Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill

constitutional_recognition.jpgMr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (10:56): I am very pleased to follow the member for Aston and commend him on the fine words that he said and pass onto him, his family and his friends our sympathy for the loss of their friend but also the loss to the nation of somebody who has been so active in this area—law and policy.

There was something very poetic in an historical sense that yesterday, as the Prime Minister stood in the House delivering the fifth Closing the Gap statement on behalf of the Australian government, parliament and people, our friends across the ditch were celebrating Waitangi Day, a national public holiday. Waitangi Day celebrates the fact that in 1860 the people of Aotearoa commenced their first act of reconciliation by signing a treaty with their first people. Of course, we have no such treaty, and there is no proposition by this government in the current process to sign such a treaty. But we are embarked on a process of reconciliation, and the bill before the House today is an important reminder of that.

Reconciliation, as the member for Aston has said, involves dealing with the very real, palpable and daily issues that are confronted by Aboriginal men and women and their children living in communities throughout Australia, and the disadvantages that they face in just about every area of life, particularly economic disadvantage—and we are doing what we can to close the gap on that disadvantage. It also involves taking the very important, if you like, symbolic step of recognition—recognition of the past; recognition of the proper place of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women; and recognising that in the most important way that we can.

It has been a long March since 1788 and we have gone through many iterations as colonial and federal legislatures in dealing with the issue of reconciliation and recognition—from denial and removal and actions which have been described by some as an attempt to remove and eradicate Aboriginal people of this country to policies which could be described in no other way than perhaps well meaning, but certainly paternalistic, and a long way from what we now understand to be the proper precepts of self-determination.

If there were a turning point in this debate and policy formulation process, I think most people would chart it from the 1967 referendum and the switch in the national consciousness that that referendum represented. It would be remiss for any member representing Throsby or any of the Illawarra suburbs to make reference to the 1967 referendum and not in the same breath make reference to some of the pioneers for Aboriginal advancement that were organising around the Aboriginal Advancement League of the South Coast. Great people such as Freddie Moore, who still is an activist for Aboriginal causes in the Illawarra and the many other aunties, uncles and activists from the Dharawal, the Gundangara and the Allowrie people in the Illawarra who played an important part as part of the national campaign to ensure that the Constitution was changed.

From the 1967 referendum, we saw recognition through the native title acts in the Northern Territory and other statutory forms of recognition throughout the decades. As the Prime Minister quite eloquently put it yesterday, she referred to Gough Whitlam pouring soil and Bob Hawke handing back Uluru to the first people of this country. It strikes me that we have made significant advances in some respects when I know that my children will never use the words 'Ayers Rock'. In fact, they do not know what Ayers Rock is but they do know, however, what Uluru is, so we have made some steps particularly in the area of education when we reflect upon that.

There is a phenomena in politics that is known as the Kennedy moment—something that the baby boomers can reflect upon. It is the fact that everyone of that generation can remember exactly where they were and what they were doing the moment they learnt that President Kennedy had been assassinated. For me, and perhaps for many like me in my generation, we have a Mabo moment. I can remember exactly where I was and exactly what I was doing when the High Court handed down its historic decision in 1982 in relation to the Mabo dispute. In my view, it was the second turning point in this important process of reconciliation. It overthrew the historic lie of terra nullius and said that, from a legal point of view, we could no longer deny the ancient connection and the ancient rights that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had in this country.

So the step that we are embarking upon today has a long history. The statutory recognition by this parliament of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is an important step. There is an important history. The government established a process of consultation with the Australian community, and it was an important consultation process, to work out the best way of ensuring that we could get constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Any student of law knows that there has not been a fantastic strike rate when it comes to constitutional change in this country, and I think it was an act of great maturity on behalf of the expert panel and those advising them to say that, whilst we are firmly committed to constitutional change, we should not do that in a way or at a time unless we can ensure that we are going to get success in that constitutional referendum.

So the expert panel's report recommends that we do proceed with constitutional change but that this statutory recognition is a first step in that process.

It is an important step. It does not stand alone from the other important initiatives that this government has embarked upon, such as ensuring that we can close the gap on Indigenous disadvantage. But it is important nonetheless, just as the 1967 referendum, the High Court decision in Mabo and subsequent High Court decisions were certainly legal, and in some respects symbolic. They also kick-started a national debate about how white Australia could come to terms with our past and our relationship—the important relationship—with our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters. This is an important piece of legislation. It is great to see that it has support from all members in this place.

I would like to conclude my contribution to the debate by reflecting on the words that are used at citizenship ceremonies, which I regularly attend as part of my function as a member of parliament. I often reflect upon words from the second verse of our national anthem—the lesser sung verse—that say:

For those who've come across the seas

We've boundless plains to share,

The important thing is that, when white people got here, those plains were not empty. They were occupied by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have lived and practised a culture in this country for over 30,000 years—some say probably more like 70,000 years. That is a claim that can be made in no other place on earth. There is no other place on earth where people can say that they live in a land that has been occupied by people who have continuously practised a culture for over 30,000 years. That is something that all Australians should embrace and be proud of, and as we learn from each other and embark upon the process of reconciliation, I firmly believe that we will become a better place, a greater place, and a place that we, as a united and reconciled Australia, can be very, very proud of. I commend the legislation to the House.