Dec 5, 2018

Constitutional Recognition Relating to ATSIP Committees Report – Uluru Statement from the Heart – Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (11:43):  It is appropriate that I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which this parliament meets and pay my respect to elders past and present. I am very pleased to take the opportunity to speak to this report of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I believe that our Constitution is inadequate while ever the First Australians are not recognised in it. We recognised the rights of Indigenous Australians to be citizens in the famous referendum in 1967, but we need to take the next step—it’s absolutely critical.

Last May, 250 First Nations leaders met at Uluru. They delivered a historic document, the Statement from the Heart. It is a powerful document, and it included the following powerful passage:

We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.

Indeed, those of us who are the descendants of migrants, which is all of us except First Nations people, benefit enormously from the fact that we have, in our midst, the oldest continuous civilisation on the planet. It is something that we should cherish. It is something we should recognise.

Something that we should acknowledge is that the arrival of Europeans in 1788 brought violence, disease and hardship on those people who had been here for 60,000 years previously. We should also acknowledge how we’re enriched by that culture. The connection that First Nations people have with the land and with water is something that we can learn a great deal from, so Labor very much accepts the Statement from the Heart. We support a voice to parliament and we support constitutional change.

When the 250 First Nations leaders delivered the Statement from the Heart, the then Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull, simply dismissed the call for a constitutional voice. He told the ABC:

I don’t believe that would be able to be passed at a referendum and it’s not a policy that I would support.

Instead of committing himself to listening to First Nations people, to showing leadership for our nation, his government mounted a scare campaign about so-called third chambers of parliament and rejected the proposal out of hand. That was tragic. It followed, and was reminiscent of, the Howard government’s failed recognition of an apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people—an apology that was famously delivered by Kevin Rudd at the first opportunity after the election of a Labor government. As the Leader of the House of Representatives in that government, that was my proudest moment—my proudest moment, bar none.

Around the country, far from it being a time of division, it was a unifying moment in our nation’s history. People, whether they were members of the stolen generation or young kids in every school around the country, stopped to watch that apology. They were inspired by that moment.

That was important, but it was, as then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said at the time, just a first step. He said that we needed to commit to practical reconciliation, closing the gaps—in some cases extremely large gaps—between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their fellow Australians that still exist in education, health and other outcomes.

The voice to parliament could also be a unifying moment. It’s not a third chamber; it plays no role in the legislative process in terms of making law. It is simply what the title implies: a voice whereby First Nations people would be consulted on legislation that affects them. It would provide a structure for that consultation and input. It wouldn’t determine what way any one of the 150 members of the House of Representatives or 76 senators would vote on legislation, but it would allow for appropriate democratic input. That is why it is critical. That is why we have committed to consulting with First Nations people to design the voice to parliament. That is why Labor’s response has been worked up with the input particularly of Senator Patrick Dodson, widely regarded as the father of reconciliation in this country; Linda Burney, my long-time colleague and friend; Senator Malarndirri McCarthy; Warren Snowdon, the member for Lingiari; and Luke Gosling, who’s here in the chamber, the member for Solomon. They have all worked very hard to consult and to establish a process moving forward.

This report is part of that process. It is keeping the fight for constitutional recognition alive in this parliament, despite the inaction of the government. But there is much more to do. That’s why we’re committed to additional reforms proposed by the Statement from the Heart—in particular the makarrata commission for agreement making and truth-telling. That’s why we remain committed to closing the gap.

I said in this place on the 10th anniversary of the apology:

Of course, the apology was not the end of the story; it was just the beginning … it was just a step on the road to reconciliation.

I believed that then and I believe that today. The national apology was a step on this road, closing the gap means more steps on this road, and constitutional recognition is a vital step in us truly coming together as a nation. On this side of the house, Labor is committed to continuing on this journey. I know that across the parliament there are many people of goodwill who are also committed to this journey. I believe we need to advance it because it’s in the interests not just of First Nations peoples but of each and every Australian and those generations to come.