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Tuesday, 26 February 2013
Page: 953


Senator STEPHENS (New South Wales) (18:31): I thank Senator Eggleston for that very interesting history lesson. There are fascinating perspectives that we all have about what we are debating here today—a really important issue, in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012.

Just a few weeks ago, coinciding with the fifth anniversary of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's apology to the Stolen Generations, this bill was presented, debated and passed in the House of Representatives, recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the first inhabitants of Australia. I am very proud to speak as part of the group of speakers contributing to this debate in the Senate. So often a debate can happen in the House of Representatives, where all the publicity and discussion is reported upon; but, of course, we know the legislation then comes here—so it is timely that this is a week when the House of Representatives is not sitting, and perhaps the contributions to the debate in this chamber will actually get some coverage in the media as well and continue the message of the importance of the legislation that is in front of us.

I want to congratulate people who have contributed to the debate, because we have heard the passion that has been brought to the debate by all sides of politics and all sides of the parliament. People bring their own perspectives and their own experiences about how they have interacted with Indigenous peoples. If you ask someone like those of us who have actually lived in and worked with Aboriginal communities, you will know that there is so much that remains to be done in terms of addressing Aboriginal disadvantage; but you will also know the importance of the bill that is before us today.

Constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples generally does have support and is seen by many as an important further step that should now be taken towards full recognition of the unique place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in 21st century Australian society. It is really interesting that we are having a conversation now that is so different from the conversation that was held in 1999. Senator Thistlethwaite remarked on the failure of the referendum in 1999 and the fact that we cannot afford to fail again to have this constitutional recognition agreed upon.

Prime Minister Gillard has called the legislation before us an 'act of preparation and anticipation', because it is an important step on the way towards a referendum for constitutional change; it seeks to foster the momentum for a referendum—so many of us here have talked about the importance of building the consensus, of building the momentum. It is one thing to have politicians and parliamentarians supporting this constitutional reform; it is a very big thing for us to take the Australian people down this path with us.

I said before that in 1999 the conversation and the debate were very different. When I talk to young people about the importance of this piece of legislation, they just cannot fathom why this could be the situation now. They cannot believe that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are not recognised in the Constitution, so we actually have a huge job to educate voters across Australia about the importance, the significance, of the change that we are trying to engender.

The bill before us today is essentially a parliamentary statement that recognises some facts of our history that have never been formally acknowledged before—the fact that Australia was first occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a continuing relationship with their traditional land and waters; and the fact that their continuing cultures, languages and heritages are worthy of respect. When the Prime Minister spoke of this bill as a gesture, and a sign of good faith, she too was acknowledging that there is still a long way to go.

I was pleased that Senator Siewert, who is here in the chamber, talked about the importance of the sunset clause that is in this bill. That is what gives us the time frame in which this work should be carried out; it gives us a sense of urgency. This not something that is on the never-never. There is a definite time frame, one that sets us a very ambitious goal but a goal that we know that we can achieve. The expert panel that was appointed to investigate the issue highlighted the importance of this. It recommended a series of constitutional changes and made it very clear that bipartisan agreement would be necessary before those recommendations could be put to a referendum for exactly the reason that Senator Thistlethwaite raised: referendums in Australia do not have a very strong history of success. Constitutional change is quite difficult here in Australia. It can only be done if we have a majority of votes in every state and territory. The work that needs to be done across state and territory governments and in the community is really very critical.

What we need—the point of contention—is a non-discrimination provision in the Constitution. At the moment, that is the problem. The opposition regards a non-discrimination provision as akin to a bill of rights and will not agree to move in that direction. But that does not mean that the cause is lost. There is so much goodwill on all sides. We are all charged with the responsibility to represent the people of Australia and we should not expect that to be easy in this case. The challenge facing all of us—and the next parliament as well—is to find a form of words that is going to satisfy all sides of politics and to make this constitutional reform something that we can all be very proud of.

Today, I read a post on Eureka Street by Father Frank Brennan about this bill congratulating both government and opposition members for their contributions to the debate in the House of Representatives. He made a really important point. He said that a new generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders were gathered in the public gallery for the passage of the legislation, with many of the leaders from earlier campaigns over the Northern Territory land rights legislation, Mabo, Wik, native title and reconciliation. There was a group of young people ready to take up the challenge and become the leaders most actively engaged in the discussions that we are going to be part of.

They all then went to the National Press Club where two of those young people, two emerging leaders, spoke. They were fantastic. Those young people were Tanya Hosch and Jason Glanville. Each spoke very proudly of their diverse heritage. I would like to read a little of what Tanya had to say, because it puts this into context. She said:

I was blessed to be raised in a family that is a model for the kind of nation I want Australia to be. A family where race isn't a divide, but an enricher ... that is proud of the many strands of its heritage, and particularly of our Indigenous heritage ... that integrates the best of all of our traditions and cultures, and which has nurtured me to play a part in bringing about this big moment in the life of our nation.

Her speech was very powerful. I recommend it to you all.

Then Jason Glanville went on to tell the story of how his great-grandmother left the mission with her two-year-old child to go to Cootamundra and build a home. This is what he said:

In the Cootamundra Town Hall, where once my great grandmother was barred from being able to vote, a stained glass window now hangs. It's a picture story. In it, she is telling bedtime stories to her grandchildren in the language of their ancestors. The town that once excluded this amazing Aboriginal woman has now immortalised her remarkable story. At long last, it has recognised her, and regards her story as a source of pride. It's time our Constitution did too.

That generational change is important in the debate that is ahead of us all. Father Brennan made the point, as many speakers have, that there is much work to be done if the referendum is to get up in the next parliamentary term and that we have a responsibility as elected members of parliament to engage Australians in understanding what constitutional recognition means, not just for Indigenous Australians but for all of us. In the wake of the national apology, there is a new generation of Indigenous Australians able to show us the way, and I very much look forward to working with them.

I want to congratulate everyone who has got us to this position. It is an issue whose time has come. This is political work at its best. It is the work that we all enjoy the most: the people's representatives putting their minds and experience to work to together create the Australia that people want to live in. I have no doubt that we will reach a satisfactory form of words. We will debate the matter robustly, I am sure. We will hold a referendum. That is the right thing to do. It will be a milestone along the route I want this country to take in the interests of human rights and of the dignity of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I commend the bill to the Senate.