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Tuesday, 12 March 2013
Page: 1409

Senator FARRELL (South AustraliaParliamentary Secretary for Sustainability and Urban Water) (13:03): The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012 represents a clear step forward towards holding a successful referendum to change the Australian Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This bill will establish an act of recognition acknowledging the unique and special place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first peoples of our nation. This government is committed to recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution. We believe that the Australian Constitution should, firstly, recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their unique history, culture and connection to this land; secondly, reflect our country's fundamental belief in the importance of equality by removing all references to race; and, thirdly, acknowledge that additional efforts are needed to close the gap on Indigenous disadvantage in this country.

The government appointed an expert panel to consider, consult and advise on how best to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution, and on possible options for change that would likely get the support of the majority of Australians at a referendum. The expert panel consisted of a range of respected and accomplished individuals, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and community leaders, constitutional law experts and parliamentary members. Following wide-ranging consultation in 2011 the government received the final report of the expert panel in January 2012. We publicly acknowledge the hard work and dedication of expert panel members which have led to us having, for the first time, a proposal for constitutional change.

We recognise that there is not yet enough community awareness or support for change to hold a successful referendum at or before the next federal election. The act of recognition that this bill establishes will continue to build the momentum we need for a successful constitutional change. To maintain momentum towards a referendum, a sunset provision in the bill limits the effects of the act to two years. The sunset date ensures that legislative recognition does not become entrenched at the expense of continued progress towards constitutional change. The sunset provision will provide an impetus for a future parliament to reassess how the campaign for change is travelling and the appropriate timing for a successful referendum. The bill also provides for a review to consider and advise a future parliament on proposals to submit a referendum, taking into account the valuable work done by the expert panel.

This bill is not a substitute for constitutional recognition; legislation is not the appropriate forum to address all of the recommendations of the Expert Panel for constitutional change. We are pleased there is strong commitment across the parliament to supporting this bill. We are also pleased that the new Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples considered this bill as its first order of business and recommended it be passed unamended.

The government is committed to building stronger relationships with Indigenous people based on mutual respect as well as a reconciled future where all Australians are equal partners with equal opportunities in shaping the future of our country. That is why the government funds Reconciliation Australia: to improve relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. And that is why the government delivered the national apology to Indigenous Australians, which helped build a bridge of respect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

Meaningful constitutional recognition of the nation's first peoples is another step—a crucial step—in Australia's journey toward reconciliation. The Australian Constitution is the foundation document for our law and for our government, but it is silent in respect of the special place for our first Australians. This bill in an important step toward a meaningful recognition in our Constitution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second a time.