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Monday, 27 February 2012
Page: 1954

Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (19:55): Having the first Australians recognised as part of the Constitution is coalition policy going back many years. The coalition has a proud history of support for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. A move to have something meaningful and worthwhile included in the Constitution preamble was seen as a good starting point. Making constitutional change is a difficult process. To date, 44 referenda have been held, of which only eight have been carried. To ensure that a referendum including Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders passes and, for that matter, one recognising local government would require taking the people along with the spirit of why change is considered necessary. This would not have been easy in the past, nor will it be a smooth passage if and when constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is put to all Australian voters in the future.

The preamble of the Constitution is not subject to interpretation by the courts, and that is an important factor when this issue is being debated and decided. That is why there was a move to push for suitable recognition within the preamble wording. In 1999, however, the coalition's referendum proposing a preamble inclusive of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders was defeated. Further proposals for constitutional recognition were taken by the coalition to the 2007 election. However, Labor under Kevin Rudd won office.

A 300-page report was released on 19 January 2012 by an expert panel of 19 people. If adopted, it would seek to place recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia's history by appropriate words being included in the Constitution and to remove all provisions of the Constitution which are plainly of a racially discriminatory character. The suggestion is to include, as proposed section 51A, words effectively recognising that Australia was first occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders; acknowledging their continuing relationship with traditional lands and waters; respecting their continuing cultures, languages and heritage; and acknowledging the need to secure their advancement. These are admirable sentiments—words which go to the heart of what most fair-minded Australians would agree to and uphold. Proposed section 116A, prohibiting racial discrimination, and proposed section 127A, recognising their language, are also on the surface reasonable and timely.

As an aside, but important in the context when talking about Aboriginal language, I must praise the extraordinary work of authors and compilers of A New Dictionary of Wiradjuri, Stan Grant and John Rudder, both from my region. They have been diligently working together since 1997 to see Wiradjuri language learned and spoken again.

Stan also works with youth who are getting their lives together at Tirkandi Inaburra, near Coleambally, a community-run development and educational centre offering Aboriginal boys aged 12 to 15 a residential program aimed at reducing future contact with the criminal justice system by strengthening cultural identity, self-esteem and resilience. The centre is having a positive impact on the lives of those who have been mentored there.

Indeed, the shadow minister for Indigenous affairs, Nigel Scullion, who visited Tirkandi Inaburra on 2 December last year, believes the concept ought to be replicated right across Australia. On the matter before us of constitutional recognition, Senator Scullion is on the record as saying:

… special clauses about discrimination will lead to a much wider debate about multiculturalism and I think the debate will really ambush the process.

He is right, of course.

As to the recent announcement of the expert panel's report, the Leader of the Opposition said, 'My aim is to achieve unity.' The slogan on the T-shirt just displayed by the member for Lyne reads: 'YouMeUnity.' We all want unity. Importantly, all Australians want to see respectful and adequate recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

As I said in my inaugural speech:

Nationally we need to do more for Aboriginal health to increase the life expectancy and standard of living of our first nation people.

Help needs to go where it is most needed. Words are one thing—spoken, as in saying sorry, or in a document such as the Constitution—but genuine, urgently needed actions, such as better health, more affordable housing and greater job prospects for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in rural and remote areas, are of critical importance if we as a nation are to truly achieve unity and harmony. The money is there to achieve such goals; it just needs to be apportioned to where it is most needed.