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Wednesday, 27 February 2013
Page: 1176

Senator THORP (Tasmania) (18:45): I rise to support the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012 and, in doing so, I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people. We know that the Ngunnawal and Ngambri ancestors lived in the area surrounding Canberra and beyond for at least 20,000 years—and very likely much, much longer than that. I am pleased that recognition of traditional owners has become an integral part of so many formal proceedings held in this place. It is a small but important symbolic acknowledgement that the Aboriginal people have a profound connection to the land where we gather and a history that stretches back tens of thousands of years before European arrival.

So it is with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill, which lays the foundations for recognition within Australia's highest legal document, our national Constitution. This bill is the first step. It asks Australians to legally recognise the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples rightful place in the history of our nation. Despite extensive deliberation across the country, there is no record of any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people taking part in the debate on the Constitution that would hold such great influence over the newly formed Federation. The final document which passed into law on 1 January 1901 contained no acknowledgement of the country's first people. This bill takes an important step in rectifying those omissions.

Unlike so many issues on the national agenda, support for the bill is widespread and growing. So far 133,000 people have registered their agreement for the move on the Recognise website. Across cultures, ages and political persuasions there is a deep current of support for recognising the truth of our history so that we can start to heal as a nation.

Implicit in the bill is not only a recognition of a proud and rich history that spans millennia but also a recognition of the discrimination, dispossession and abuse that have happened as a direct result of European colonisation. Since colonisation, Indigenous Australians have been denied their right to speak their own languages, had access to their spiritual lands taken away, been forcibly removed from their families and have been subjected to abuse—both emotional and physical.

As a Tasmanian, I am acutely aware that some of the greatest atrocities occurred to Indigenous Australians in my home state. Our history is marred by abhorrent injustices, including widespread kidnapping of Aboriginal children for labour, a government campaign where troops were used to drive out Aboriginal people from their homelands and, most shamefully, organised and sanctioned hunts resulting in mass deaths. Before we can move on from some of the darkest chapters in our past, we do need to be honest about what happened. And we need to acknowledge that this history has contributed to vast discrepancies in life expectancy, health outcomes, education and employment outcomes and incarceration rates, as well as alcohol and drug problems and the underrepresentation of Indigenous people in so many areas of society.

I do not suggest that this recognition should lead to guilt. This would only serve to prolong and reiterate a troubled past. Rather, I urge that we use this recognition to spur out commitment to a better future—a future that strives for unity and is built on mutual respect and trust and a future built on the understanding that, when we work together, we become significantly more powerful than the sum of our parts. And that is exactly what this bill is about. But, just as a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, there have been many very important milestones that have got us to this point.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Furner ): Order! It being 18:50, the time for this debate has concluded.