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Tuesday, 26 February 2013
Page: 874

Senator CROSSIN (Northern Territory) (13:05): Late last year I was given the honour of being asked to chair the new Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and I accepted that challenge as an honour to pay tribute to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country and to finally start to forge some work in this parliament that I think will lead to a great outcome if this country embraces the changes to the Constitution that are needed. I wanted today to congratulate all those who have participated dutifully in the debate on this important piece of legislation, particularly those members of the House of Representatives.

Parliamentarians, community awareness and engagement programs and dedicated Australians should all be commended on this significant step towards improving our nation by finally taking up the challenge of recognising our first Australians within the Constitution. This piece of legislation is just the first stage of the important process in building a reconciled Australia with relationships based on mutual respect and understanding.

On the morning of 13 of February—just a few weeks ago—the House of Representatives passed this act of recognition. This act provides a path on which to build a foundation that precedes our collective objective and that is to acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as Australians in the Constitution.

We are all aware that today marks another major moment in the records of recognition for these people in our history books—the final passage of this bill through the Senate and the Australian parliament. Five years ago, the parliament witnessed former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd deliver his landmark apology to Indigenous Australians. This parliament took another historic step on the anniversary of that day this year, and we can see that the momentum for change, recognition and cross-cultural understanding is growing.

I note the shared commitment that is often lacking in political debate—I have seen that plenty of times in this place. But on this day, in this chamber, in the Australian Senate, and on this most important subject, of inclusion, Australians right around this country will witness once again bipartisanship between the two major political parties. The act of recognition is supremely important. That both sides of politics find a bipartisan resolution on this issue speaks for itself and it should speak to the Australian public.

When the two parties rarely agree on anything, and here we agree on this, it is a unique occasion and it should prick up the ears of people around this country. It should turn the heads of the nation and it should draw much-needed attention to this crucial campaign. When bipartisanship like this exists, when both major parties agree that recognition is long overdue, and when both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition offer such personal and heartfelt language, then we begin to see a positive response from the Australian public. We should capture that today and build on that. I want to commend the parliament for this remarkable effort. With continued leadership across the political spectrum, this campaign will result in the welcome acknowledgement of our history and a referendum that sees the improvements to our Constitution.

Firstly, I want to acknowledge the important work done by the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians, whose detailed and widely researched report—which I read in detail over the Christmas period—put in place the foundations to enable the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to produce its report and for Australia to eventually progress constitutional recognition. In 2010, the Australian government announced the membership of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians. The panel included Indigenous and community leaders, constitutional experts and parliamentary members. It was co-chaired by Professor Patrick Dodson and Mark Leibler AC. I want to thank them for their dedication to holding a wide-ranging national public consultation and engagement program throughout 2011 in order to bring us to where we are today.

The joint select committee which I have chaired had a meeting with the co-chairs of the expert panel, where we explored their work and the outcomes of their deliberation. The work they have done is incredibly detailed. As I said, they held extensive consultations in towns and cities right across this country. They met with high-level stakeholders and engaged in a formal public submission process. Through these processes, this background work—this homework, I suppose, as a precursor to the work we are about to undertake—we can gauge community support. We can see, through the Newspoll that was commissioned to undertake research into this subject, that there is a groundswell and growing momentum to build on the outstanding work that the expert panel completed under the chairmanship of those two people. All of this work has been done at a resoundingly commendable level.

Then there are organisations like Reconciliation and their groups and campaigns, You Me Unity and Recognise. Their dedication to promoting constitutional recognition in communities across Australia has started, and it will be a great challenge. There is much work to be done, but they have been building awareness campaigns, providing the government and the public with valuable resource materials to help promote awareness for constitutional recognition, from cities to remote communities, from offices to backyard barbecues and in every home across this country.

The joint select committee held its inquiry, which is detailed on the website. We advertised the inquiry in the Australian, the Koori Mail and the National Indigenous Times. We received 24 submissions. I thank each of those who contributed. We held a public hearing in Sydney on 22 January. It is a day I will forever remember. With these contributions and the specialist work of the expert panel, we as a parliament have been able to pass this bill, which has three substantive parts that serve to eliminate discrimination and promote inclusion. Those three parts are: a statement—as Senator Siewert read out—of recognition by the parliament, on behalf of the people of Australia, of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; a requirement for the minister with responsibility for Indigenous affairs to commence a review of support for a referendum to amend the Constitution within a particular time frame; and a sunset clause, which provides that the act should expire two years after enactment. That gives us a definitive point in time by which we need to strive to achieve this work.

