House debates

Tuesday, 14 August 2018


Constitutional Recognition Relating to ATSIP; Report

5:33 pm

Photo of Warren SnowdonWarren Snowdon (Lingiari, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for External Territories) Share this | | Hansard source

It gives me great pleasure to be able to speak to this report on constitutional recognition relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and, as a member of the joint committee, with the other members of the committee, to say to the Australian community that we've still got a lot of work to do. This is an interim report. It sets down some markers for us, but it doesn't finalise the questions which we've been asked to respond to.

At the outset, I acknowledge the way in which the work of the committee has been undertaken and congratulate both of the co-chairs—Senator Patrick Dodson, from the Labor Party, and the member for Berowra, Mr Leeser—for the way in which they've ensured that we have had a collegiate and collaborative approach to the deliberations of the committee and to the questioning of witnesses and interviewing of people. This committee has a genuine desire to try as far as possible to come up with what will be a comprehensive and bipartisan report with recommendations.

It might well be that, at the end of the day, we can't agree on everything. But I suspect there will be significant agreement over a range of questions. I point initially to the foreword of the report, which has been co-signed by both the co-chairs. On page vii, it says:

We support constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as part of the broader project of reconciliation and recognition of their unique status in our nation.

I think that is a very profound and important statement for this committee to make. It is being said with a backdrop of much public debate around the Uluru Statement from the Heart from Central Australia. The next paragraph of that foreword—and I think this explains a great deal—says:

We understand the frustration about the length of time taken to advance these issues. However, we also note that the Uluru Statement from the Heart represents a major change in the direction of the debate on constitutional recognition with its proposals for a voice, agreement making and truth telling.

And that is true. At page viii, the report continues:

This interim report indicates our progress to date and outlines what we will be doing next. It sets out the key areas of inquiry, asking specific questions on what a voice could strive for and how it would be designed. It acknowledges that, whatever form future proposals may take, a voice must be legitimate, representative and agreed between the parliament and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

And then, a paragraph or so later, it says:

We encourage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the broader community to make submissions examining the principles and models outlined in chapters 3 and 4 and addressing the questions we pose in chapter 7.

I turn to chapter 7 because it is the questions that we need to have addressed in the next processes of deliberation up until we table a report in November. This, I think, is an important statement. It flows from, in many ways, the recognition that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are sick of having things done to them, or for them, without ownership of those things. At 7.27, the committee acknowledges that much of the work to be done should be led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The committee also acknowledges that, in any co-design process, the government should take an active role in participating in any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander led consultations so that the outcomes of the consultations are co-owned by the government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and government can have a richer appreciation for the authentic perspective offered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

I think that is a fundamental issue, because we have got to have an understanding that the outcomes of these discussions and consultations need to be co-owned. I had the experience in a previous parliament of engaging in a similar process to establish the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan. What we did then was partner with NACCHO, the peak Aboriginal health organisation, and the First Peoples Congress to hold 17 or 18 consultations around the country. They were led by the co-chair of the congress and by the chair of NACCHO, and they were facilitated by an Aboriginal person. I was there at many of them but as a participant—as someone there to listen, not tell. As a result, we ended up with a policy which was truly something that was done in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. And that is what we seek here. This will not work unless the outcomes of our deliberations are seen to be fair, reasonable and accepted by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Against that backdrop, we've got to understand that—whilst it's up to us to have opinions, and we may have them—at the end of the day, what this committee needs to do is to deliberate over what has been put to it. That includes the detail of what a voice might look like. But, sadly—and this is something which I hope can be rectified—we've had the Prime Minister, as recently as last week, repeat something which he said after the Uluru statement was first released: that he was opposed to the idea of a body elected only by Aboriginal people.

Well, as this report makes clear, there are other Aboriginal organisations around this country which purely elect their representatives. Four of them are Commonwealth statutory authorities. These four statutory authorities are the land councils in the Northern Territory, and their elections of their office-bearers—in the case of the Central Land Council, there's a statement in this report which refers to it—are oversighted and carried out by the Commonwealth Electoral Commission. The only people who can participate in those elections are Aboriginal people—just as, when ATSIC existed, the only people who could participate in the elections of ATSIC regional councillors and ATSIC councillors generally were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It is not new. And it's not hard to get your head around the idea that it is appropriate and fair for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, if they want to have a voice—and they do—and whatever it might finally look like, that it be seen as their voice, not ours, and that it is something which should provide advice to parliament, which is what they have described, and that we should be mature enough to accept that as a reasonable possibility and an outcome which we can accept.

