A Bill recognising the “unique and special place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples” has been passed by the House of Representatives.
The Bill is a step on the path to constitutional recognition. Its passage came on the fifth anniversary of the Apology to the Stolen Generations.
The Bill received unanimous support in the House. The text of speeches by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin are provided below.
Statement from the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard
Act of Recognition Passes
Australia has moved closer towards constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with the Act of Recognition passing the House of Representatives today.
The Prime Minister was joined in the House by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and community leaders to mark this significant step towards a referendum.
The Bill recognises the unique and special place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
This reflects wording suggested by the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, whose significant report has put in place the foundations to enable us to progress constitutional recognition.
Today also marks the fifth anniversary of the National Apology.
On 13 February 2008, we said sorry to Indigenous Australians, in particular the Stolen Generations, for past wrongs.
We apologised for the pain and suffering and hurt that successive policies had inflicted on Indigenous Australians for more than two centuries.
This was the first step in building a reconciled Australia with relationships based on mutual respect and understanding.
The recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution is another part of this journey.
This Australian Government is committed to meaningful constitutional reform that reflects the hopes and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
The Bill passed today includes a sunset date of two years to allow the campaign for change to continue to build momentum and ensure the focus remains on the ultimate goal of a successful referendum.
A review will be carried out 12 months after the Bill is enacted to consider levels of community support for amending the Constitution and proposals for constitutional change.
The Gillard Government has committed $10 million towards a campaign being led by Reconciliation Australia to continue to build support for constitutional change.
The Government agrees with the findings of the Expert Panel that a referendum should be held at a time when it has the most chance of success.
The Government encourages all Australians to get involved in building support for constitutional change by visiting www.recognise.org.au
Text of the Aborigianl and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012
No. , 2012
(Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs / Attorney-General)
A Bill for an Act to provide for the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and for related purposes
1………… Short title………………………………………………………………………………… 2
2………… Commencement……………………………………………………………………….. 2
3………… Recognition…………………………………………………………………………….. 2
4………… Review of support for a referendum to amend the Constitution………. 3
5………… Sunset provision……………………………………………………………………… 3
A Bill for an Act to provide for the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and for related purposes
This preamble sets out considerations taken into account by the Parliament of Australia in enacting the law that follows.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were the first inhabitants of Australia.
The Parliament is committed to placing before the Australian people at a referendum a proposal for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The Parliament acknowledges the important work of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their proposals for constitutional change.
The Parliament recognises that further engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians is required to refine proposals for a referendum and to build the support necessary for successful constitutional change.
The Parliament is committed to building the national consensus needed for the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our Constitution.
The Parliament believes this Act is a significant step in the process towards achieving constitutional change.
The Parliament of Australia enacts:
1 Short title
This Act may be cited as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Act 2012 .
This Act commences on the day after this Act receives the Royal Assent.
(1) The Parliament, on behalf of the people of Australia, recognises that the continent and the islands now known as Australia were first occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
(2) The Parliament, on behalf of the people of Australia, acknowledges the continuing relationship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with their traditional lands and waters.
(3) The Parliament, on behalf of the people of Australia, acknowledges and respects the continuing cultures, languages and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
4 Review of support for a referendum to amend the Constitution
(1) The Minister must cause a review to commence within 12 months after the commencement of this Act.
(2) Those undertaking the review must:
(a) consider the readiness of the Australian public to support a referendum to amend the Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; and
(b) consider proposals for constitutional change to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people taking into account the work of:
(i) the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; and
(ii) Reconciliation Australia; and
(c) identify which of those proposals would be most likely to obtain the support of the Australian people; and
(d) consider the levels of support for amending the Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples amongst:
(i) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; and
(ii) the wider Australian public; and
(iii) the Governments of the States and Territories; and
(e) give the Minister a written report of the review at least 6 months prior to the day this Act ceases to have effect.
(3) The Minister must cause a copy of the report of the review to be tabled in each House of the Parliament within 15 sitting days of that House after the day the report is given to the Minister.
5 Sunset provision
This Act ceases to have effect at the end of 2 years after its commencement.
Note: The 2 year sunset period in this section will provide Parliament and the Australian people with a date by which to consider further the readiness of Australians to approve a referendum to amend the Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Speech by Prime Minister Julia Gillard in the House of Representatives.
