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Wednesday, 16 July 2014
Page: 5173


Senator PERIS (Northern Territory) (16:39): I present the interim report of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

Ordered that the report be printed.

Senator PERIS: I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

On behalf of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, I present to the Senate the committee's report entitled Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples interim report.

It has been a long process leading up to the tabling of this report. But the tabling of the report is really just the start, because the tabling of this report really starts the conversation with all of the Australian people. It starts the process of promoting the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution to all Australian people. And that is my priority: doing what I can to help to get all Australians on board with the journey towards constitutional recognition.

The chair of the committee, Mr Ken Wyatt, and the Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Shayne Neumann, spoke yesterday in the House of Representatives and outlined the issues discussed within the interim report and how they relate to the original recommendations in the expert panel's report. These are very important issues and crucial to the process.

But I want to focus on what this process is really all about. It is about this nation having a referendum where Australians get to vote on whether to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the Constitution. Only eight out of the 44 referendums in Australia have succeeded. On that basis, we are up against it, but we must succeed. I take heart in the fact that one of the eight successful referendums was to give Aboriginal people the right to vote, and I hope that Australians support this next step on the path to reconciliation.

In a referendum, every Australian enrolled to vote gets a vote. And that means that the views of Australia's top constitutional lawyer are just as valid as the view of an Australian who today is not yet aware that this process is even underway, because ultimately they both get one vote each.

The constitutional issues will continue to be discussed by experts, as they should be. But, as we debate the issues, we must not lose sight of the need to bring all Australians along with us on the journey. Ultimately this is an opportunity for all Australians to celebrate 50,000 years of this nation's history, not just the last 226. We need Australians to embrace this. This is a fantastic opportunity for all Australians, and something we should all get behind so that our Constitution reflects Australia's entire history.

I want to compliment and promote the work of RECOGNISE, who are extremely active in promoting constitutional recognition. Just recently, we saw an example of RECOGNISE's work at the Indigenous round of the AFL in May, where there was a big R in the middle of each ground. I suspect that, for most people, in the crowd, or at home watching on the couch, or in the pub, finding out what the R in the middle of the ground was all about was their first exposure to this process, and to starting the conversation. Hopefully this will be the start of a process that leads them into a polling place to vote yes in the not too distant future. RECOGNISE will continue their work over the coming months, as will I as the deputy chair of the committee, and I will be supporting them wherever I can. I encourage everyone to get involved. Sign up as a supporter on the RECOGNISE website, follow them on Facebook, and be part of all the events and activities they are currently undertaking.

The next six months are crucial. The committee will be travelling around Australia talking to people about constitutional recognition. Next week we are in the Kimberley, and I am really looking forward to talking to as many Australians as I can on this issue. In particular, I want to meet people who are not yet aware of the process and the issues, and to encourage them all to get on board. I want to explain to them, and also to this chamber now, why this is such an important and positive step for this nation as a whole.

One of the important aspects of the work of the committee is to take on board the views of the people in the wording of the referendum that we want to take to the Australian people. Another important aspect is promoting the reasons behind the referendum. Some of the changes proposed by the expert panel and the interim report are self-explanatory and obvious. I think everyone would support the removal of section 25, which allows states to ban people from voting on the basis of their race. Obviously this does not happen anywhere in Australia at the moment, but the fact is that that section currently exists in our Constitution, and that simply has to change. That is a simple and an obvious change.

The expert panel has recommended a new section, 116A, to ban racial discrimination in this country. The interim report expands on this. It recommends a subsection (2) that provides that there can be laws for the purpose of overcoming disadvantage, getting rid of the effects of past discrimination, and protecting the culture, languages or heritage of any group. We need the Constitution to be clear. The Constitution of Australia should include a prohibition on racial discrimination.

The expert panel also proposed a section recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages as Australia's first tongues and confirming that English is Australia's national language. There are hundreds of languages currently spoken in Australia. Of course, English is the most commonly spoken but there should be no restriction on the use of other languages. The committee's report outlines the issues in relation to the expert panel's recommendation. On these issues and all issues raised in the report we now want to hear from all Australians. As I have said, the tabling of this report is really just the start.

I want to thank everyone involved in the process to date: the members of the expert panel, the members and staff of the committee and all the people who have provided advice to the expert panel and the committee.

I want to briefly comment on one thing. In the course of history it will not matter if this change to the Constitution occurs next year or if it occurs in 2016 or 2017. By far the most important aspect is that it succeeds; it cannot fail. But we should not delay. The work that Recognise is doing is creating a momentum. I do not believe that this momentum has peaked yet, but it will also not last forever.

Finally, I do have to point out a concern I have with the path to constitutional recognition. If the government plans to weaken provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act, it will undermine our process. These are plans that Australia's Attorney-General has defended as necessary to protect the rights of bigots. If the amendments currently proposed by the government are to be put before this parliament during the pathway towards recognition then I fear the pathway will be destroyed. I have written to the Prime Minister urging him to abandon his changes to the Racial Discrimination Act. I again urge him to do so, because we need to be doing everything we possibly can to make sure we succeed in amending the Constitution of Australia to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

As an Aboriginal woman, this issue is incredibly important to me, and it is incredibly important to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. In my role as an Aboriginal member of this parliament I am honoured to be in a position to advocate for recognition on behalf of all Aboriginal people and the Australian Labor Party. I will continue to do everything I can to ensure that the voices of Aboriginal Australians are heard as this pathway continues. I will also be doing everything I can to encourage all Australians to be a part of this process and to vote 'yes' for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. I reiterate that Australia does not lose 226 years of history; it gains 50,000 years of history.