Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians

I spoke in parliament today in favour of a bill that will progress the constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill, 7 February 2013

We speak a lot in this House about Indigenous gaps. Yesterday we heard the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition speak eloquently about the gaps in life expectancy, educational attainment and employment between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. It is important to focus on those gaps, but it is also important to have a sense of optimism and pride in Australia's Indigenous heritage. As the member for Throsby noted earlier in this debate, it is great and exciting to know that we have in this country a people whose association with the land goes back tens of thousands of years. Maintaining that sense of excitement and living alongside people with the longest continuing link to their land is a great thing. This bill in some sense recognises our pride in Australia's Indigenous heritage. That Indigenous heritage involves maintaining a multiplicity of languages. As the member for Blair noted, there has been a decline in Indigenous language knowledge over recent years, and that is important to redress because language is culture—it maintains your links with generations gone by.

There is a terrific book called Stories of the Ngunnawal which talks about some of the Indigenous elders and significant members of the Indigenous community here in the ACT. One of those stories is about Carl Brown who was born in 1952. He said that he knows a few words in traditional language. Instead of asking, 'Who's the person?' there is a word for it: 'boothm'. He said that if a person is silly they call them 'murinj', they call tucker 'dungaan' and they call a dog 'mirigung'. He said his parents spoke traditional language like he does but they knew more words—he said they would have had to. He notes that Indigenous language knowledge has declined since the previous generation. You can sense in his story a little sadness at the loss of language. We need to maintain those languages, just as we need to attain this important symbolic recognition in the Constitution.

Next Wednesday will mark the fifth anniversary of Australia's apology to Indigenous Australians—the moment when a Labor government stood up and said, long overdue, that we were sorry for the wrongs of past governments; we were sorry to the children who were ripped from families, to the communities that were broken, and to the generations that suffered and whose pain remained unacknowledged by many governments for too many years.

The apology was driven by an understanding that words alone could not undo the works of the past and words alone would not absolve us from future actions in closing the gap. It was a symbol. Stolen generations elder Aunty Lorraine Peeters said it was a 'symbol of the hope we place in the new relationship you wish to forge with our people'.

This bill will be another important step towards strengthening this relationship, recognising that Indigenous peoples hold the unique place of being Australia's first peoples, and establishing an act of recognition that will be a step on the longer path to constitutional recognition. Once this bill become law it will promote community engagement with the issue and assist in building a national consensus.

When we come to a referendum, there are few more tragic things one could imagine than for a referendum on constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians to be defeated. The track record of referenda is not good—eight out of 44—so we need community consensus. The Gillard government agrees with the expert panel's recommendation that we need to hold a referendum at a time when its chance of success would be highest. We know, too, from history that with those defeated referenda sometimes the questions do not come back for the best part of a generation afterwards. At the time of the referendum on four-year terms there was talk that if it were defeated it might be returned in some other form. That was 1988 and we have not had anything since. There was talk at the time of the republican referendum that if that model were defeated another could easily be put to the Australian people a few years later. That was 1999 and a lot of water has passed under the bridge since. Reconciliation Australia has reported that while the idea of a referendum within Indigenous communities, fewer than one-third of non-Indigenous Australians are aware of the discussions. So it does suggest that we need to continue ripening the fruit of constitutional recognition before we reach to the tree and try to pick it.

This bill is a reflection of the Labor approach to Indigenous policy. In talking about the Labor tradition I want to recognise, as previous speakers such as the members for Aston and Hasluck have, that there have been important steps taken by the coalition. Many of the great steps have been bipartisan. But as a Labor member I do take particular pride in some of the steps that have been taken with compassion, with justice and with respect by leaders of my own party. Gough Whitlam championed Indigenous issues in his 1972 campaign. He spoke of:

‘… one group of Australians who have been denied their basic rights to the pursuit of happiness, to liberty and indeed to life itself for 180 years—since the very time when Europeans in the New World first proclaimed those rights as inalienable for all mankind.’

