Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Handover of the report of the Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples

Location: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

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Thank you Aunty Matilda. I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to their Elders, past and present.

Welcome to you all here today.

I acknowledge:

  • Prime Minister Julia Gillard,
  • Ron Radford [Director of the National Gallery of Australia],
  • Parliamentary colleagues, including Senator Rachel Seiwert and Rob Oakeshott, and
  • Members of the Expert Panel, including Co-Chairs Mark Leibler and Pat Dodson who I will introduce shortly.

I’d also like to acknowledge the young freedom riders who are with us today — it is wonderful to see so many young faces that will be part of the journey of change that has begun.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people hold a very special place in our nation – as custodians of the oldest continuing cultures in the world, and of our land, and for their contributions to our nation, both past and present.

And yet our nation’s Constitution – the foundation document for our laws and our government – is silent on this legacy, is silent on this ongoing contribution to our shared nation.

Four years ago, when the Parliament of Australia said sorry for past injustices and when Australians right around the country gathered in public spaces, in schools in workplaces and in front of our Parliament itself, we ended the silence in our nation.

We reflected on the past, so that we could look to the future.

The strength we drew as a nation from coming together to say sorry helped build a relationship that renewed our determination to work together to close the gap on Indigenous disadvantage.

A relationship based on mutual respect and on mutual responsibility.

The responsibility we all bear – governments, Aboriginal people and and Torres Strait Islanders, all Australians – to close the gap.

And the respect with which we undertake this task, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their special place in our nation.

But the silence remains in our nation’s founding document, our Constitution. Ending this silence – as we ended the silence as part of the apology – is a mark of respect. It allows us to continue to build stronger relationships.

While today marks an important step towards recognition, the work hasn’t just started today.
We know that this is something that many Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, have debated for a long time.

A year ago, we started the formal process, when we set up an Expert Panel of Indigenous and community leaders, constitutional experts, and parliamentary members, to advise us on how best to recognise Indigenous Australians in our Constitution.

In the past year, the Panel has 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.

Each of these, a conversation about ending the silence and about looking to the future.

I congratulate the Panel, including co-chairs Mark Leibler and Professor Patrick Dodson for their dedication and tireless work over the past year. It has been a tremendous task which has helped build a strong foundation for change.

And this report will provide the foundation for many more conversations right across the country. The work does not end here.

We know that change will not happen without the support of the majority of Australians.

It will not happen without more conversations – across kitchen tables and around barbeques, in workplaces and neighbourhoods, cities and towns in every state and territory.

And it will not happen without Australians saying yes to change, to being a part of change.

I know that the Members of the Panel, who are passionate advocates for change, will continue to be part of this important work, as we continue build understanding and support for change.

Reconciliation Australia will continue their advocacy, building practical reconciliation through this process for change.

From today, Australians can be a part of change through the You Me Unity website by clicking on the ‘Show your support for Constitutional Recognition’ button.

I encourage everyone to take this first small step to change.

The recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our Constitution will be an enduring public acknowledgement of our history and of the significant contribution that Indigenous Australians continue to make to our nation.

We have a long road ahead of us, but if we do this the right way, it can be a road to reconciliation.

Thank you.

I would now like to hand over to the Panel Co-Chairs Patrick Dodson and Mark Leibler.