Ms GILLARD (Lalor—Prime Minister) (09:31): This parliament is the gathering place of our nation’s representatives, but we stand on land that was from time immemorial the gathering place of the Ngunawal people. So I speak here today, as I always do, in a spirit of friendship and respect for the First Australians and with honour to elders past and present. I am also conscious that on this special anniversary we acknowledge the courage that enabled Kevin Rudd to offer the apology and the generosity of spirit that enabled Indigenous Australians to accept it. We are only able to consider this act of recognition and constitutional change—the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012—because the apology came first.
The Constitution of our Commonwealth came into force on 1 January 1901. It was the start of a new century and a new year. Alfred Deakin wrote:
Never on this side of the world was there a New Year’s Day with such high expectations.
Those expectations were high because with the Constitution had come Australia’s birth as a nation. But not all our people shared those expectations. In the decade of deliberation that created our Constitution, there were conventions and debates across the land, but there is no record of any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person taking part. Indigenous people did not ordain our Constitution or contribute to its drafting. They had no opportunity to vote for it, and yet all were affected by what it said and what it failed to say. They were affected by provisions that even by the standards of the time seem questionable and strike us now as harsh and inhumane. But they were also affected by the great Australian silence which fell upon our founding document, because among the 128 sections of the Constitution there is no acknowledgement of Australia’s first peoples—no mention of their dispossession, their proud and ancient cultures, their profound connection to the land or the unhealed wound that even now lies open at the heart of our national story.
In 1967, the people of Australia sought restitution and repair, but their work was incomplete. Today a new generation dreams of finishing the job with the same idealism and the same means—not through protests or lawsuits but by this parliament summoning every Australian elector to a referendum and there, in the sanctity of the polling booth, to inscribe their agreement to a successful constitutional amendment.
On that day, as the polls close and the ballots are counted, individual assent will merge into a collective ‘yes’. In that way, we will forge an accord, bipartisan and unanimous, to right an old and grievous wrong—a step that will take us further on the path of reconciliation than we have ever ventured before.
Voting is the solemn act of our democratic order, but amending the Constitution is even more profound because it occurs so rarely and succeeds more rarely still. At the election of 2007, it seemed that the prospect of constitutional recognition was very close at hand, supported as it was by both major parties. But, in difficult and volatile times, we have not found the settled space in our national conversation to make the promised referendum a reality. So the government has advanced this bill for an act of recognition, to assure Indigenous people that our purpose of amendment remains unbroken and to prepare the wider community for the responsibility that lies ahead. This bill is thus an act of preparation and anticipation. In this legislation, we—the nation’s 226 legislators—will serve as proxies for Australia’s 14 million voters, bridging the time between now and referendum day. That is why this bill has a sunset clause of two years: so that the 44th Parliament can achieve what the 42nd and 43rd have been unable to do.
This bill was introduced by my friend and colleague the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and has two main purposes. First, it acknowledges in law that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the first inhabitants of this nation. It acknowledges that they occupied this land from time immemorial. They honoured and cared for it, and do so to this day. Second, this bill seeks to foster momentum for a referendum for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The bill gives the parliament some of the tools it will need to build the necessary momentum for constitutional change. These include a new legislative requirement for a review of public support for a referendum to be tabled here in parliament six months before any referendum bill is proposed.
The bill and the referendum to come are closely informed by the work of the expert panel—itself an outstanding example of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians working together. The expert panel’s report was informed by intensive consultations across the nation, from Sydney to Ceduna, Longreach to Launceston. That work gives us the solid foundation upon which to build parliamentary and community consensus. I again thank the expert panel, ably co-chaired by Patrick Dodson and Mark Leibler, for its important work, and I acknowledge the panel members who are present here today. But, ultimately, a referendum bill will be the creation of this parliament, so I also commend the work to date of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples—and I look forward to their continued work in the months ahead to prepare the way for the parliament, most likely in the course of 2014, to debate and pass the referendum bill.
This is critical work because it will require all of us in this parliament to find consensus around the wording and the content of the proposed constitutional amendment. The work of preparation is timely and vital, but, ultimately, recognition is not a matter for politicians or experts. Instead, the Constitution belongs to the people; it was created by them, it serves them and it can be amended by them alone. This is a task in which all Australians must share.