That was the approach that Prime Minister Whitlam took when he upgraded the Office of Aboriginal Affairs to the ministerial level, after he was elected. It was the approach he took when pushing for the Racial Discrimination Act, in 1975. It was the approach he took when he supported the findings of the royal commission into Indigenous land rights, and it was the approach that became law with the passing of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. It was the approach also taken by another Labor Prime Minister, Paul Keating, when, 20 years later, he said in Redfern Park:

‘… we cannot confidently say that we have succeeded as we would like to have succeeded if we have not managed to extend opportunity and care, dignity and hope to the Indigenous people of Australia—the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people.’

That again articulated the Labor approach of compassion, justice, progress and respect. It is with that approach that we have to continue working hard and seeing results in strengthening communities.

My predecessors in the seat of Fraser probably never would have attended an event at which a traditional elder engaged in a welcome to country ceremony. Now welcome to country ceremonies are a normal part of formal events in the ACT, and the parliament begins every day with an acknowledgment that it sits on Ngunnawal and Ngambri land. I also have the honour to represent the Wreck Bay community in Jervis Bay, and there the Wreck Bay Aboriginal Community Council has an elected executive.

We are investing in Indigenous education with over 200 additional teachers employed in remote community schools and supporting a school nutrition program that provides meals every day to around 5,000 children in remote Territory schools. We are improving funding for primary health care services in remote communities and also supporting Indigenous health centres such as Winnunga Nimmityjah here in Canberra. Recognising that rates of ear infections and oral health problems are higher in Indigenous communities, we are putting in place the Remote Area Health Corps and a mobile outreach program for Indigenous communities. Recognising issues of community safety, we have funded the continuing employment of 60 additional Northern Territory police officers working in 18 remote communities.

One way of thinking of much of what is happening in the Northern Territory is that at its heart it is about ensuring that children are able to attend school. That means you need to have housing right, you need to have health right, you need to have safe communities and you need to have communities with a commitment to learning.

After school, we are also recognising that it is important to provide additional employment opportunities. Our government has created 50 additional Aboriginal ranger positions. We have offered up to 100 local traineeships for people in remote communities and provided a job guarantee to young people completing year 12 in Territory growth towns.

I see much of this when I visit the Wreck Bay community, and people there speak about their pride of the work that is being done in the Booderee National Park. Taking care of country is something that Indigenous peoples have done for tens of thousands of years, and supporting the work of Indigenous people working in national parks is absolutely vital.

It is also important that we ensure that Australia's public service looks like the community it serves, so I want to acknowledge the work that has been done by the Community and Public Sector Union on making sure the government stays on track for our target to increase Indigenous employment in the Australian Public Service to a target of 2.7 per cent by 2015. This was an issue that was brought to my attention when the local Community and Public Sector Union moved a motion at the last ACT Labor Party branch meeting which noted that the State of the Service Report 2010-11 had found a decrease in Indigenous employees from 3,383 to 3,2036—a four per cent drop and the first fall in the number of Indigenous public servants since 2010.

I believe that maintaining Indigenous employment in the Public Service is important not only as a way of making sure that Indigenous Australians have jobs but it is also important as a way of ensuring that the decisions that come out of the public sector are right for all Australians. So I have been working over recent months with ministers and speaking with them directly about the strategies that they are employing in order to boost Indigenous representation in the Public Service through programs that range from mentoring to providing apprenticeships, training programs, links with universities and making sure that Indigenous Australians are attracted to and retained by the public sector.

That is a high priority for me and something that I fear may be threatened were those opposite to come into power. They speak very eloquently on the importance of Indigenous Australians playing a role in public life, but a policy that would see 20,000 public servants lose their jobs is almost surely a policy that would also see fewer Indigenous Australians employed in the Public Service.

A constitutional statement of recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people—particularly noting their culture, their history and their connection to the land—a removal of references to race in reflection of Australia's rejection of discrimination and belief in equality, and an acknowledgement that we need to make further efforts in closing the gaps in Indigenous disadvantage are an important part of what we are working towards. Reconciliation Australia and the You Me Unity reference group have been spearheading this push, and I am confident that—with more time and more work—compassion, justice, progress and respect will prevail and we will be able to hold a successful referendum.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

Stay in touch

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter


Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.