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Tuesday, 26 February 2013
Page: 882


Senator MILNE (TasmaniaLeader of the Australian Greens) (13:40): I rise today to support the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012. I am very pleased that this has reached the parliament and that it has the support of this parliament. It is incredibly important that the parliament, on behalf of the people of Australia, recognises that the continent and islands now known as Australia were first occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It is also important for the parliament to acknowledge the continuing relationship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with their traditional land and waters, and also for the parliament, on behalf of the people, to acknowledge and respect the continuing cultures, languages and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Often there is that statement, but then the actions of the parliament are quite different.

I cite today what is going at James Price Point in Western Australia as a classic case of where there is a failure to acknowledge and respect the continuing cultures, languages and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I lead into that because it is critical that we do not just have the sentiment expressed in the parliament. We actually need this sentiment to be translated into constitutional change and then into legal frameworks which give it effect and which give it compliance and enforcement capacity in the law down the track. Having said that, I am pleased at least that we have got to the point where the parliament is doing this. I am particularly pleased that we are doing it because it was part of the Greens agreement with the Gillard government. We said in that agreement, when we agreed to give the Prime Minister government, to:

Hold referenda during the 43rd Parliament or at the next election on Indigenous constitutional recognition and recognition of local government in the Constitution.

It was because the Greens put this into that agreement that we then saw the formation of the expert panel, and then we saw the work of the expert panel—and, as my colleague Senator Siewert talked about a little while ago, what a great report has come from that expert panel. She said that we ought to take very seriously the work that has been done by everybody on the panel and the secretariat who supported them and the input from communities around the country. In fact, so much trust and faith has been invested in its document that it would be disrespectful not to work from it as the basis of how we go forward.

Having said that, I think this parliament is now committed to placing before the Australian people at a referendum a proposal for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This will, of course, require the building of a national consensus in order to achieve that. As we all know, you do not succeed with referenda in Australia unless you build a national consensus and, in fact, that all political parties agree to get behind the proposal and work for it in every capacity. I would argue that every one of us in acknowledging country whenever we go and speak anywhere ought to be not only acknowledging that the land we stand on is the traditional land of the group of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples that we are particularly referring to in terms of that part of country but particularly then going on to say that there is a commitment to move to constitutional recognition.

I think we should all be acknowledging country and building a national consensus. It is disappointing that we were not able to fulfil the agreement, as set out with the Prime Minister, to have a referendum on the Constitution in this 43rd Parliament. But I totally support the decision that has been made not to proceed with it before the next election, because we do not want to see it fail. We must build a consensus so that people get behind the next referendum as they got behind the 1967 referendum. We must be make sure that the next referendum succeeds, and that is a challenge to everyone. I hope that throughout the election campaign candidates and sitting members get out there and start talking up the referendum in the community.

I pay particular respect today to all of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have given so much time to the issue of constitutional recognition and who continue to work in the best way they can to make it happen. I was delighted, on the day that this bill went through the House of Representatives, to meet Shirley Peisley, Lowitja O'Donoghue and Patrick Dodson, who were up here having a small celebration. Shirley was there in 1967 as one of the people campaigning for the referendum, and I was delighted that she was able to come back and see that progress is being made towards another referendum. We are making slow progress, but at least we are on track. It is terrific that Shirley was able to be here and see that this is the case, and it was terrific that respect was paid to Lowitja O'Donoghue and Patrick Dodson and the other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who came along on the day. It was marvellous to see a lot of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people there listening the stories of their elders, participating in the discussion of what had gone before and clearly enthused about taking constitutional recognition to the next stage. The Greens will certainly be there with them to do so.

It is important not only to recognise the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the first occupants of Australia and to acknowledge their relationship with their traditional lands and waters and their language, culture and heritage but also to recognise the ugliness of the Constitution's having been drafted on the premise of race. I remember that it came home to me, when we were debating a bill of rights in Australia, that the reason the Constitution as first drafted did not include a bill of rights is that there was a very deliberate decision taken not to include a bill of rights because it would have had to recognise that everyone is born equal. The Prime Minister at the time, Edmund Barton, said that we needed a power in the Constitution to enable the federal parliament to pass laws against 'the coloured and inferior persons' within the Commonwealth. That is the basis of our Constitution, and Australians must look back and reflect on it with some disgust—I suppose that is the best way to put it—because it was designed to make sure that Australia could discriminate against the Kanaka people, who were here working in the cane fields, and against Chinese people who had come here after the gold rushes—and, of course, over time to discriminate also against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Unfortunately, section 25 of the Constitution still gives states the power to enact laws that disenfranchise people on the basis of their race. Under section 51, subsection (xxvi), the Commonwealth still has the ability to make laws based on race, and that clearly has to change; we must change the part of the Constitution that enables the Commonwealth to make laws based on race. We have to face up to this in Australia. We must recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and remove from our Constitution the last vestiges of its possible use to discriminate on the basis of race. We have to be upfront that we are doing it, because doing so will in turn—as my colleague Senator Siewert said—set up a framework to have an ongoing discussion about sovereignty and a treaty and so on down the track. In no way does this bill as proposed detract from the ability of people to talk about such issues as people become more familiar with the context surrounding the issues as well as with their details.

