by the council. The Commonwealth has publicly distanced itself from the documents of reconciliation and rejected key elements of them. As it has in so many other areas of Indigenous affairs, the government clearly considers it appropriate to cherry pick from the recommendations of the council and to pursue only those that it considers the most benign, inoffensive or risk free. The clear message that can be taken from that is that, for the thousands of Australians who have contributed to the development of these documents over the last decade, their views and aspirations do not count for much. We ought to be asking the question, after all of this time: where are the performance benchmarks and measurable time lines that COAG and MCATSIA were to develop so that we can ensure that real progress is being made towards eliminating Indigenous disadvantage in all its forms?

You have to ask the question: where is the government's commitment to a time line for a referendum to remove section 25 of the Constitution because of its overtly racist intent? Where is the government's commitment to replacing this provision with a section that will enshrine the principle of nondiscrimination on racial grounds in our national Constitution? And where is the government's preparedness to consider legislation that will facilitate some discussion on bringing about some settlement or treaty to resolve the many matters that stand in the way of reconciliation?

On behalf of the Australian Democrats, I tabled a private member's bill last year to do precisely this, but neither the government nor the ALP have seen fit to support its passage into legislation. Even where the government has shown some preparedness to step outside the strict confines of practical reconciliation, it is mostly in relation to its recognition of Indigenous protocols—and, even here, recognition is tightly constrained to the incorporation of protocols on certain occasions and for certain ceremonies. At the same time the Commonwealth is not prepared to incorporate Indigenous protocols into the opening ceremony for this parliament, I cannot understand why this parliament—the people's house—is not regarded as an appropriate ceremony at which to acknowledge the important place and status of Indigenous people in the life of the nation, just as the government's own House of Representatives committee had drawn the same conclusion and made that recommendation. It seems to me that we have to take greater steps than we currently have if we are to bring about reconciliation. (Time expired)