I do believe the community is willing to embrace the justice of this campaign, because Australians understand that Indigenous culture and history are a source of pride for all of us. But I also believe that their goodwill needs to be galvanised. Some of the work of building consensus is being led by the joint select committee. Some of the work is being led by Reconciliation Australia and other organisations that are building grassroots support for change. The government is investing $10 million in this community based work, but most of all the push for change is increasingly being led by ordinary Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.
This morning I met with some remarkable young Indigenous leaders who are deeply engaged in the campaign for recognition, men and women who were not born in 1967 but who share the spirit and optimism of those days. They will be among the many Australians actively working in communities around the nation in coming weeks and months. I trust that we will be out there too, every one of us in our electorates doing the same, campaigning with optimism, campaigning with hope. The experience of 1967 gives us abundant cause for such hope. In an era when the nation was perhaps less open and socially aware than our own time, the ballot yielded the highest yes-vote ever recorded in an Australian referendum, almost 91 per cent. I believe we can do it again.
This year the youngest voters of that referendum are turning 67. I hope they will soon be able to return to the ballot box, perhaps with their children and grandchildren, and again make history. After all, a foundation document is more than just a set of rules and procedures. It can articulate a nation’s sense of itself. But our nation cannot articulate such a sense of self when there are still great unanswered questions in our midst. How do we share this land and on what terms? How adequate are our national laws and symbols to express our history and our hopes for the future?
We must never feel guilt for the things already done in this nation’s history, but we can and must feel responsibility for the things that remain undone. No gesture speaks more deeply to the healing of our nation’s fabric than amending our nation’s founding charter, so I commend this bill to the House as a deed of reconciliation in its own right and as a sign of good faith for the referendum to come. We are bound to each other in this land and always will be. Let us be bound in justice and dignity as well.
Speech by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott in the House of Representatives.
Mr ABBOTT (Warringah—Leader of the Opposition) (09:43): I rise to follow the fine speech of the Prime Minister and I really am pleased to have this chance to join with her in supporting this bill. Australia is a blessed country. Our climate, our land, our people, our institutions rightly make us the envy of the earth, except for one thing—we have never fully made peace with the First Australians. This is the stain on our soul that Prime Minister Keating so movingly evoked at Redfern 21 years ago. We have to acknowledge that pre-1788 this land was as Aboriginal then as it is Australian now. Until we have acknowledged that we will be an incomplete nation and a torn people. We only have to look across the Tasman to see how it could have been done so much better. Thanks to the Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand two peoples became one nation.
So our challenge is to do now in these times what should have been done 200 or 100 years ago to acknowledge Aboriginal people in our country’s foundation document. In short, we need to atone for the omissions and for the hardness of heart of our forebears to enable us all to embrace the future as a united people.
Let us acknowledge that there have already been two big milestones on our national journey to healing: the 1967 referendum and the national apology, the fifth anniversary of which we mark today. So I want to acknowledge and honour all the people who have brought us thus far. I acknowledge Harold Holt and Gough Whitlam, who sponsored the 1967 referendum. I honour Kevin Rudd and Brendan Nelson, who together made the national apology. I acknowledge my predecessor as coalition leader, former Prime Minister John Howard, who first sought to acknowledge Indigenous people in the 1999 referendum bid. I particularly acknowledge and thank Pat Dodson, Mark Leibler and other members of the expert panel whose work began the process that today’s bill takes forward. I also honour the Prime Minister. So often in this place we are antagonists but today on this matter we are partners and collaborators. Most of all, I honour the millions of Indigenous people, living and dead, who have loved this country yet maintained their identity and who now ask only that their existence be recognised and their contributions be acknowledged. I particularly honour their representative in this parliament, my friend and my colleague Ken Wyatt, the member for Hasluck.
There is much hard work to be done. It will, as the Prime Minister candidly admitted, be a challenge to find a form of recognition which satisfies reasonable people as being fair to all. It will not necessarily be straightforward to acknowledge the First Australians without creating new categories of discrimination, which we must avoid because no Australians should feel like strangers in their own country. I believe that we are equal to this task of completing our Constitution rather than changing it. The next parliament will, I trust, finish the work that this one has begun.
So much of what happens here passes people by; sometimes it even annoys them. May this be an occasion when the parliament lifts people’s spirits and makes them feel more proud of our country and more conscious of our potential to more often be our best selves. As the Prime Minister said, we should not feel guilty about our past but we should be determined to rise above that which now makes us embarrassed. We have that chance; let us grasp it.
Speech by Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin in the House of Representatives.
