Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition (Sunset Extension) Bill 2015


PARLIAMENT HOUSE, Canberra: I firstly thank members of the House for their contribution to this debate on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition (Sunset Extension) Bill 2015 over the last two days. There have been some very constructive and, in many cases, emotional contributions from members right across the chamber, and I appreciate the words that they have said.

In some respects, this is a very straightforward bill. All that it seeks to do is extend the operation of an existing act of parliament for another three years. It is an act of parliament which has unanimous support across the parliament and one which we all share in the objectives of. The process of extending this act for another three years also gives us the opportunity to reflect on what the original purpose of the act was and its ongoing relevance to today's debate. When you reflect on the original purpose of this act, you see that it was trying to achieve three things. Firstly, it was a formal declaration for the first time by this parliament that, indeed, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were here before white settlement just over a couple of hundred years ago. That is an important declaration and statement which is made in this act of parliament. Secondly, the act requires an assessment, a review, of the readiness of the Australian people for constitutional recognition, and it outlines in a bit of detail how that assessment should take place. Finally, the purpose of the act was really to be a stepping stone towards constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

In reflecting on those three purposes, I believe that they are largely still relevant. Certainly it is still very relevant that we have this parliamentary declaration that, yes, Aboriginal people were here and were the first inhabitants of this land. The assessment has been conducted; that can be ticked off. That assessment showed that, in fact, the Australian public is not quite ready just yet to have the constitutional referendum and that more work needs to be done to educate people and to let them know exactly what the proposals are going to be.

The goal of this being a step towards recognition is still the most important goal of them all. This is a very important thing for the government, and I know that view is shared by the opposition. We do want to see constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We do want to amend the Constitution, and there are two reasons why we are seeking to do that. The first is that there are some clauses in the Constitution today which, in essence, propose that laws be made on the basis of race. Our view, and I think it is a widely shared view, is that that is not a concept which has relevance in today's day and age—we should not be making decisions on the basis of race and indeed alternative forms of words should be included. The second reason for wanting constitutional change is the proper acknowledgement and recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. People are quite surprised that in our most important document of the land there is no acknowledgement at all, no mention, of the first inhabitants of the country. Of course it acknowledges our British heritage—it does that through the institutions the Constitution creates by its acknowledgement of the British Crown, who remains our head of state—and of course the document is written in English, as a result of our British heritage. So the Constitution properly recognises our British heritage but there is no recognition of the other important heritage which I think is a great part of the nation-state of Australia.

In summary, those are the two things we are trying to achieve through constitutional change. We have heard some eloquent contributions over the last couple of days on why members of this parliament are so committed to achieving this. Given that there is a reasonable amount of consensus about the objectives we are trying to achieve, what is so difficult about it and why does it takes so long? Any constitutional change in this country is exceptionally difficult. Any time you alter any word you need to be very sure about what the implications are going to be. There is still some debate about what the precise form of words should be. We need to come to a consensus on the form of words, and we are being very ably assisted on that by the terrific work which Ken Wyatt and his committee are doing. In the weeks ahead they will be providing a form of words which hopefully will provide a basis for reaching consensus.

There is a warning, and that is that only eight out of 44 constitutional referenda in this country have ever succeeded. Even if you have bipartisan support for a constitutional question, there is no guarantee it will succeed. Our aim must be to find a form of words that will bring the Australian public along with us on this journey so that when we do take this proposition to the Australian people in the years ahead we will get a resounding endorsement of it. As the member for Murray articulated a short while ago, we should seek a unanimous consensus but at least our aim should be something in the vicinity of what was achieved in 1967, when 90 per cent of the Australian public voted for change to the Constitution—a change that had such great moral significance. We are coming up to the 50th anniversary of that in 2017.

I again thank members for their contributions on this bill. The government is absolutely committed to seeing constitutional recognition occur in the years ahead, and we will be fighting very hard to ensure that we get that broad consensus across the community.

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