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Thursday, 25 September 2014
Page: 7265

Senator FAULKNER (New South Wales) (21:44): I support the Recognise Campaign for recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia's Constitution. Recognise is critically important to raising awareness for a referendum to amend the Constitution in two parts: to fix the historic exclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from Australia's Constitution; and to make sure there is no place for racial discrimination in our Constitution.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have lived on this ancient land for more than 40,000 years. Thousands of generations make for one of the world's oldest and most enduring cultures. Prior to European settlement, Australia was home to literally hundreds upon hundreds of nations, some of them semi-nomadic and others permanent settlements, with hundreds of languages and dialects. Customs and cultures varied greatly between nations and regions.

It is a proud history, something all Australians should be proud of, and something we should recognise in our founding document. Sadly, Australia's Constitution does not recognise the first and longest chapter in our national story. Reading Australia's Constitution one could easily be mistaken for thinking that our history began some time in the 1800s. For many years legal fictions such as terra nullius were created to deny the existence of anyone on the Australian continent before European settlement. Of course terra nullius literally translates as 'land belonging to no-one' or 'empty land'. The landmark Mabo judgement by the High Court simply blasted away that legal fiction.

Our Constitution originally mentioned the first Australians twice, but only to discriminate. Until the 1967 referendum Indigenous Australians were excluded from being counted as citizens under section 127, and were excluded from a federal power to make laws for people of any race. Mr President, we righted that wrong. In the 1967 referendum more than 90 per cent of Australians voted yes to remove that discrimination, and now it is time to finish the task. I am pleased to say that there has been bipartisan support for recognising Indigenous Australians in the Constitution. Prime Ministers John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, and now Tony Abbott have stated their support for such constitutional change.

In 2010 an expert panel of community leaders, lawyers and parliamentarians was established to advise on what changes were appropriate and what steps would be needed. The panel consulted extensively across the nation and reported to the Prime Minister in January 2012. The panel recommended Australians should vote in a referendum to: insert new clauses in the Constitution that recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and to preserve the Australian government's ability to pass laws for the benefit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; insert a new clause recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages were this country's first tongues, while confirming that English is Australia's national language; and remove clauses that discriminate against people based on their race.

To get on with the job this parliament has established a Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. The committee's task is to finalise the words that will form the amendment to the Constitution. Mr Ken Wyatt MP is the chair of that committee and our colleague here in the Senate, Senator Nova Peris, is its deputy chair.

At the same time, of course, the Recognise Campaign seeks to raise awareness and build support for the referendum, and awareness and support are growing. More than 219,000 Australians are now part of the Recognise movement. In the ABC's Vote Compass survey of 1.3 million Australians in September 2013, 70 per cent of people said that they were in favour of recognition. That, by the way, included majority support—55 per cent—amongst coalition voters. And 84 per cent public support levels were recorded in election day exit polling in marginal seats for Indigenous recognition in the Constitution as well.

The Australian Constitution was written well over a century ago and it has served us well. But, in its current form, the Constitution does not recognise the first part of our national story. Simple, strong, clear words in the Constitution that recognise our true history are long overdue. It really is time for the government and the parliament to get on with it. We must keep up the pressure. We must keep the focus we have seen from the Prime Minister and from the Leader of the Opposition on this issue in recent weeks. We must ensure that there is no unnecessary delay. Personally I hope we can see a referendum question put simultaneously with the federal election due in 2016. After all, four of the eight referendums in Australia held with elections were successful.

It is fundamental of course that the referendum model be meaningful and have the support of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I strongly support and congratulate all those who are working for this important change to the Constitution. Let us not lose any momentum in this campaign. Constitutional recognition would not only acknowledge Australia's ancient cultures but would also be a shared declaration about their importance to us all. It is simply the right thing to do.

Senate adjourned at 21:53