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Thursday, 5 March 2015
Page: 1304

Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (12:49): I rise to contribute to the debate on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition (Sunset Extension) Bill 2015 and support the extension of the act, bearing in mind that this was recommended by the Constitutional Review Panel of Tanya Hosch, Richard Eccles and John Anderson, who recommended that the bill needed to be extended. The Joint Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Recognition has also made comment about the need to extend this particular bill.

We have to get constitutional recognition right, and the country needs time to have the debate. I always call it multipartisan support for recognition, because unless we get support across this parliament, across the parties and the Independents, we are not going to achieve constitutional recognition. I am disappointed that we have not got as far in our debate on constitutional recognition as I consider that we should have by this stage. I think the debate has lacked the drive that we need for this discussion, and I am hoping that with this extension we can achieve that. It is important to have an extension here because, having said that we need to make sure that we have the drive and some vigour in our pursuit of constitutional recognition, I think we do need to take the country along with us, and the other element of that is leadership, which needs to be showing vigour and drive in this debate.

There needs to be a broader debate in the community as well. We know from our experience in referenda in this country that our Constitution is one of the hardest in the world to change, because a double majority is needed to approve change. Of the 44 referenda that have been held since Federation, only eight have been successful. We know some of the essential components that are needed for a successful referendum, and one of those is making sure that we have a lot of broad support and understanding across the community and across the parliament. So, we do need this extension.

I am hoping really, really strongly that we do not need until 2018 to get to that referendum, but, having said that, I think we need to find that fine balance by making sure that we are taking the community along with us in that debate. We have to bear in mind that the '67 referendum did not just happen overnight. There was a long campaign in the run-up to the '67 election and that is what is needed here. There is strong support from some elements of the community, but if we held a referendum today I do not think not enough people in the Australian community would know what we are talking about. They have not been consulted enough yet, nor been engaged in the discussion enough—or even aware of the issue—to understand what some of the options are.

One thing I am certainly very clear about is that if we set a date now, without people actually knowing what the question is, that is a concern to people. I have had that expressed to me on a number of occasions. We need to be getting the question right. This is where the important subtleties come in, if we do not have a question that people feel strongly about and one that makes the issue substantive. That is what I keep hearing everywhere I go—that the question needs to be substantive, and the change needs to be substantive change. We saw just yesterday in the media the issues around nondiscrimination and clause 116A, which the expert panel recommended, being canvassed. Debate is still open on that. Again, this is controversial, and I know that; but we need to be looking at these controversial issues in our discussion. As far as the Greens are concerned at the moment, 116A is not off the table, and I do not believe it is off the table for many people around Australia—both within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and also in the broader Australian community.

Senator McLucas referred to the Lowitja Institute launch this morning. It was perfect timing in terms of expressing the very important link between health and wellbeing and constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. They made the point that constitutional recognition is not just symbolism. Although I very strongly believe that symbolism is very important, as well, they are saying it is not just about that. They make the point that there is significant evidence from health research to indicate that being connected to the wider community, having a strong identity and feeling socially supported all have significant positive impacts on health. They make the point that recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people would acknowledge their powerful sense of identity, pride, history and belonging to this land. It would promote opportunities for full participation in all that Australia has to offer and be a significant step towards equity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. Those are really powerful statements and they really contribute very significantly to the debate on constitutional recognition. They have launched the RECOGNISE HEALTH initiative to engage the health community in the debate around constitutional recognition. One hundred and seventeen health organisations have signed up to the statement. That is a pretty powerful group of people—health experts—who are saying that constitutional recognition is important for the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I would certainly recommend to my colleagues that, if you were not able to make it to the launch, you get hold of the material around constitutional recognition and RECOGNISE HEALTH. They have made an excellent four-minute video that has various health experts talking about the importance of constitutional recognition.

This is an important time in our history and in the development of our Constitution and I, for one, believe our Constitution cannot be regarded as being complete until we recognise the people who were the first occupants of this land. That is really important to the document. The document is not a truthful document until we do that. And until we take out the race provisions in the Constitution, I do not believe it properly reflects our country.

This is an important task we have embarked on. We need this additional time; but additional time cannot mean that we stop, or rest, or take it a little bit easy now because we have a little bit more time. Time to talk to the community is really important. Already I have heard from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that they are distressed about the delay. They do not feel like the leadership is there. If there is concern over the options that have been put up, then where are we going from here?

The joint parliamentary committee has put on the table a number of options. If the government indicates that they do not like those—and we did get some indication from the gala dinner in December that perhaps they do not—then where do we go from here? We need to be having a discussion about what we will accept. I can tell you that the clear message I have received from the community is that it has to be substantive, and there has to be broad support from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

The debate about sovereignty and treaty—I know that is controversial—is what is being raised. People need to be convinced that those issues are not off the table with constitutional recognition and that constitutional recognition does not undermine those issues. Those are important issues which are still up for debate and I am hoping we can continue that debate, during the time given by the extension of this act, so we can have those discussions. If we do not have those discussions I am very concerned that we will not get broad support for the changes so many people want to the Constitution. And, if you read the information about the importance of constitutional recognition for things like health, that is another reason we need to make sure we change our Constitution. The Greens will be supporting this bill.