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Tuesday, 26 February 2013
Page: 867


Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandDeputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (12:31): The passage of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012, which has the bipartisan support of the opposition and, I believe, also has the support of the minor parties and the Independents, is an important moment in the history of our nation. It is symbolically important, as the Prime Minister and others have said. More importantly, it is a measure which will have practical consequences. When it comes to Indigenous Australians, we have had, I think, too much symbolism dressed up as if it were practical achievement, too many gestures without outcomes, too many ceremonies in which many fine words have been uttered, all of which have made us feel better about ourselves but which has improved the everyday lives of Indigenous Australians not one iota. So, while not underestimating the power of symbolism in the life of a nation, symbolism without more will never be enough. Indeed, on occasions the obsession of some of the participants in this debate with symbols alone has almost been an excuse to neglect more useful practical measures.

So it is important that this bill does serve a practical purpose by committing both sides of politics to a course of action which, it is envisaged, will result in a successful constitutional referendum sometime during the life of—or perhaps at the conclusion of the next parliament—to give appropriate recognition of Indigenous Australians in our nation's founding document. If that comes about during an Abbott government, as I rather suspect it might, then nothing could be more fitting because there are few politicians in Australia who have shown a more long-lasting devotion and commitment to helping Indigenous Australians than Mr Tony Abbott. His has been a commitment manifested not merely in fine words—although Mr Abbott's speech on this bill in the House of Representatives on 13 February 2013 should live in history as one of the noblest parliamentary speeches ever given in that chamber—but, just as importantly, in practical action manifested by voluntary manual work over many years, unadvertised and in his own private time, in Aboriginal communities in Cape York. Both sides of Australian politics have a genuine commitment to this issue, but I am particularly proud that the leader of my party is a person whose commitment has, for so long, been manifested not merely in words but in the sweat of his brow, the dust in his eyes and the dirt under his fingernails.

I will say a few words about the provisions of this bill in a moment but before I do, I want to put it in its proper historical perspective. No side of Australian politics is without blemish when it comes to the treatment of our Indigenous peoples. For too long, particularly in the first half of the last century, their needs, their aspirations and their basic human rights were neglected or ignored by conservative and Labor governments both state and federal. Nevertheless, wise ministers from both sides of politics became increasingly sensitive to the needs of Indigenous Australians and, with changing attitudes and values, developed policies to redress Indigenous disadvantage and unequal treatment. Although the Labor Party, in the relentless prosecution of its one-sided view of history, claims the credit for these initiatives, the truth is that most of them were in fact pioneered by Liberal governments.

Sir Paul Hasluck, one of our nation's very greatest cabinet ministers, used the 12 years he spent as the Menzies government Minister's for the Territories between 1951 and 1963 to pioneer enlightened policies which, with the passage of time and the demonstrated failure of Whitlam-era welfarism, seem truly farsighted. Hasluck was only the first of a series of distinguished Liberal ministers for Aboriginal affairs, including William Charles Wentworth, Fred Chaney, John Herron and Mal Brough, each of whom achieved great advances for Australia's Indigenous peoples. It was of course the Liberal Party which, 42 years ago, selected, through a regular preselection process, the first Aboriginal Australian to sit in this parliament, a man whom it was my privilege when I was a young man to call a friend, the great Neville Bonner. It was the Liberal Party which, at the last election, again through a regular preselection process, selected the first Aboriginal Australian to sit in the House of Representatives, my colleague Ken Wyatt, appropriately the member for Hasluck.

At the state level, it is often forgotten that it was the Queensland National Party which selected the first Aboriginal Australian, Eric Deeral, to serve in a state parliament as long ago as 1974. Last year, we saw in the Northern Territory Indigenous Australians turn in droves to the conservative side of politics and elect no fewer than three new Indigenous members of parliament to sit with the Country Liberal Party.

The Prime Minister and other Labor politicians and apologists are fond of reciting the various steps to Aboriginal advancement, for which Labor governments claim to have been responsible—although many of those policies, by creating a culture of welfare dependency, in fact destroyed Aboriginal communities and retarded rather than advanced their development. But, curiously, the Prime Minister routinely fails to mention the greatest single step ever taken towards the goal of achieving equal rights and status for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians: the 1967 referendum, an achievement of the government of Harold Holt.

