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Wednesday, 23 June 2010
Page: 4065

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Leader of the Government in the Senate) (9:31 AM) —I move:

That the Senate is of the view that the declaration of the opening of Parliament should be preceded by an Indigenous ‘Welcome to Country’ ceremony.

I seek the Senate’s support for the declaration that the opening of parliament should be preceded by an Indigenous welcome to country ceremony, which would take place at the first meeting of a new parliament after a federal election. The Rudd Labor government is committed to working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to progress reconciliation and it is a key element of the government’s objective of closing the gap in Indigenous disadvantage. Increased investment and reform are important, necessary steps. But they are not sufficient for closing the gap.

We came to government knowing that change was needed on emotional as well as practical levels. We knew that for too long Indigenous people had felt like outsiders in their home. We recognise the great importance of pride in identity in shaping aspirations and choices. That is why the Rudd Labor government’s first official business in coming to government was to deliver the national apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples, in particular to the stolen generations. The apology created the opportunity for a shared future and a fresh beginning for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Being welcomed onto country by traditional owners is now acknowledged as an important gesture by many Australians. A welcome to country is performed by the traditional owner of the land on which we stand. It is the act of welcoming others onto your traditional lands, to wish them safety and honour the history of a place. It is a long time honoured Indigenous tradition that pre-dates the arrival of Europeans to Australia and was used between different groups of Australia’s first peoples.

Australia is a great nation and part of our greatness is our ancient and unique cultural heritage. We can feel proud of this. It is part of who we all are as Australians. It is a shame that the opposition do not seem able to support this resolution. Welcome to country recognises the role of Australia’s first peoples as custodians of the oldest continuing cultures in human history. It is a simple act but, at the heart of it, it is one of respect. I urge the Senate to support this resolution to formally commit to a welcome to country being part of the opening of a new parliament.

We were very proud to have a welcome to country to open this parliament, an event which received bipartisan support. At the event on the 12 February 2008 the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, said:

Exactly 100 years ago the land on which we stand was chosen as the site as the nation’s first capital. Eighty years ago, we built an old Parliament House and 20 years ago, we built this new great house of the Australian democracy. Yet the human history of this land stretches back thousands of years through the dream time. Despite this antiquity among us, and despite the fact that parliaments have been meeting here for the better part of a century, today is the first time in our history that as we open the parliament of the nation, that we are officially welcomed to country by the first Australians of this nation … let us resolve here, as Members and Senators and Members of this great Parliament of the Commonwealth, that whoever forms future Governments of the nation, let this become a permanent part of our ceremonial celebration of the Australian democracy.

That was the government’s commitment to try and enshrine welcome to country as part of the start of the new parliament to reaffirm that connection with the traditional owners and with our first peoples.

I note that then opposition leader Mr Brendan Nelson said at this event:

I join in supporting the remarks very strongly of the Prime Minister. I don’t think the openings of our Parliaments will ever be the same again and that is good … I assure you on behalf of the alternative government, in supporting the Prime Minister, that whatever happens in future parliaments, so long as I have anything to do with it, that we will have a welcome from Ngunnawal and their descendants.

Matilda House, the elder who delivered this welcome to country, said it was one thing: proper respect. So I hope that all senators will support this motion and support giving a welcome to country ceremony a formal place in the opening of all future parliaments.

Those of us who have visited the New Zealand parliament understand the important role the Maori culture is given in the operation of their parliament. One of the few things that are unique about our democracy is our Indigenous people. The connection with them in the opening of parliament reflects the development and the continuity of Australian democracy.

This is an important motion for the Senate to support. The last opening of parliament was a much more significant event for the inclusion of the welcome to country. I urge the Senate to support this resolution that commits us to supporting such a welcome at the opening of every parliament.