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Tuesday, 23 November 1965

Mr CALWELL (Melbourne) (Leader of the Opposition) . - As I have already indicated, the Opposition supports this Bill, which is a proposal to repeal section 127 of the Constitution. We will support its passage through Parliament, and we will support its adoption by the people. As the Prime Minister (Sir Robert Menzies) has said, section 127, which prevents the Aborigines being counted among Australian citizens in census taking, is completely foreign to our concept of right and dignity. It is foreign to our aims for our nation and for the Aboriginal section of our population, which forms one inalienable part of the nation. It is unfortunate that such a provision was ever placed in the Constitution. Even the undoubted difficulties involved in taking a proper census among Aborigines that existed at the beginning of the century did not, 1 think, provide an adequate justification for its adoption then nor would they provide an adequate justification for its retention in 1965. But there is no point in applying retrospective judgments. We should not want to make judgments on the past, because we will be judged by history on our own actions and on our own standards. We must therefore act now to remove this blot from the Constitution.

I cannot conceive that this proposal will not be most welcome and will not receive the nearly unanimous endorsement of the Australian people. In his second reading speech the Prime Minister explained why, in his view, the proposal should not be extended to deal with section 51 (xxvi) which prevents the Commonwealth Parliament from passing special laws for Aborigines. This part of the Prime Minister's speech was, of course, what I might call its negative part; not in the sense that his arguments were not constructive but in the sense that he was explaining what the Government did not intend to do and not something that it proposed to do. The Opposition, as a party, does not find itself in complete agreement with the Prime Minister's reasoning. As I understood the right honorable gentleman, he believes that to give this Parliament a specific power to legislate for Aborigines would itself be a form of discrimination. There may be a literal and legal sense in which this is true: I cannot see that it is true in any real or practical sense.

The statute books are full of special legislation. The repatriation legislation represents a class of special legislation in itself.

Section 51 (xxiii.) of the Constitution gives us power respecting age and invalid pensions, and surely this cannot in any realistic sense be described as discriminatory. Nor should the practical difficulties mentioned by the Prime Minister be regarded as a final, all-compelling argument against alteration of this section. After all, it should not be beyond our powers of ingenuity to devise a satisfactory form of words to cover all exigencies and to meet all objections. However, the Government has decided against what we would have wished to have seen submitted in this Bill in respect of section 51 (xxvi.). That decision, when we recollect the enormous difficulties in the way of securing acceptance of any constitutional change in this country, is, unfortunately, a more forceful argument than the best reasons that eloquence or intelligence can provide.

I regret that the Government has not seen its way clear to act on many other recommendations contained in the report of the Constitutional Review Committee, but now that at least two proposals are to go before the people, and now that we have achieved the near miracle of agreement between all the important parties on the constitutional question, it is important that our differences on other questions should not obscure our unanimity on the questions actually before us. I wish the Bill a speedy passage through the Parliament. I do not believe, nor does any other member of this Parliament believe, that one Australian worthy of the name will deliberately vote against this proposal to recognise Aborigines as what they are, and for what they are - Australian citizens who should be counted as Australians.

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