This was the vital moment which gave Aboriginal Australians true constitutional recognition, equal standing in the Constitution and full membership of the Australian body politic. Nothing that has happened before or since was as important as the 1967 referendum, yet Ms Julia Gillard routinely seeks to airbrush it out of history, no doubt because, like so many of the great progressive achievements in the history of Australian nationhood—indeed, like Federation itself—the Australian Labor Party had absolutely nothing to do with it.

This bill will, I hope, set in train a process which will culminate in a constitutional referendum as successful as the 1967 referendum—the most successful referendum in Australian constitutional history, by the way, which recorded a remarkable 'yes' vote of 90.77 per cent. In a sense, the referendum which this bill envisages will be the historical bookend of the 1967 referendum and carry to fulfilment that which the 1967 referendum began. But it will only succeed—and this is acknowledged by all participants—if it has widespread community support; not just bipartisanship—for referendums have sometimes failed despite having bipartisan support—and not just support from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities but support across the whole of the Australian community. Which means that it is just as important that people with conservative views be persuaded as people who consider themselves to be progressives. If that is to happen the proposal must be modest and the tone of the debate must be respectful.

Nothing is surer to defeat the referendum than if the public discussion of the proposal is conducted in a hectoring, angry or righteous manner. Every citizen who participates in the discussion has the same right to be heard because although this proposal has a special significance for Indigenous people, the Constitution belongs to every Australian equally. In particular, people of a conservative frame of mind who are sceptical and suspicious of constitutional change will need to be convinced of the desirability of the measure; and their scepticism is every bit as legitimate as the proponents' enthusiasm.

It is important to stress that the bill before us is neutral on the question of how recognition should be achieved. It does not propose a form of words. It is agnostic on the question of whether the recognition should take place as a preamble, in the substantive provisions of the Constitution, or both. The settlement of those questions and the finalisation of the words of the referendum proposal are matters with which the process set up by this bill will deal. In that regard, I remind the Senate of the wise words of the unanimous report of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. In paragraph 2.39 of its interim report, tabled last month, it said:

…the Committee does not underestimate the difficulty of securing the passage of appropriate amendments to the Constitution recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Only eight out of 44 proposals to amend the Constitution have succeeded. It is 36 years since the last successful referendum. Controversial proposals are invariably foredoomed to failure. For that reason, the committee cautions that if the proposal is the victim of over-reach, it will fail. While the Committee does not seek to limit the scope of public discussion, it nevertheless considers that only a relatively modest proposal is capable of engendering the bipartisan consensus which is a pre-requisite to success.

Our objective, in short, is to recapture the spirit of 1967. To do so, we must build community consensus in a careful, respectful, cautious fashion. If a proposal is put to referendum and the referendum fails, then that will create a legacy of bitterness and division which could last for generations. It would not only defeat our efforts, it would actually erode the important achievement of the 1967 referendum itself. It would be better to have no referendum than one which became a platform for divisiveness and ended in failure.

Our purpose is to ensure that we do not fail; that some time in the life of, or perhaps at the conclusion of, the 44th parliament, we will—as did the 26th parliament in 1967—have achieved a nationwide consensus which will give appropriate recognition to our first peoples and advance in a material way the cause of reconciliation.

In closing, I want to acknowledge the work of the members of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Peoples: in particular, the co-chairs, Mr Mark Leibler AC, and Professor Pat Dodson; my Labor colleague, Senator Trish Crossin, the Chair of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, who, if I may say so, has done more to advance the interests of Aboriginal people, especially in the Northern Territory, than any other Labor politician I can think of and whose premature departure from the chairmanship of the committee at the time of the next election will be a great loss—just as the circumstances which brought it about were a disgrace; and on my side of politics, my friend Senator Nigel Scullion, the shadow minister for Indigenous affairs, and the only Indigenous member of the current parliament, Mr Ken Wyatt, the member for Hasluck. All of them are great Australians and all are committed to the same end. I commend the bill to the Senate and look forward to its unanimous passage through this chamber.