Second Reading (in continuation) - Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012
(18:14): We consistently maintained our commitment to this cause at both the 2007 election and the 2010 election, and we will strongly carry that commitment to the 2013 federal election. While within the coalition we would like to see genuine and multipartisan progress on the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal Australians, much more needs to be done to build the necessary base community consensus that will be the foundation of an effective constitutional reform process in this area. In some ways, it is fair to say that this has become difficult, at least in the short term—as senators on all sides know only too well—due to the marathon period that will be this election campaign of 2013.
However, this is an issue that is, and must be, above politics. It is most appropriate that the important step of any referendum is delayed until there is wide, long-lasting and multipartisan community support for constitutional recognition. In my view, in this instance it will be a case of better late, or later, than never. I understand that the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Tony Abbott, has written to the Prime Minister proposing that both leaders make statements to the House of Representatives affirming both our parties' support for recognition in the Constitution and the commitment of both parties to progress this matter in the next parliament. In a very positive development in this regard, we strongly commend the government's acceptance of Mr Abbott's offer to create a multipartisan joint parliamentary committee to ensure we progress even closer to achieving this goal.
From a personal perspective, I have seen the great value of such a broadly-based parliamentary joint committee. They have been formed on key issues over many years, and one which comes to mind—although perhaps its end result was not one I would like to point to in this regard—was the joint committee on the referendum in 1999. I learnt a lot from that process—I learnt a lot as a participant; I learnt a lot as a senator; and I learnt a great deal from the community about how valuable a tool a genuine joint parliamentary committee can be in its multipartisan approach—as I have said, with appropriate reference to the minor parties in this place and elsewhere—and with regard to its real ability to make sure it does hear from genuine grassroots Australians, particularly from the broad spectrum of Aboriginal Australians who want to have their say on this issue that we are discussing today.
We have constantly reassured both the government and the broader community of our strong support for the recognition of Australia's Aboriginal people in the Constitution. We want to play a part in ensuring that it occurs at the right time, when it has the best chance of being successful. Constitutional recognition of our first peoples is far too important to fail at the eleventh hour. Since an expert panel was appointed in December 2010 to consult and to advise the government on the best way to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution, the coalition has enthusiastically participated in this process. We were proudly represented on the expert panel by the first Aboriginal member of the House of Representatives, my colleague Mr Ken Wyatt AM MP. That panel delivered its report on 19 January this year, and on 30 January the joint select committee released its report on the bill. We welcome that report. It does—as Senator Siewert has previously made reference to—actually make very interesting reading, which is not something that you can say of every parliamentary report. We will continue to consider it carefully before proceeding towards that goal of recognition.
The issue of constitutional recognition also draws attention to the position of many Aboriginal Australians in our society today, both in remote outback communities and in more urbanised areas, such as the one in which I work in Western Sydney. I think it would be remiss not to make an acknowledgement of that fact.
Improving the lives of those many Australians will not be solved through constitutional recognition alone, important though it is. For too long, predominantly well-meaning but ultimately misguided focuses on welfare have left many Aboriginal Australians in not the best place they may have been. That is something for which we all need to take some responsibility, and I think that by and large we do. I think by and large these are issues about which this parliament has the maturity, the capacity and the good sense to discuss maturely and sensibly—not all the time, as sometimes it is difficult to take the 'P' out of politics even on the most serious issues. We do need to provide a basic safety net to ensure children in remote communities are fed, clothed and educated in the way we would expect all Australian children to be fed, clothed and educated.
We on the coalition have over many years taken some direction and some great support from Indigenous leaders like Noel Pearson, and his Cape York Institute, and Alison Anderson, who has recently taken office in the Northern Territory parliament. These are people who have spoken about a focus on self-reliance and on building partnerships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. They are also very valuable examples of community leadership. For example, in Mr Pearson's case, his philosophy is reflected in the work of the coalition towards the development of our policies concerning Aboriginal Australians: we absolutely support programs that lead to real jobs being created—not make-work schemes, not more training for the sake of training and not more courses that just lead to more courses. As the shadow minister for Indigenous development and employment, I am greatly encouraged by those participants in the public policy debate who force us to think more broadly, who force us to think across the spectrum and, for that matter, across Australia.
We as the coalition will continue to work with the government to ensure that all the efforts in this regard in relation to this bill and to a prospective referendum are effective and that we are able to experience again the unity of 1967 by recognising Aboriginal Australians in the Constitution of this great country of ours.
One does not always take the opportunity when speaking in the chamber to pick up the piece of legislation that one is referring to and recommend it for public reading. But in this case, this is a bill that is absolutely worth reading. This is a bill that embodies some of the most important principles that we will engage on in our constitutional future, in the short term. It is a bill that every Australian would benefit from reading, paragraph by paragraph. The sunset clause which is contained within this bill is, if you like, the action point. It is the point to which we must all address our attention to make sure that the time frame which is provided for the processes set up here is adhered to, and that this is not something that does not come back to this parliament in an appropriately timely manner.
In a spirit of my much-quoted multipartisanship in this reach, I make reference to the words of two members on either side in the other place. I acknowledge in quoting my friend and colleague the member for Wentworth Mr Turnbull that he and I have been on the same team in a previous referendum. I know we are on the same team now and we intend to make this very successful. On that side, Mr Turnbull said:
While there is an acknowledgment of Her Gracious Majesty, Queen Victoria, in our Constitution there is no acknowledgment of the original inhabitants of this country. So let's make our Constitution better. Let's make it, in that sense, even more Australian.
On the side of the government, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who led the apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008, captured the sentiments of many Australians when he said in his remarks:
The apology was about getting things right for the past. Constitutional recognition is about getting it right for the future.
My commitment in this debate is to make sure that we get this right the first time.