In the mid-1990s in Tasmania, when I was member of a parliament in which the Greens held the balance of power in a Liberal minority government, we had a tripartite agreement to say sorry to the stolen generation. It was one of the most dignified moments in the Tasmanian parliament. People were amazed that the agreement was made under a Liberal minority government working with the Greens. It was extraordinary when we invited Tasmania's Aboriginal people onto the floor of the parliament to respond. It was marvellous to be here in the Senate more than a decade later when the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, came and extended the same apology federally. But Tasmania led the way on an apology to the stolen generation, and I am pleased to have been a parliamentarian on both occasions; I am also very pleased this time around to have made an agreement with the current Prime Minister. I am delighted by the work of my colleague Senator Rachel Siewert. I pay tribute to the work she has done on the expert panel. She has put a huge amount of time, effort, passion, love and heart into this work, which stands up for the rights—as Senator Siewert has always done—of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

As Senator Siewert rightly points out, there are many occasions on which we have argued that the Commonwealth is making laws that are based on race—in the Northern Territory intervention and the legislation called Stronger Futures, which we believe is actually weaker futures. She has been leading the way on recognising the rights of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people and standing up for their wellbeing, for their health, for their education and for their communities. Her work in this period needs to be recognised because it has been a huge investment at a personal level for a community outcome that is working towards the best interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and, of course, working with them to achieve that. It is very much an organic process of consultation and input. It is not about top-down imposition; it is about engagement and discussion. I congratulate her and the panel and, as Senator Siewert did herself, the secretariat, who have all worked on this. I think everyone would acknowledge that the more you get involved in it, the more discussions you have, the more engagement you have, the more it becomes obvious that there is an overwhelming imperative to work to achieve these good outcomes.

The other thing during this period of parliament which the Greens are very proud about is that, following the lead of the Greens representatives on the Darwin City Council, we secured in our negotiations with the Gillard government an acknowledgement of country at the start of every sitting day. It has now become a part of the institutional arrangement of this parliament, and it would not have happened if it had not been for the Greens and, in particular, the Greens lead on the Darwin City Council that translated through to our work here in the Senate. It shows that when you vote for the Greens you get a consistent policy right through the spectrum. I think it is wonderful that we have seen that. We did move to have the acknowledgement of country be the first matter for the Senate each day as it is in the House of Representatives, but unfortunately that was not agreed to by either the coalition or the Labor Party. Nevertheless, we think it should be consistent in both houses and would like to see that occur.

But the main point of today is to say how pleased the Greens are that this has been advanced to the point where it is, to absolutely say up front that we are committed to making sure that we get constitutional recognition of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and that we get a referendum, and we will do everything in our power to build a community consensus for that and to finally remove from the Constitution section 51(xxvi) to take away the Commonwealth's ability to make laws based on race. That will be a major celebration in Australia when it is achieved—and I am not going to say 'if'. We have a two-year time frame to get that in before the sunset clause comes into effect. It is incumbent on all of us to work to achieve that outcome, to make sure that we get the referendum and that as a nation we can celebrate, really stand up and say: finally, Australia has shed that shadow that has been over our Constitution for such a long period of time. Finally, we can say in Australia, as the bill indicates, that we acknowledge on behalf of all of us, no matter where we have come from, and recognise that the continent and the islands now known as Australia were first occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We can stand up and acknowledge the continuing relationship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with their traditional land and waters and acknowledge and respect the continuing cultures, language and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Please, I would ask that as members of parliament, when you go out there and talk about this, you give some thought to what it means to you personally, because there will be nothing more offensive to people than to hear you mouth that on the one hand and then agree to the complete compromising of that by ignoring that language, culture and association with country when it comes to a choice between some of the projects that are put up and the rights and recognition of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people. That is the moral dilemma that faces many in this parliament, but I can assure you that for the Greens it is straightforward. When we say we acknowledge those points, we mean it. We believe that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people deserve constitutional recognition and have an ongoing connection to their land, their water, their culture, their language and their heritage, and we will do everything in our power to respect it, uphold it and work for the constitutional recognition which will provide the framework for continuing to strengthen it.