Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Opening remarks at the National Indigenous Labor Network event, ALP National Conference

Location: Darling Harbour Convention Centre, Sydney

E & OE – Proof only

Thank you Warren [Mundine, Chair of the National Indigenous Labor Network].

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.

I’d also like to acknowledge my fellow panelist:

  • Warren, who has done such a great job as the Chair of the National Indigenous Labor Network, and
  • The other members of the National Indigenous Labor Network with us today.

It’s a great pleasure to be here today.

Today is a very special day — the Chapter of our National Platform passed just yesterday states, clearly and unequivocally states our support, as a party and as a movement, for the recognition of Indigenous Australians in our nation’s Constitution.

Rebuilding the relationship with Indigenous Australians

Indigenous Australians 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 shared nature, both past and present.

And yet our nation’s Constitution remains silent on this special place.

We have learned the importance of staying silent no more.

When Kevin Rudd delivered the National Apology as the first order of business of this Labor Government in 2008, he ended the silence.

And we have learned that an end to silence is the start of coming together.

Sorry was the first word.

Many more words have flowed since then — words that have been matched by actions.

Matched with new efforts and a new determination to close the gap on Indigenous disadvantage.

A new determination to build not only for today, but for tomorrow as well — for the first time, built to last.

We have learned through this work the importance of respect and understanding, the importance of partnership.

Without working in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we cannot hope to achieve the change we all want to see.

The change that Indigenous people tell me that they want to see, for themselves and for their children.

In 2007, our progress as a nation and a people towards reconciliation had stalled.

In government, our work has been about rebuilding this relationship, as it has been about delivering real change on the ground.

New classrooms, new health services, new houses and a new partnership.

We established the Healing Foundation to provide practical support to Indigenous Australians to address the trauma of forced removals.

We have supported the establishment of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples to provide a united voice for Indigenous Australians in our national debate.

And we have convened an Expert Panel to provide recommendations on the recognition of Indigenous Australians in our Constitution.

Labor’s support for an Expert Panel

This Government convened the Expert Panel because we believe that Indigenous Australians should be recognised in our nation’s Constitution.

This document — the foundation for our laws and our government — is silent on the place of our First Australians.

And therefore fails to reflect our modern nation, borne from the past and ready to carry us into the future.

The special place Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people hold in our shared nation should be recognised in our Constitution.

And their contribution — past and present — to our shared nation should be celebrated.

Because if we want to tackle Indigenous disadvantage, if we want to break down the barriers for change, we must break down the barriers between us.

Breaking down these barriers requires more than acceptance.

It requires respect and acknowledgement. That the first Australians are valued in our society, in our country — and that this value is publicly celebrated.

Recognised. Valued. And Celebrated.

Constitutional recognition

The first steps to recognising Indigenous Australians in the Constitution was taken just over 12 months ago, when the Prime Minister announced an Expert Panel to consider, consult and advise.

Chaired by Mark Leibler and Patrick Dodson, and including parliamentarians of all persuasions, and experts like Megan [Davis, Panel Member], the Panel has spent this year conducting consultations with Australians from all walks of life, right around the country.

A year on, the Panel is in the final stages of preparing their report, which they will present to Government in January next year.

The Panel asked for another month to prepare their report, originally due at the end of this year, to give due consideration to the many consultations and contributions they have received through the course of this year.

The Panel has reached out to people — in person, online and through the press and through representative bodies — to talk about the importance of constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians, and to get a sense of how this might be done.

They are considering advice from constitutional experts.

And they are preparing advice with all of us — as Australians — in mind.

This is essential.

Like ending the silence on the word ‘sorry’, constitutional change can bring us together.

It can help us to build a strong foundation for a shared future — but only if it is a step that we, as Australians, take together.

Constitutional change in Australia is not a task undertaken lightly, or easily achieved.

In the last 110 years, of the 44 amendments proposed to the Constitution at referenda, only eight have been successful.

One of these eight was in 1967, where the Australian people voted to treat Indigenous Australians as equal under our Constitution.

More than 90 per cent of Australians voted to support this change in what was a watershed moment in our nation’s history.

The path forward

43 years on, we believe it’s time to work towards the same sense of national unity, national consensus that we saw in 1967.

It’s time to look to the future.

We know from experience that when it comes to constitutional reform, the devil is in the detail.

Too often we have seen debates derailed or sidetracked by particular proposals.

But Constitutional change is also a very specific process — we don’t change the words of the framework of our nation’s system of law and governance without serious consideration.

The Panel is considering this issue very seriously, and will put forward options in their report.

It’s up to us all to consider these, and to work together to build consensus.

It’s up to all of us — governments, Indigenous people, all Australians.

Change doesn’t happen for Indigenous people without a partnership, one that extends beyond government.

We’ve seen change in Indigenous employment because Indigenous people, governments, schools and businesses have come together to create it.

We’ve seen change in health services because Indigenous people, governments, community organisations and health providers have come together to create it.

And we will see change in our Constitution if we can all come together to create it.

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

I’m looking forward to receiving the report of the Expert Panel, and I’m looking forward to working with each of you as we build a national consensus for change.

Thank you.