Along with most Australians, I appreciate the sophistication of this bill. It will change Australia's most important legal document, which is difficult to do. The public, whose vote this needs, deserve time to think about what we are trying to achieve here. As the expert panel has noted, many people still do not know about this important push for a referendum. There are, of course, those who condemn that the act takes too long when it sets out a two-year period to work toward a referendum. The government agrees, though, with the expert panel that it is important for this to be held at a time when it has the most chance of success. If that is going to happen within two years, then I am sure there are many of us here who would be delighted about that. But the public need time to understand the importance of this change, to be made aware of the many other countries, including the USA, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada, who have already made similar efforts to recognise their first peoples. While it is vital that grassroots organisations and advocates across the country get the word out to develop a movement for change, we as a parliament must not falter. We have to stay at the wheel. Now is the time for us to demonstrate continued leadership, to use our energy and passion to take a lead on this issue.

It is our chance, over the next two years, to show more recognition of Indigenous issues at state and federal levels in order to harness the attention of the wider Australian public.

I will take some time to touch on the nature of this symbolic statement. Some people may dismiss the idea that changing the Constitution will change things for Indigenous people in Australia. One only has to look toward the Northern Territory, where a great number of my constituents live with standards of education, jobs, health and life expectancy far below those of non-Indigenous Australians. Some might say that the symbolism of changing the Constitution will not change any of that. But I do not believe that to be the case. Being recognised in Australia's most important document means to be recognised by the people who live on the land on which you were born. For Indigenous Australians, it means to be recognised by the people who arrived on this land on which their forefathers were born, the rectification of the ignorance of the past and an acknowledgement of them as Australia's first peoples in a symbolic gesture. It gives them the credit they, with certainty, deserve.

The journey to recognition gives all Australians a chance to be part of this important improvement in ourselves as a nation. If Australians get the chance to enshrine that recognition, the foundation on which Indigenous disadvantage was born should cease to exist. Without a foundation, the structure crumbles. Sadly, it has been building for years—112 years too long. It is time to knock that structure down, and constitutional recognition will help with this.

As Jason Glanville said during his address to the National Press Club on constitutional recognition, disadvantage is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Social and economic disadvantage has existed for so long in this country that it may seem unlikely that words on a page could change it. But he went on to say that they could—and they will. He noted that, as with the many Indigenous Australians who had claimed improved mental and physical health since the 2007 apology by former Prime Minister Rudd, so too could the changing of our oldest legal document invite real hope and real change for Indigenous Australians again. We need to foster their right to excel, to dream big and to be proud of their heritage through recognition. This would, without doubt, instil a sense of pride. As Glanville said, quite simply, 'It is just the right thing to do.'

This bill reflects an intention to pursue meaningful change to the Constitution which echoes the hopes and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It is not a substitute for constitutional recognition but it is a mechanism for all Australians to become familiar with the possible wording of a constitutional statement to be included in a future referendum. This bill is a part of a conversation that will continue, a conversation that needs to happen, a conversation which will encourage the community to continue discussions, debates and educational seminars in the lead-up to constitutional change.

The report handed down by my committee, all the work required to produce that report, the subsequent legislation and the laying out of the road we have ahead of us are all efforts of which this nation can be proud. Changing the Constitution is a way all Australians can unite to finally acknowledge our history and the great contribution made by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in this country. The Labor government's commitment of $10 million toward this campaign is a financial contribution, but I believe the positive momentum, the bipartisanship we have seen and the will of the people will be the true value we will see shining through at the end of the act's sunset provision.

We know that only eight of the last 44 referendums have succeeded. But there is a powerful precedent for change. We saw the Australian public achieve dignity in 1967 with the most decisive referendum in Australian history. That referendum updated the Constitution to include Aboriginal people in the census and gave the Commonwealth the power to make special laws for people of any race. Now is the time for us to become an even better Australia. I look forward to a future we can all be proud of. I commend this first important step towards a new beginning of unity and recognition and commend this bill to the Senate.