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Scullion: A Genuine Sense Of Bipartisanship

Last updated on December 11, 2023

This is the text of Senator Nigel Scullion’s speech on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Peoples Recognition Bill.

Scullion is a Northern Territory senator and Deputy Leader of The Nationals.

His speech is an interesting example of bipartisanship on the recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Constitution.

Transcript of Senator Nigel Scullion’s speech on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill.

ScullionSenator SCULLION (Northern Territory—Deputy Leader of The Nationals) (13:19): I too support the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012. I thank the previous speakers and I have to say that this is, without doubt, the first time in my 12-odd years in this place that I have had a genuine sense of bipartisanship. We are excited by the prospects, we are nervous about how we proceed and we are talking genuinely with each other to ensure that our views are not polarised. It gives me a great deal of confidence that we, as representatives of the wider Australian community, can behave in that way. Hopefully that will help engender an appropriate environment for the community discussions to follow on the content of the changes.

I am also excited by the fact that this bill will be the genesis of a stream of debates which are not only about the changes to the Constitution. This series of debates will engage people who have previously not been engaged. They will make people think about issues and people and circumstances which they have not thought about before. Constitutional change is necessarily a very complex issue and I invariably leave it to those people who are more focused on those matters than I and who are probably better equipped to deal with them. But this bill will be the genesis of a very important change. In the view of many Australians—and certainly people who have been involved in the changes which have already taken place—this is always unfinished business.

I will deal with some reflections on that later on. I suspect that it will always be unfinished business, and I think that necessarily is the case—and it is a good thing.

We have had several steps in this process. The previous Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, made an apology that was symbolic and practical—there was a significant practical element to it. That significant practical element involved Indigenous housing. It is useful to look back at that time to see what changes have taken place. I still think that from that dramatic day there are lessons for us for the way forward not only with this legislation but also beyond this legislation, which will pass today with the concurrence of everyone in this place—and that will be fantastic.

I have a confession to make. I was one of those who did not really think the apology would matter. I come from a background where I see every day that the gap between opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and those for mainstream people is so vast that I could not see the apology helping at all. That was my personal view at the time; I did not share it with anybody. I was cynical about it—all the trumpeting of change was wonderful but in myself I could not see what difference it could make. I guess much of that was because, as I said, my personal experience was that the housing of my mates was still appalling, their educational outcomes were not even comparable, there were relatively few employment opportunities for them in regional and rural Australia and their health outcomes were completely unacceptable. In that context I could never bring myself to be all that supportive.

On the day of the apology and the days that followed I was able to be amongst my Aboriginal friends, and some of them shared their cynicism with me. How wrong we all were. The changes to the way Aboriginal people as individuals and as communities saw themselves after that apology were extraordinary. Plenty of individuals have explained to me how surprised they were at their own reaction as Aboriginal people. Clearly those who would, as I did in the past, diminish symbolism as something that does not have a role to play in closing the gap are quite wrong. We will go through this series of debates together as a group, and agreement will be the next step. It will be the third step in our becoming a united nation. That is extremely important. It will follow from the 1967 referendum, which was so significant, and the apology, which had complete bipartisan support. Now there will be this important constitutional recognition.

In this place I have beaten up all those who will listen with my views on Indigenous housing. The government would acknowledge that it has not done as well as it could have done, but those failures are characteristic across parliaments, across time. I do not think any of us would beat our chest and say how well we have done. In the shadow of the apology we made some commitments that we should have kept a better eye on, as Australians. It was only part of our discussions—it was over there; we had the economy and all these other things going. We have a great opportunity, as Australians, to make the same commitment to these practical outcomes as we have made to symbolic recognition. There is a practical element to the symbolism not only of today but also of the process as we move forward. Symbolism is a very practical way to send a clear message to those in this nation who I would describe as racist.

I was lucky—I was brought up in a colourblind house by a wonderful family and I was not exposed to racism very much. As I grew up, every now and again I was exposed a little bit to people with racist views, but after they got tapped on the nose they generally did not share those views with me from then on. I just did not think there was as much racism as there actually was. The signal that as a nation we think this behaviour is unacceptable and that as a racist and somebody who shows intolerance and bigotry you are on your own, mate, is a pretty practical signal to send. Sadly, that signal does need to be sent. I was having a discussion with some people in Central Australia about racism and education. When you are in the desert, if you pick up a rock you will find underneath it all sorts of night creatures and they all look at you and go ‘Aaagh!’ and scuttle off. Education and debates of this nature will throw light on those scuttling insects, and hopefully we will see far less of them in our community and our children will have to put up with far fewer of them. That would be a fantastic and practical outcome.

I acknowledge the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples—Pat Dodson, Mark Leibler and all the others who were involved. I understand what a difficult subject this was, with the spectrum of views and the opportunities to introduce such a range of initiatives. Senator Siewert touched on issues like the treaty and sovereignty, and the fact that the expert panel individually and collectively have said, ‘These are our views; we have come to a consensus view and we are all united behind a set of words and changes to the Constitution that the Australian people will support,’ gives me great hope that this legislation today will lead to substantive and real change in our Constitution, which will make a real difference to how Australians feel.

I talked earlier about this being an endless story. There are those who, in frank discussion, have said, ‘They’ll never be happy, Nigel.’ We have those discussions about the Greens as well! ‘They’re rapacious; they’ll just take everything you give them. They will never be satisfied.’ These are important debates to be had—and they are not discussions with racists; they are perhaps people who may not have the same exposure in life as others. But they are important discussions to have because I was able to say, ‘Well, that’s a natural thing; we will have this conversation endlessly.’ To those who say, ‘I’ve missed my opportunity for this particular change,’ the fact is that the opportunities are endless. There will be endless opportunities for change. This debate itself will be the thing that really changes our Australian psyche. This is an opportunity for Australians to change their views; we can gather and corral those changed views and reflect them in our Constitution. I commend the bill to the House.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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