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Wednesday, 27 February 2013
Page: 1171


Senator BOYCE (Queensland) (18:24): It seems a little peculiar to be talking about making a good start on the recognition of Aboriginal Australians, given that it is more than 225 years since the colonisation of Australia began, but what we have in front of us here is a good start. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012 gives us the chance to move to a system that will allow us to get a referendum happening. I would like to acknowledge the work of the expert panel which worked so hard to bring us to the point where we have consensus on the sorts of objects that should be put into the Constitution regarding the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I acknowledge our Greens colleague, Senator Rachel Siewert, but more especially Mr Ken Wyatt, the first Aboriginal member of the House of Representatives and a very strong Liberal representative of Western Australia.

I will speak briefly and acknowledge the comments made by others. I was pleased to hear Mr Abbott's speech in the House of Representatives when he said:

We have to acknowledge that pre-1788, this land was as Aboriginal then as it is Australian now and until we have acknowledged that we will continue to be an incomplete nation and a torn people. We only have to look across the Tasman to see how it can be done so much better.

Mr Abbott also said that we have never fully made peace with the First Australians. I must agree with him there. He said:

This is a stain on our soul that Prime Minister Keating so movingly evoked in Redfern 21 years ago.

I note that many people talked about the history of the work to get the Australian people and the Constitution to the stage where we have outright, direct and respectful recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution. Mr Abbott makes the point when he says we are equal to the task of completing our Constitution rather than changing it and that the work must be done by the next parliament, given that we have now got a good start. The former Prime Minister, John Howard, outlined the coalition's views on recognising and putting the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples into our Constitution. He said in 2007:

There is a window to convert this moment of opportunity into something real and lasting in a way that gets the balance right.

…   …   …

Some will, no doubt, want to portray my remarks as a form of Damascus-road conversion. In reality, they are little more than an affirmation of well-worn Liberal conservative ideas.

   …    …

In the end, my appeal to the broader Australian community on this is simpler and far less eloquent. It goes to love of country and a fair go. It is about understanding the destiny that we share as Australians, that we are all in this together. It is about recognising that while ever our Indigenous citizens are left out, or marginalised, or feel their identity is challenged, we are all diminished. It is about appreciating that their long struggle for a fair place in this country is our struggle too.

I was delighted when that policy of Mr Howard's was accepted by the then Leader of the Opposition, Mr Rudd. We do, though, still have a lot of work to do. I note in the Library brief on this bill, they have spoken of the operational provisions of the bill being 'quite simple but unusually framed'. We have in proposed section 4 a requirement that the minister 'cause a review to commence' within 12 months of the act's commencement. This is a rather strange way of trying to go about ensuring that when a referendum to amend the Constitution is put, then it will be accepted and understood. It has sunset provisions in it which are designed to force an outcome—to force the review to happen, to force a constitutional referendum. But the bill does not set out who will undertake the review, how it will be funded, whether it will have a secretariat, who will be on it or how it will go about collecting information when it is asked to undertake the task of doing a giant opinion poll prior to a referendum.

One suggestion from the coalition would be that the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples should have a strong role in the informing, reviewing and educating that needs to go on before we can go to this referendum. I must admit I was very disappointed to hear and see a lot of the commentary when this bill went through the House of Representatives some weeks ago. There were tweets going along the bottom of the screen, saying things like, 'Why do we have to have a referendum? Just put it in the Constitution now.' 'Why have we got to have this bill? Can't we just put it in the Constitution?' We are presumably talking about a reasonably literate group of the community—in that they were watching a political news program; presumably they are a reasonably savvy group of the community in that they are tweeting, and yet they have no idea that the only way we can change the Constitution is by referendum. Clearly not all of them would understand either what the constraints have meant that have seen so many referendums fail in this country—the fact that you need a majority of voters in a majority of states. The hurdles for a referendum are very high, and if people do not realise that without the referendum we cannot change the Constitution, I think we are in trouble.

I have no idea how we might go about fixing the problem, because clearly if people do not understand what they are being asked to vote on—not just the substance but also the process—the likelihood of a negative vote increases. So I would urge this government and the next government to consider how we might educate people somewhat better about what has to happen, so that we can change our Constitution and finally, hopefully, stop making starts and come to a conclusion that respects and atones for the omissions of the past.