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Tuesday, 26 February 2013
Page: 949


Senator THISTLETHWAITE (New South Wales) (18:08): I am proud to support the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012, an important step towards constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country. Like Senator Bob Carr, I was born and bred in Maroubra. I have lived there my entire life. I have a connection with that community. I have surfed at that beach all of my life and if you get stuck in a rip at Maroubra I can generally show you the way to get out of it, because I grew up surfing there. I have got a connection with that environment and with those waters. My father has lived in that area all of his life and his father, my grandfather, also lived in that area for most of his life.

That is three generations of Australians that have a connection with that community that I love so much.

I have friends in the Indigenous community around La Perouse and Maroubra whose connection with that area goes back 7,500 years. That is 7,500 years of nurturing and caring for that environment, of managing relations between people who have lived in that area and of developing customs and laws to care for that particular part of our wonderful country.

In modern Australia, the Commonwealth parliament makes laws which dictate how we live on this wonderful land, how we co-exist, how we relate with each other. The power to make those laws is derived from this document, our nation’s Constitution. It is this document which dictates the principles and values for how we live as a people in this wide brown land we call Australia. Yet this principal document, this embodiment of who we are as a nation, says nothing—not a thing—about the people who have inhabited and cared for this country that we all love for the last 60,000 years. In fact, up until 40-odd years ago, our Constitution specifically excluded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from recognition and actively discriminated against them. Thankfully, since 1967, as a nation we have made progress. We have removed those discriminatory provisions in the Constitution that excluded recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. We have made policies of self-determination. We have recognised land rights and native title. And only a couple of weeks ago we celebrated the fifth anniversary of the apology to the stolen generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

Despite this document embodying our values, it does not recognise and reflect the progress we have made as a nation and it does not reflect who we are as a people in modern Australia and, importantly, how we want the world to view us and how we want to view ourselves. That is why, in 2010, the Gillard government established a process of working towards amending our Constitution to remove racist provisions and to fully recognise and acknowledge our relationship and the relationship that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have with this nation, with this land and with its customs and values. To do that we established an expert panel. It was made up of politicians representative of all the parties in the federal parliament. It was made up of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. It was made up of community leaders. They consulted widely throughout our country about this question of how we recognise Australia’s first peoples in our principal and pinnacle document that sets the tone for law-making in this country. They consulted widely, not only with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community but with non-Aboriginal and non-Torres-Strait-Islander Australians.

The report of the panel is extensive. I encourage members of the public to read, in particular, page 18 of that report, the executive summary, which contains the crux of the work of the panel. There are five recommendations and processes to remove racist provisions in our Constitution, notably in section 25 and section 51(xxvi) of our Constitution and, importantly, a process for recognising the contribution, the values, the traditions and the connection that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have with our land and our nation. This is a step towards a referendum, and referendums in Australia are not easy. The framers of our Constitution made it deliberately hard for referendums to be successful. Only eight of 44 have succeeded, so 82 per cent of the time we fail as a nation to get a referendum up.

In 1999 we tried to insert a preamble which recognised the contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to our nation, and it failed. It failed in every single state in this country. Quite simply, we cannot afford as a nation to fail again. We simply cannot fail again. That is why the Gillard government takes this issue so seriously. That is why we established the expert panel and that is why we have moved this bill in this parliament—to ensure that we do not fail again; to ensure that there is genuine multiparty support for this issue; to ensure that there is genuine unity not only at a national level but also, importantly, with the state and territory governments throughout the country to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

I do not believe that we are at a point yet where we can go to our nation and put a question associated with recognition as it is contained in the recommendations. We do need to work with the states, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and with the wider Australian public to explain why this amendment to our Constitution is so important and to build momentum for change and to build momentum for recognition.

Some months ago the Gillard government determined that, as a process of building that momentum and explaining that change to the Australian people, we would introduce the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012 into this parliament. It has passed the House of Representatives and we are debating it here this evening. I believe that the crucial provision in this bill is these words:

The Parliament is committed to building the national consensus needed for the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our Constitution.

That is the crux of the aim behind this bill. It is to build that critical momentum, that critical unity, that critical agreement at all levels of government and with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the wider Australian community for this very important constitutional change.

It is with that in mind that the government has established a joint parliamentary committee, which I am very proud to be a member of, working with representatives of all parties in this parliament and with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and the wider Australian public to achieve a successful referendum. That is why the government is investing $10 million in this campaign to promote public awareness about this issue. I encourage all Australians to visit RECOGNISE.org.au, the website of Reconciliation Australia that has been established to promote and campaign for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander recognition in our Constitution. Visit the website, sign up to the newsletter and, most importantly, discuss this issue in your workplaces, at your family gatherings and in your wider communities. This is such an important issue for the future of our nation. It is too important for us to fail. We need to recognise, finally, the contribution that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have made to our nation's development, to our democracy and, most importantly, to the nurturing and caring of this wonderful land that we call Australia.