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Tuesday, 26 February 2013
Page: 879

Senator MOORE (Queensland) (13:31): It is a real pleasure to stand here among so many people with a single purpose, and that is to continue a journey that has been going on for over 100 years. One thing is sure: from the time the Constitution was first considered to now, it has been a journey. There is a bit of a problem when we think that the Constitution is some dry document that belongs somewhere else and should never be changed. In fact, that is not the purpose of our Constitution. What we have is a living document. Whilst I do acknowledge how difficult it is to make this Constitution come alive through change—and I will, in the little time I have, talk a bit about this—the opportunity is there in the bill before us, which is so exciting.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012 is exciting because it is doing something that people over many generations have called for: to acknowledge all Australians in our Constitution. The current document does not do that. In fact, when this Constitution was first written by that group of blokes, they left out a number of people. Women were one. Most importantly, the other group that they left out were the First Australians. They were mentioned, but in a derogatory way, in the middle of a Constitution subclause. However, from that time, people have been asking questions about this and saying it is not right.

Through this process, through the amazing work of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, which has been acknowledged a number of times here already, and through the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples chaired by my friend Trish Crossin, they have been able to share knowledge with many more Australians about the history of this discussion. We found out that consistently in those years people have said there needed to be change. In 2008, when our then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, made his apology to Aboriginal Australians, that was in fact an apology to all Australians, because until we made that acknowledgement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our country we were not all Australians. That process started then—the most modern incarnation of it—and it continues through this discussion today, as it will into the future, because we all know this bill is just one small step. In fact, we have been at pains to say that this bill is but one small step and is not to be taken as some way of avoiding any other action, which would be a really sad thing. But, in the bill, we have given it a time frame, which is most unusual in legislation: there is a sunset clause that clearly states that we have a two-year period to look at what needs to be done and to take further action.

The action is not limited to just an acknowledgement clause. That is clearly set out in the bill before us, but it is much more than that. We can work with this document and use it, with the knowledge and the commitment that we have built up over the years to make the necessary changes—which I think we can do. I think there is a degree of optimism and a real sense of having a chance to make a difference. From looking at the speeches made in the other place on the introduction of the bill, there was agreement that we have the chance now—the same as the people who wrote the original Constitution and the same as the people who drafted successful amendments—at this moment in time, to say, 'We can right this wrong.' We can right this wrong for the whole of our nation.

I want to acknowledge the work has been done to bring this debate to this stage—most importantly, by the people in the wider community who came forward to share their ideas, their frustrations and their anger through the various committees that have been operating. This parliament sets up committees, but we then rely on the community to feed us the information we need to make decisions that represent Australia. I have heard the argument about taking leadership; of course that is important, but one element must be that we can speak on behalf of our nation. In the submissions that came forward to both the joint select committee and the expert panel convened under the wonderful Patrick Dodson to talk with the community, we can read how important this issue is.

And it is symbolic. I am a bit worried that people see symbolism as not having power. Of course it has power. Symbols reflect need. They reflect action. Symbols can cause action and commitment. So this is symbolic. People who gave evidence to those two groups talked about the importance of symbolism and the fact that they felt Aboriginal and Islander people of this country must be acknowledged in our Constitution. There was no real doubt: that must happen. What we have to do is work out how to make it happen.

If we are going to be true to all those people who came forward to talk about why this was important for them, we have got to find a way to put the argument back out to the community so that this will be another successful referendum result, of which there are way too few.

We know how difficult it is to get a referendum result up in the positive. It has to be across the whole nation. It cannot just be the majority of states. A referendum of this nature must be supported by all states. In fact, we need to reflect on the 1967 referendum, in which we got such an amazing result. We need to be equalling that to be true to ourselves and to be able to make a statement not just for this generation but for those to come that we as a nation believe this is the right thing to do—and this has been said many times.

Mr Acting Deputy President Furner, you know about the Australian constitutional conventions—the process that encourages young people to come together to look at our Constitution, to become engaged with it and to see what should work with our Constitution. It is an inspiring thing to work with those young people who may never even have thought about reading the Constitution until some teacher dobbed them in. But, when they did get that opportunity, they felt that it was their document. We need the passion of those young people looking at why these changes should be made for them and for future generations. We need not just to look at recognition—certainly the bill concentrates on recognition—but, most importantly, to take the other steps, which I think have been put forward in discussion, to remove any hint of discrimination on race in our Constitution. This document belongs to all Australians.

The bill before us is a step to ensure that all Australians can be part of the discussion. Whilst I know in my heart that not all Australians will take a role in this process, I am hoping that what we do as a parliament and what we do through our community will be to make sure that more people see that this is something that is real and that it actually belongs to them—Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and people who are not fortunate enough to have Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage. We can work together to ensure that we have a change, an agreed change, that will take away the hurt and pain that was in our document from the time that our forefathers signed off on it.

I know that people have strong views about this process. I know that there are a range of views about what should and should not be in it and how fast we can move forward, but we have an opportunity through the passing of this bill to say that we as a parliament accept that this is our job. It is our job to ensure that within a two-year period we have a question that is effectively framed and can go to the Australian people—all of the Australian people—and that they can own it and can say, 'Yes, we'll be able to acknowledge all Australians in our Constitution.' This is an important element.

We all have a job to do in this process. It is not good enough just to stand in this place and make a speech. In fact, we have to commit together to take further action. The bill gives us a framework to do that. It actually tells us to get on with the job. I want to acknowledge all the parliamentarians both in this place and in the other who have said that they will be part of the future and not just sit and long for things of bygone days.