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Tuesday, 26 February 2013
Page: 944

Senator PRATT (Western Australia) (17:46): It is a real honour to be able to speak this afternoon on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012, which brings our nation a step closer to the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as our nation's first peoples. There is no doubt about the need to fix the historical exclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from Australia's Constitution, and I am very pleased that there is bipartisan support for this recognition—recognition that I think will enhance our national character, reflect us for who we truly are as a nation and reflect the fact that this nation's relationship with Indigenous people is one of its greatest national assets but that we will not maximise this asset unless we recognise it. Therefore, it is a relationship that should be reflected in our Constitution, and I am glad that this bill brings us a step closer to that recognition.

We also need to remove the remaining discrimination from our Constitution—the part of the Constitution that says people can be banned from voting based on race. Our Constitution is more than a century old. It has some wonderful attributes. It has in many ways served our nation well, but its exclusionary nature—the fact that for many years it disenfranchised people—has also been a blight on us. So as a document—as a set of guiding principles to underpin the functioning of our nation—it cannot truly serve the nation well unless it serves all its people. I know that even conservatives accede to this point.

We need a Constitution that recognises the first chapter of our national history. I believe in this not as an act of reconciliation but as an act of the fundamentals of the fabric of our country. It is about the foundation of this nation and who was here when our national story began to develop. We need a Constitution that recognises the simple fact that Indigenous people have lived in this land for some 40,000 years, keeping alive the world's oldest continuous cultures. So it is remarkable to me that our Constitution should pretend really just to be a reflection of the last couple of hundred years of our history. We need a Constitution that reflects our true national character.

It was a blight on our nation that the document that serves as the foundation for our democracy in government as a nation mentioned Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people only to discriminate, only to exclude.

I would like to use this debate this afternoon as an opportunity to reflect on what I think is an important element in addressing social disadvantage. As a nation we really need to be focused on the participation of Indigenous people in decision making. I ask senators in this place, through you, Mr Acting Deputy President: would the women in this nation have made the gains that we have without being at the table, without being in parliament? I think not. Without having gained the right to vote some 100 years ago? Again I think not.

I truly believe that, until Indigenous people in this country are in the room making decisions for Indigenous people, Indigenous communities and Indigenous people will not experience the kinds of gains that non-Indigenous women by comparison have made. It is little wonder that we have high rates of poverty, high rates of social exclusion and high rates of incarceration for Indigenous people in our nation. It is no wonder when, for six decades of the history of our democracy, Indigenous Australians could not vote and were excluded as citizens. Fortunately, today, Australia prides itself on being a place of fairness—but still our Constitution does not recognise the first Australians and lets states ban people from voting based on their race.

I truly believe that Australia is ready for a new, stronger and deeper relationship with its first people—a relationship that is not based even on reconciliation but is based on recognition, as the recognition campaign clearly illustrates, of the fact that Australia's first peoples are at the very heart of our nation and that they deserve that celebration and recognition. This is about so much more than bringing our country together after chapters apart. It is about recognition. Like native title, it is about respect and recognition of the Aboriginal people's relationship with country. The relationship of Indigenous people to country is a great national asset. It is celebrated in the best art in the country, in dance, in culture, in language and, today, in the very fabric of what it means to be Australian.

For me, it is a principle that brings me closer to my own attachment to the land of our great country. It is not just about lines on a map. It is not just about property rights—although that is important, especially for native title holders. It is about our social relationships with each other and our relationship with the land. Recognition of Indigenous peoples in our Constitution puts these very, very Australian values at the very, very heart of our Constitution, our most important national document.

To give promise to these kinds of values, to hold true to the promise of this bill—the promise we are making in this bill as we pass it through this place—we will need to continue the work required to ensure that Indigenous people have a place in all levels of decision making in this nation, especially in decisions that affect their communities and decisions that are made as this bill is implemented. I am really privileged to see on a daily basis Indigenous communities around the state of Western Australia, and I see the best possible outcomes for communities emerging when they are empowered and in control. So, once this bill passes, the real work will continue to ensure that a future referendum on the question of recognition is successful.

We all know that the history of constitutional change in this country has not been an easy one—few of them get up—but, if I could wave a magic wand and change the Constitution tomorrow, I would not. We need this nation to vote, to understand in their hearts and minds what this means, for Australians to vote to say we are a confident and united country that wants to recognise our first peoples. The act of constitutional recognition of Australia's first peoples will be an expression of who we are as a nation and who we want to be in the future. It is not just about reconciliation; it is about recognition. It is a great opportunity for all Australians to be able to participate in saying something important about our national identity and our national wellbeing. This is not just a few lines in our Constitution; it is a statement about the importance of Indigenous Australians and Indigenous culture to the fabric of our nation.