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Tuesday, 26 February 2013
Page: 946

Senator RONALDSON (Victoria) (17:56): I want to speak on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012 tonight but not for the full allocated time. In particular, I want to associate myself with the speech given by the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Tony Abbott, on this bill, in which he said:

I believe that we are equal to this task of completing our Constitution rather than changing it.

Along with the rest of the coalition, I welcome this bill, which is an important step towards constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians. Mr Abbott said:

… our challenge is to do now in these times what should have been done 200 or 100 years ago to acknowledge Aboriginal people in our country's foundation document. In short, we need to atone for the omissions and for the hardness of heart of our forebears to enable us all to embrace the future as a united people.

This bill provides a mechanism for the continued work of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, whose formation was originally announced in December 2010. The preamble to this bill affirms this whole parliament's commitment to building the consensus necessary to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our Constitution through a referendum. The preamble recognises that 'the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were the first inhabitants of Australia; that the parliament is committed to placing before the Australian people at a referendum a proposal for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; and that the parliament is committed to building the national consensus needed for the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our Constitution'. I think the key words in there are 'building the national consensus needed for such recognition'.

The bill recognises the hard work of the expert panel but also recognises that much more consultation and consensus is necessary to enable a referendum to be successful. The coalition is very thankful for the work completed so far by the panel, which is co-chaired by Professor Patrick Dodson and Mark Leibler AC and includes my colleague in the other place the member for Hasluck, Ken Wyatt, who is the first Indigenous Australian to be elected to the other place. This bill provides for an act of recognition by the parliament of the unique role of Indigenous Australians as the first inhabitants of this nation. This is in response to recommendation 3 of the expert panel's report. The bill aims to promote awareness and support in the community towards a successful referendum, which the coalition and Tony Abbott support and, indeed, have pushed for.

In relation to the coalition and Indigenous affairs, I think it is important to place on the record our proud history when it comes to advocating for Indigenous Australians—indeed, ever since the Liberal Party was established, in the 1940s.

Firstly, the coalition introduced the 1967 referendum which proudly gave constitutional recognition to Indigenous Australians and removed racially discriminatory provisions from the Constitution. This referendum, of course, was sponsored by both Harold Holt and Gough Whitlam. It was the coalition government under Malcolm Fraser that passed the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act in the mid-1970s. Indeed, during the 1998 election campaign, former Prime Minister John Howard also promoted a constitutional amendment to recognise the prior occupation of Australia by Indigenous Australians, as well as their contribution and place in Australian society, as part of the 1999 republic referendum. The coalition then committed to hold the referendum that this bill aspires to achieve at the 2007 election, which Labor did not match until 2010. We have indeed, therefore, maintained our commitment to this cause.

The coalition supports the bipartisan nature of this bill and wants to see this referendum succeed. The Leader of the Opposition, Mr Abbott, in taking a bipartisan approach recognised the work also completed by the Australian Labor Party in Indigenous affairs, recognising 'the stain on our soul that Prime Minister Keating so movingly evoked at Redfern 21 years ago', as well as the national apology jointly made by the former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and the former Leader of the Opposition Brendan Nelson.

Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that little progress is being made by the current government to build the community consensus needed for this referendum to succeed given that we are so close to the next election. It is necessary that much more work be done. It is proper for this referendum to be put only when wide community support and consensus has been achieved, given the difficulty in achieving successful referenda in Australia's history—noting that only eight out of 44 proposals to amend the Constitution have been successful. That is why much more work needs to be completed now in order to achieve this consensus as soon as possible.

Accordingly, we must build a national consensus on this issue to achieve a successful consultation, a successful referendum and appropriate words recognising Indigenous Australians in the Constitution. This will obviously involve extensive consultation with Indigenous Australians and also with Australians across the board, as we want to see that the words in the Constitution recognising the First Australians are such that we can all be proud of them. What we want to see is not something that is divisive but something that unites all Indigenous Australians, and Australians as a whole, in working towards a common future and common goals in a united Australia. As the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Abbott, said:

It will … be a challenge to find a form of recognition which satisfies reasonable people as being fair to all. It will not necessarily be straightforward to acknowledge the First Australians without creating new categories of discrimination, which we must avoid because no Australians should feel like strangers in their own country.

The Leader of the Opposition is committed to achieving this recognition in the Constitution, saying:

The next parliament will, I trust, finish the work that this one has begun.

As I come towards the end of my contribution, I want to quote the words of my friend and colleague in the other place Ken Wyatt, who proclaimed:

Because a time has come, well and truly come, for all peoples of our great country, for all citizens of our great Commonwealth, for all Australians—those who are Indigenous and those who are not—to come together to reconcile and together build a new future for our nation.

I think it is fair to say that recognition in the Constitution is no substitute for addressing Indigenous disadvantage, and I note with some interest that there are those who walk the walk in relation to this matter and there are those who talk the talk. I think it is very important to put on the public record the engagement of Mr Abbott in Aboriginal communities since 2008. Indeed, that has culminated in Mr Abbott making it quite clear that if he is given the enormous honour of being elected as Prime Minister of this country then he will take a contingent of about six public servants engaged in Indigenous policy, including the head of the Indigenous affairs department and senior Treasury and Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet officials, to work with him for at least a week a year in Aboriginal communities.

Those who are aware of the work that Mr Abbott has done will be acutely aware that he does not arrive in those communities in a suit and is not a visitor for a day from Canberra but gets down and get his hands dirty. He works with the men and women and children in those communities and makes a real contribution. I think that is the sort of leadership that we need. Indeed, looking at some of the comments of Mr Abbott in some of his Press Club speeches, in his 2013 Press Club speech he said in talking about this issue:

That’s why I’ve tried to spend serious time in Aboriginal communities rather than rely on flying visits.

It’s why I’ve tried to be useful in remote communities as a teacher’s aide and builder’s assistant rather than just a glorified tourist from Canberra.

He went on to say:

This won't stop should the Coalition win the election.

I have already indicated the comments about where Mr Abbott will be.

I will finish on that note and I will say again that mere words are not going to achieve the recognition that both this place and the other place, through their bipartisan support for this bill, desperately want to achieve. It will not be achieved unless we take all Australian people with us. The only way that can be achieved is with a lot of hard work from everyone in this place and the other place. It is going to require leadership and it is going to require political leadership. It is going to require Indigenous leadership. It is going to require people like Mr Wyatt from the other place to take a lead role in relation to this. No-one should underestimate the challenge of this task, and if we do underestimate it we are doomed to failure. So the important thing for us in this place and the other place is to appreciate the magnitude of the challenge and to set ourselves the challenge of bringing the rest of the Australian community with us. I have no doubt that the majority of Australians want to achieve this goal. In the words that we ultimately choose we must provide them with a level of comfort so that they will come with us. As I said before, there is no point talking the talk in relation to these matters; we have got to walk the walk. I very much support this bill and particularly reinforce associating myself with the comments of the Leader of the Opposition.