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Monday, 13 February 2012
Page: 1030


Ms PARKE (Fremantle) (18:14): I acknowledge the Ngunawal and the Ngambri peoples as the traditional custodians of the Canberra area and the Noongar people as the traditional custodians of south-west Australia, including my electorate of Fremantle. I would like to take this opportunity on the fourth anniversary of the national apology to Indigenous Australians, including the stolen generations, to acknowledge that remarkable day in this place and to express the wish that we will see the hopes of that day become reality in the foreseeable future. Australia has received international recognition for the apology, as well as for endorsing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Persons and for the implementation of the highly acclaimed Indigenous Electoral Participation Program. Of course, we now have a welcome to country at the opening of parliament and we acknowledge traditional custodians at the beginning of each parliamentary day. Importantly, we are presently embarked on a process to achieve constitutional recognition of Australia's first peoples. The government has also taken many positive initiatives under the Closing the Gap program, which will be detailed shortly in the annual statement by the Prime Minister.

However, the disturbing fact remains, at present, that Aboriginal people still suffer significantly poorer health, education and employment outcomes than non-Indigenous Australians and are vastly overrepresented in the criminal justice system. The appalling death of Aboriginal elder Mr Ward in the back of a prison van in early 2008 after a raft of failures by WA Police and a number of WA government departments and by the private contractor G4S and its employees remains emblematic of the challenges.

The disturbing events of Australia Day this year were, in my view, at least partly attributable to the overwhelming despair and frustration felt by many Aboriginal Australians over the ongoing plight of their communities. The dramatic scenes on Australia Day also serve to highlight the essential discomforting aspect of our national day. It is not a unifying event. The date of 26 January marks the start of white settlement in New South Wales 224 years ago. There is nothing about that date that unifies the nation in and of itself. It also marks the beginning of the dispossession of Australia's Indigenous populations from their lands, from their families and from their culture. Given the disadvantage still suffered by Aboriginal Australians, it is no wonder they object to a celebration of this nature.

We share our national date with India's Republic Day, which commemorates the coming into force of the Constitution of India on 26 January 1950 and the freedom struggle leading up to that event. Other nations, including the US and Bangladesh, celebrate their national day as the day they attained independence. Australia became a federation on 1 January 1901. The federal parliament first met on 9 May of that year. Australia became independent of British legal jurisdiction on 3 March 1986, when the Australia Act came into operation. These have been suggested as perhaps more appropriate days. I raise this matter in the hope that it will be part of a wider community discussion, as it seems to be something you only hear on and about Australia Day, which then gets forgotten until the following year. Perhaps it will naturally be a part of a revived national debate around an Australian republic.

Another matter I wish to raise in this place today is the lack of Aboriginal representation in the national parliament. While there have been a number of Aboriginal MPs in state and territory parliaments around the country, there has been only one Aboriginal representative in the House of Representatives, the member for Hasluck, Ken Wyatt, elected in August 2010, and prior to that only two Aboriginal representatives in the Senate.

In late 2010 I attended an Inter-Parliamentary Union conference on behalf of the Australian parliament on the subject of effective participation in politics of minorities and Indigenous peoples. The conference was held in Mexico in the state of Chiapas, which contains the largest indigenous population in Mexico. The conference discussed the fact that adequate representation of minorities and indigenous peoples in policy and decision making is instrumental in breaking the cycle of poverty, discrimination and disadvantage that many members of these groups suffer, but the fact remains that minorities and indigenous peoples often remain excluded from effective decision making, including in national parliaments.

It was noted that one of the criteria for a democratic parliament is that it should reflect the diversity of the population and ensure that all citizens can participate equally. It was felt that the presence of representatives of minorities and indigenous peoples in parliament is important both symbolically and substantively. Symbolically, it transmits a clear message that they are part of the national community and take part in decisions regarding the nation's future. Substantively, they can directly influence the work of the parliament and they can also promote the interests and concerns of their communities. But ultimately it is not just up to Aboriginal people and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds to represent their communities' needs and concerns; it is up to all of us who want to see an inclusive parliament and a truly inclusive society.

The Chiapas Declaration made a number of recommendations, including that a debate be held in the national parliament on the representation of minorities and indigenous peoples and that a national plan of action be developed to make the right of equal participation and nondiscrimination a reality. The declaration also called upon political parties to promote the effective participation of minorities and indigenous peoples. I intend to move a motion relating to the Chiapas Declaration in the near future and I hope I will have the support of the whole parliament. As other speakers to this Sorry Day motion have noted, the original Sorry Day four years ago was, of course, not a final resolution but just the beginning of making things right. Some progress has been made and much remains to be done. As said so eloquently just now by the member for Scullin, we are on a journey together. I applaud the work of Reconciliation Australia, the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples, the Close the Gap campaign, the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee, Halo, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and all those committed in this place and elsewhere to genuine progress and reconciliation, both substantive and symbolic, for Indigenous Australians.