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Wednesday, 18 October 2017
Page: 7974


Senator DODSON (Western Australia) (19:03): Before the debate was interrupted, I was pointing out that it is some three months since the Referendum Council placed its report and its recommendations in the hands of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. It is nearly five months since the historic Uluru summit put a proposal to the Australian nation that went to the issues of constitutional change and the place of the first peoples in our nation state. It also recommended legislation to be developed to set up a Makarata Commission and to deal with truth telling and agreement making. The silence on the other side of the House has been deafening. While the government ponders the issue in silent confusion, the first nations of Australia and their supporters in mainstream society continue to be frustrated at having these longstanding issues ignored and sent to the bottom of the pile. The first nations are no doubt wondering whether truth telling about our intertwined history, with its hurtful aspects, is now being shut down by the government. While the government at the federal level declines to indicate any view or position on these issues, our communities are continuously feeling very frustrated, marginalised and driven almost to the sad outlook that we do not matter.

These issues require leadership, vision and a preparedness to engage in dialogue that seeks resolution, not to be left to fester and die on the vine in resentment. It's neither appropriate nor right for the national parliament to overrule a local council discussing and deciding on issues such as this. Community debate is central to a healthy democracy. On the Labor side, we have put our weight behind the idea of holding a national conversation on the role of the first nations people in our national identity, in our polity and in our society, asking what the place of the first nations people in our collective national identity is. Should they be recognised properly in our foundation document as the first nations of a young nation of immigrants? Should our nation find the courage to face our truth as a separate state established over the top of the first nations peoples? The idea of holding a national conversation about truth-telling, agreement-making and a makarrata commission in a formal legislation framework should be welcomed and not feared. Until the federal government really works at creating this makarrata commission as a truth-telling and agreement-making instrument, again we will see this as a backyard churn rather than rebuilding relationships. We should discuss such things.

We know that makarrata, the Yolngu concept of a cultural and ceremonial symbol of true reconciliation after a long struggle, is something first nation people have been striving for over generations. The Prime Minister heard this firsthand at Garma this year and yet he remains inert. As a consequence, the nation has stalled on the healing process of reconciliation. Look around our parliament, see the Mabo notebooks, the Yolngu bark painting and the Barunga Statement and know that we as legislators have been called upon again and again to talk through these issues, to come to terms with our national identity and to agree a way forward.

The Mabo decision led to an eruption of controversy and alarm in much of mainstream Australia. Mabo was an affront to the security provided by the lie of terra nullius. The same thing is happening right now as people ask themselves whether we should change our national day, whether we should open up the discussion around truth-telling in this country.

On the last Australia Day, I received an unsigned letter to my office which said that my people should 'stop crying, move on and stop complaining about the crap that happened 200 years ago.' The letter was a reminder that the contest of interpretations of our history is not in the spirit of reconciliation, of relationships based on understanding and respect. The heat of this debate is rising because we still don't have an agreement in Australia which sets out the fundamentals of how the colonists came to be here and the basis of their settlement. Surely, as leaders of our nation, we are mature enough to discuss such things and potentially—I say potentially—agree positive outcomes. Or are we?

Mr Acting Deputy President Bernardi, yesterday you said in this chamber:

Australia's history is what it is. Like every country, there are imperfections in it.

You went on to say:

We cannot erase that history. It's not about atoning for it; it is about getting on and making sure we can move forward together.

I say to Senator Bernardi, respectfully, that we cannot move forward together by simply asking the first nations people to get over it. We must contemplate the how of moving forward.

Senator Roberts yesterday stated:

We need to go further, though. We need to stop funding all councils that interfere with Australian icons, heritage and statues, and any local government that wants to rewrite history …

First nations are calling for their histories to be heard and considered and for their perspective to be respected. Our communities are saying: 'If you don't do it at the federal level, we'll try to do it through other tiers of government. We'll have conversations about treaties in South Australia and Victoria. We'll talk about the date of citizenship ceremonies at our local council meetings in Yarra and Darebin and other places.'

These discussions of repositioning at a local council level are important signals. They are an indication of a healthy democracy. We should be looking to pick up sentiments on all sides of this debate for the sake of rebuilding a better relationship at the national level. We should not be singling out individual councils and denying them their rights to make decisions within their own communities. I see these local council decisions as a sign of our nation maturing in its understanding of our intertwined but, as yet, unreconciled history.

Ultimately, the federal parliament will have to face up to such challenging and contentious issues. Our national and international reputation will depend upon our response to the first nation peoples. We, in Labor, support first nation peoples who are working with their local and regional communities to develop their own agreements on such issues. We, in Labor, support the decision of the ACT government to hold a reconciliation public holiday on 28 May. This is the decision of that community. It is an anniversary of significance for events such as the Mabo decision and the 1967 referendum.

In the future, we will continue to ensure that local governments and regional communities are empowered to make decisions about managing their issues, defining priorities for government programs and handling local issues. We do not support an overreach by the Commonwealth into local community government. We do support the disallowance motion. This is an issue for local governments, not for the federal parliament. We should focus on engaging the community on national challenges to build a truly reconciled nation through dialogue, mutual respect and common agreement. The time of this parliament should be focused on the major issues that affect our nation, like progress towards first nation peoples' recognition and reconciliation of our legacy issues, as well as the growing distrust of the government's intentions regarding the future of the first nation peoples' concerns.