Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Second Reading Speech- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012

Location: Parliament House, Canberra

I am pleased to be introducing this Bill today as a clear step forward towards holding a successful referendum to change the Australian Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

This Bill will establish an Act of Recognition, acknowledging the unique and special place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first peoples of our nation.

The Gillard Government is committed to recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution.

We want meaningful reform that reflects the hopes and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and unites our nation. We believe the Australian Constitution should:

  • recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their unique history, culture and connection to this land;
  • reflect our country’s fundamental belief in the importance of equality by removing all references to race; and
  • acknowledge additional effort is needed to close the gap on Indigenous disadvantage in this country.

And we are committed to achieving this.

We appointed an Expert Panel to develop options for constitutional change and work out how best to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in the Constitution.

The Expert Panel consisted of a range of respected and accomplished individuals, including Indigenous and community leaders, constitutional law experts and parliamentary members.

In bringing forward this Bill, the Government again thanks the Expert Panel, including co-chairs Mr Mark Leibler and Professor Patrick Dodson, for their dedication and tireless work. They have helped build a strong foundation for change.

We also thank the Australian Human Rights Commission, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples and Reconciliation Australia – and the many organisations and individuals who lodged submissions, participated in consultations or helped the Expert Panel with their research.

Throughout 2011, the Expert Panel led a wide ranging national public consultation and engagement program.

They talked to more than 4,600 people, in more than 250 meetings in 84 locations across the country, and received more than 3,500 submissions.

The panel also sought extensive advice from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders and constitutional experts, and gathered data through research and surveys.

The Government was pleased to receive the Expert Panel’s findings in January this year.

For the first time, we now have specific proposals on how to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution.

The Government agrees with the Expert Panel on the importance of holding a referendum at a time when it has the most chance of success.

We do not underestimate the challenge of achieving nation-wide consensus. Change will not happen without support from across the political spectrum and the support of the majority of Australians.

And we are working with local organisations to build a movement for change.

The Government is investing $10 million to help build public awareness and community support for change. This important work is being led by Reconciliation Australia, supported by a reference group of business and community leaders.

This funding is supporting community groups and activities across the country, giving Australians the opportunity to learn more about constitutional recognition.

We do recognise that there is not yet enough community awareness or support for change to hold a successful referendum at or before the next federal election.

The Act of Recognition that will be established by this Bill will continue to help build the momentum we need for successful constitutional change.

The Act of Recognition will largely reflect the introduction to recommendation 3 of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians.

The Act makes a clear statement of recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first inhabitants of Australia, and acknowledges their unique history, culture and connection to their traditional lands and waters.

To allow all of us here in this Parliament to show our support for these truths.

And through our support, to build awareness and support in the wider community.

To maintain momentum towards a referendum, a sunset provision in the Bill limits the effect of the Act to two years. The sunset date ensures that legislative recognition does not become entrenched at the expense of continued progress towards constitutional change.

The sunset provision will provide an impetus for a future Parliament to reassess how the campaign for change is travelling, and the appropriate timing for a successful referendum.

The Bill also provides for a review to consider and advise a future Parliament on proposals to submit to a referendum, based on the work already done by the Expert Panel. The review will identify which of those proposals are likely to receive the support of the Australian people, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

A report from the review will be given to the Minister by six months before the sunset date of the Bill and be tabled in Parliament.

The report will also set out a process for Parliament to consider the next steps towards the ultimate goal of constitutional recognition.

It is important to recognise that this Bill is not a substitute for constitutional recognition. Legislation is not the appropriate forum to address all of the recommendations of the Expert Panel for constitutional change.

We are pleased that there is a strong commitment across the Parliament to supporting this Bill.

We know how crucial cross-party support is to the success of a referendum. We all share the determination to make sure that we continue to build momentum towards a successful referendum that unites and strengthens our community.

It is in this spirit that the Government has agreed to establish a Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

The Committee has been asked to consider this Bill as its first order of business.

The Committee will then work to build a secure, strong multi partisan parliamentary consensus around the timing and specific content of referendum proposals for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The Committee will also engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the broader community to secure their support for specific referendum proposals for constitutional recognition.

The Government believes a successful referendum will help create strong, respectful relations between Indigenous and non -Indigenous Australians.

The National Apology to Indigenous Australians, the Stolen Generations in particular, helped build a bridge of respect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. It generated trust, so we could work together to tackle Indigenous disadvantage.

The recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution is another step in that journey, and one that is critical to our efforts to close the gap.

The Australian Constitution is the foundation document for our laws and our government, but it is silent on the special place of our first Australians.

The Government is pleased that today this Parliament is taking an important step towards changing that situation.

Towards a successful referendum that unites and strengthens our nation.