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Tuesday, 12 March 2013
Page: 1402


Senator THORP (Tasmania) (12:31): One of the first referendums was the 1967 referendum, where the Australian people were asked whether Aboriginal people should be counted in the national census and be subject to Commonwealth laws rather than just state laws. This referendum was a landslide, winning close to 91 per cent of all votes cast. No referendum before or since has been so heartily endorsed by the Australian people. The overwhelming result gave the government at the time a clear mandate to enact policies that would benefit Aboriginal people.

Another nation-defining event was the historic 1992 Mabo decision. Here the High Court ruled that the Meriam people of the Murray Islands in the Torres Strait were 'entitled as against the whole world to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of most of the lands of the Murray Islands'. In doing so, they rejected the longstanding, but patently false, concept of terra nullius—land belonging to no-one. That was a big step, indeed, and one which led to the drafting of the 1993 Native Title Act by the Keating government.

Keating reinforced the need to admit the truth of our history in the now famous Redfern speech of 1992. This watershed speech was the first time that an Australian Prime Minister had acknowledged the impacts of government policies since Federation on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It clearly placed reconciliation on the national agenda and has since been referred to as one of the most powerful and important speeches of all time. But, more than that, it reflected a commitment to make the future better. In Keating's words:

This is a fundamental test of our social goals and our national will: our ability to say to ourselves and the rest of the world that Australia is a first rate social democracy, that we are what we should be—truly the land of the fair go and the better chance.

Sixteen years after Keating's message of acknowledgement and respect came another unforgettable speech and another milestone on the path to reconciliation. The 2008 National Apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was one of those very rare speeches that united the House and the nation. I daresay there are many Australians who will remember exactly where they were that day and how moved they were. In Mr Rudd's words, the apology was a recognition that:

The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia's history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.

This was a truly defining moment in our national history, of which I am immensely proud. The speech went to the very heart of the Labor values that are so close to my heart: fairness, equality, inclusiveness, opportunity and respect. Since Kevin Rudd's watershed apology, this government has been working very hard, in partnership with the states, to achieve better outcomes for Indigenous Australians. In 2008 the Council of Australian Governments agreed to six ambitious targets to address the disadvantage faced by Indigenous Australians in life expectancy, child mortality, education and employment.

But despite all the hard work and commitment towards rectifying inequality and creating opportunity for all, we still have one major hurdle to leap. That is, the formal recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people within our Constitution. To this end, the bill enshrines some very important elements. It recognises that the continent and its islands, now known as Australia, were first occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and acknowledges the continuing relationship of Indigenous people with their traditional lands and waters. It also formalises respect for the continuing cultures, languages and heritage and acknowledges the need to secure the advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It also recognises that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are the original Australian languages and are part of our national heritage.

The will for this recognition is clearly there in the community. We only need to look at the groundswell of public support across the nation. Political representatives on both sides of this chamber also agree. But we must face the reality that constitutional amendments are notoriously difficult to achieve. Of 44 referendums held since Federation, only eight have passed. And we know that failed referendums can lead to important decisions being discarded for decades—one springs to mind, Mr Deputy President. If we were to rush into this, we would risk condemning this important acknowledgement to just another footnote in history.

(Quorum formed)