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Tuesday, 12 March 2013
Page: 1406

Senator SINGH (Tasmania) (12:51): I rise also to speak to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill and to commend it to the Senate. This bill delivers our nation a very clear path towards amending the Australia Constitution to ensure we rightfully recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I can say with certainty that the Gillard Labor government is committed to respectfully recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our Constitution.

I believe that constitutional change is a necessary and important act that all members of parliament should be committed to delivering. It is through this change that we can create a better future, a future of recognition, respect and acknowledgement of the inhabitants of Australia and their ongoing connection with their traditional land, waters, cultures, languages and heritage. It is my belief that our nation should be proud to embrace and acknowledge the longstanding heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within the Constitution, as it is only by recognising our country's first people that we as a nation can build a strong future together.

This is an issue that I have been passionate about since before I became a senator in this place. Australia has always prided itself on being a multicultural nation, one that welcomes people from faraway shores, one that appreciates diversity and respects the influence and beauty each culture delivers to our social fabric. Yet our Constitution does not reflect our heritage. It does not reflect or recognise the powerful role our first Australians played in our future. I believe that it is time we moved to right those wrongs of our past and move towards a Constitution that reflects the dignity of all Australians, especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

I would like to acknowledge the substantial work that has been done to prepare for this change. In 2010 Labor established the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. This panel was co-chaired by Professor Patrick Dodson and Mr Mark Leibler AC, as well as Indigenous leaders, parliamentary members and constitutional experts, including a member from my home state of Tasmania, Bill Lawson, with whom I have met to discuss the significance of these reforms.

The panel was given the task of leading wide-ranging public consultation and through this consultation the panel was able to deliver a report to the Prime Minister. This report provides a clear proposal on how best to proceed in recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The expert panel's recommendation is that the best way forward is to achieve constitutional change. On 20 September 2012, in response to the expert panel's report, the government committed to constitutional change. That includes: a statement of recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their unique history, culture and connection to this land; removal of references to race, reflecting the nation's fundamental belief in the importance of equality and nondiscrimination; and acknowledgement that additional effort is needed to help close the gap in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's disadvantage.

Cross-party support, though, is required to achieve this result, and with that in mind the government made a commitment to establish a Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. The joint select committee takes on the role of engaging with the broader community and discussing referendum proposals for constitutional change.

Among the Tasmanian Aboriginal leaders from my home state I know that my friend and stalwart advocate of human rights with Amnesty International, Rodney Dillon, has been awaiting the day that this recognition could take place. Speaking with Rodney about this bill, there is no doubt that he and many other Tasmanian Indigenous people believe that constitutional recognition is an essential part of a prosperous future for Australia. Like me, he believes that it is important that when Australians stand up for our nation and our country we all stand up for the same reasons. It is time that the patriotic songs Australians sing and the nation for which we all come together are carried on through the voices of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. And while we cannot and should not attempt to bury the past, we can certainly go ahead as a new and united Australia.

This bill sends an important signal to the broader Australian community. Not only does it begin the parliamentary and electoral process towards a referendum, a very important process as part of any reform to our Constitution, but it also marks the beginning of a campaign to build community support in earnest. That is a very significant step because without community support, as we know through various referenda in the past in our nation, we simply do not receive a change to our Constitution. The history of Australian referenda shows that broad and bipartisan community support is necessary to make any Constitutional amendments. A Constitution is only a document unless its spirit is reflected in our actions. Recognition is something that we must do as a community as much as a polity and, if we are to achieve this change, we will need to have that support of the community.

This bill is also an important act of recognition, an act that begins a process here that will be concluded by the next parliament and then by Australian voters and citizens. It will be the most significant of a number of landmark acts of reconciliation in recent decades. I am sure that many senators in this place will recall that some 10 years ago 300,000 people walked proudly across Sydney Harbour Bridge in recognition and support of Indigenous Australians. This walk was soon replicated in other capital cities across Australia and it generated a strong awareness of the need for reconciliation. Indeed, I remember in my home state of Tasmania walking across the Tasman Bridge with thousands of local Tasmanians all in support of reconciliation.

Of course, further back than that one only has to remember that in 1992 our nation witnessed Paul Keating speak so strongly on the need for healing in his watershed Redfern speech. Keating's speech put reconciliation on our nation's agenda. Then in 2009 Kevin Rudd made a national apology to the forgotten Australians, the half a million children who were raised in institutions. This bill will move Australia even closer to repairing the bonds between Australians with a formal recognition of our Indigenous peoples. The Gillard Labor government has invested some $10 million to help educate people about this change and build the momentum for that change. Over the next two years, Reconciliation Australia will be helping to promote awareness about this issue as well as play a role in educating Australians of its importance. I commend the work of Reconciliation Australia. I know they are already undertaking that role right across our nation. They have quite a task ahead of them and need all of our support as they go about our nation educating Australia.

I believe that as parliamentarians and senators in this place we are all tasked with the responsibility to lead this change. By supporting the passage of this bill through the Senate we are ensuring that constitutional recognition for all Australians is placed firmly on our nation's agenda—somewhere it certainly should be placed.