Ms MACKLIN (Jagajaga—Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Minister for Disability Reform) (09:48): It is an honour to be commending the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012 to the House today. I thank everyone who has contributed to the debate, particularly the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Five years ago we all wept together and we began to heal together. In the years since that momentous apology we have been able to begin a new conversation to progress the work that still needs to be done towards a successful referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our Constitution. We appointed an expert panel made up of respected and accomplished individuals, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and community leaders. They travelled the country and gathered views and advice and, for the first time, we now have meaningful proposals for change.
I would like to thank again the expert panel for their hard work and dedication to constitutional recognition. Many of them are here with us today. Today this House takes up that work, with an act of recognition acknowledging the unique and special place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first peoples of our nation. With support across the parliament for this act of recognition, we continue to build the momentum we need for successful constitutional change. We do not intend the act to be a substitute for constitutional reform. To maintain momentum towards a successful referendum, a sunset provision in the bill limits the effect of the act to two years. We expect this will also provide an impetus for a future parliament to assess how the campaign for change is travelling and the appropriate timing for a successful referendum. The bill also provides for a review to consider and advise a future parliament on proposals to submit to a referendum, taking into account the valuable work that has been done by the expert panel.
We know that legislation is not the appropriate forum to make all the changes we want to see. These changes must ultimately be in our nation’s foundation document. On this important day, I make it clear that this government is committed to recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution. We believe the Constitution should recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their unique history, culture and connection to the land; reflect our country’s fundamental belief in the importance of equality by removing all references to race; and acknowledge that additional effort is needed to close the gap on Indigenous disadvantage in this country. We are determined to continue working to achieve this change, to build stronger relationships with Indigenous people based on mutual respect.
As well as a reconciled future where all Australians are equal partners, with equal opportunities in shaping the future of our country, we know that the momentum for a successful referendum will build not only from those of us here in the parliament but also from our wider community—in conversations in workplaces and around kitchen tables. This morning I was very pleased to join the Prime Minister to meet with the young campaigners who are out there already spreading the word about recognition to spark those conversations that we all need to have. The Australian Constitution is the foundation document for our laws and our government, but it is silent on the special place of our First Australians. Today those of us here play our part in recognising this special place. I commend this bill to the House.
The SPEAKER: I thank the minister, and I welcome to the gallery today Indigenous leaders and elders and others involved in this process and thank them for enhancing the debate on the floor. Often we speak in this place and no-one is listening, so it is wonderful that we have had an audience to such a momentous occasion.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.
Statement from the Australian Greens.
Act of Recognition an important marker on the road to constitutional change
The Australian Greens welcome the passage of the Act of Recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples as a major stepping stone towards a referendum on the Constitutional Recognition of Australia’s First Peoples.
“The Anniversary of the Apology to the Stolen Generations is always a poignant occasion. This year, the Parliament is moving us closer to Reconciliation, with the Act of Recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples passing the House of Representatives.” Leader of the Australian Greens, Senator Christine Milne said.
“I’m pleased the Greens have once again played a major role in driving change. If it hadn’t been for a minority parliament and the Greens making a referendum on constitutional recognition part of the Agreement for Labor to form government, this would have been something talked about in the community but would never have made it through the Parliament.”
Senator Rachel Siewert, Australian Greens spokesperson on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues was a member of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition and participated in the Joint Committee Inquiry into the Act of Recognition.
“It is important to remember that the consequences of the action taken against the Stolen Generations continues to affect our community today, and will continue to do so into the future. This is why the Greens have a Private Member’s Bill to ensure compensation for the Stolen Generations.
“As such, it is important to ensure that we do not settle for Acts of Parliament and instead continue to work towards investments to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
“In particular, I today call on the Government to provide ongoing funding for the Healing Foundation, who are undertaking incredibly important work with members of the Stolen Generation. Such a commitment would provide important material support to assist those who continue to suffer as a result of the policies of previous Governments.” Senator Siewert said.
“The Greens continue to be committed to recognising the First Australians in our constitution and working productively across party lines as we move towards a referendum on this issue.
“I hope that all parties can involve themselves strongly in this process and work to engage with the Australian public to increase an understanding and appreciation for the importance of constitutional change.
“Strong will, matched with political action is required to drive this change, and that is something the Greens will continue to work hard to deliver.” Senator Siewert concluded.