There are questions about whether or not this voice, as it's described, should be designed first and then put to a referendum. The possibilities are endless as to what the voice might look like. And what this committee is now asking for is for people to put up the detail of what they propose in such a voice. I have ideas, and other people on the committee have ideas. But there are people in the community, both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who have legitimate approaches to this and want their views understood and their proposals heard—just as with proposals to amend the constitution. A series of proposals have been put to the committee about the possibility of amending the constitution. It's not beyond us to deal with that. Why would we want to be dog-whistling and saying that it's not fair or reasonable and that the Australian community will not accept it?

We have come at a time when we've got an opportunity. We need to take hold of that opportunity and make sure that we accept and address the needs that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have asked us to. That includes the notion of truth-telling and a makarrata and the possibility of treaties. It is not hard, it is not unreasonable and it is something which should be done.

I am very pleased with this report, and I think a number of people have been surprised by it, simply because of the depth of it and the considered way in which it has been put together in a very bipartisan way. And I recommend those who have an interest in this subject, including all members of parliament, to read this report closely, and, if they want to, provide submissions to us.

5:43 pm

Photo of Cathy O'TooleCathy O'Toole (Herbert, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would firstly like to acknowledge the hard work and dedication of my parliamentary colleagues the member for Barton, Linda Burney; Senator Patrick Dodson; Senator Malarndirri McCarthy; and the member for Lingiari, Warren Snowdon. I would also like to acknowledge the shadow minister for Indigenous affairs and Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, for his leadership. I also acknowledge the members on the other side of this committee, because, as the member for Lingiari said, this has been undertaken in a very bipartisan and positive way. The aforementioned members have worked tirelessly on this committee, and I believe that their work deserves thanks and recognition.

Beautiful Palm Island is in my electorate of Herbert. Palm Island is the largest discrete Aboriginal community in Australia, and I am honoured and proud to represent the traditional owners and custodians, the Manbarra and Bwgcolman people. In honour of Palm Island and in recognition of their centenary celebrations this year, I want to tell the story of Palm Island so that members in this place are aware of their very hurtful history and of how far the community has come, and why it is so important that a voice enshrined in parliament be achieved and that we have truth-telling and a makarrata. The truth of the history of Palm Island has not been spoken about by previous members in this place, so to show my support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart, truth-telling is a very critical and important component.

Palm Island was gazetted as an Aboriginal reserve in 1914. Chief Prosecutor J W Bleakley designated a specific role to Palm Island as a penitentiary for troublesome cases. The establishment of Palm Island was part of a wider national attempt to control the locals by taking control of all aspects of Aboriginal lives at a time now known as the protection era. In every state and territory laws were passed governing where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people could live and what they could and could not do. Representatives from over 47 tribes were displaced and sent to Palm Island for a variety of reasons, including as a prison sentence for troublemakers at other locations and as a result of the destruction of the whole river mission at Tully. More than 47 different language groups were sent to Palm, locating their camps in areas to mirror their positions on the mainland. The enforcement of so many tribes living in one place has generally been cited as a major cause for the unrest on Palm Island over the years.

Palm Island became exile and punishment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who disobeyed the strict laws of the day or if people refused to comply with government policy. During this time, people worked for rations, not wages, and they worked hard. Apartheid-like arrangements of space and design extended to the schools, with a white school for the children of the officials and a native school on the opposite side of the road. Children were separated from parents. Men were separated from women by confinement to dormitories.

By 1919, a jail was established on Palm Island to confine those who breached the stringent reserve regulations. The authority of Curry and all subsequent superintendents was reinforced by a team of police who operated as a private military force. Speaking out or practising Aboriginal culture and languages resulted in disciplinary action and retribution. Some of the disciplinary action included lengthy imprisonments, public humiliations and floggings of those the superintendent perceived as threatening his control.

This is the scary and scarring history that Palm Island has risen from. It has only been through sheer resilience and determination, the fight for equality, justice and recognition, and the rebuilding of the island left by their ancestors over many years, that we have the Palm Island of today that we all know and love. The First Nations people of Palm Island deserve to be heard and they deserve for the truth to be told. They deserve the right to tell that truth. They also deserve to be recognised. In Herbert, the Manbarra people deserve to be recognised and heard as the traditional owners. The Bwgcolman people deserve to be recognised and heard as custodians. The Wulgurukaba people deserve to be recognised and heard. The Bindal people deserve to be recognised and heard. All of our First Nations people deserve to be recognised and heard.

What the Referendum Council has recommended is both plain and simple: for our First Nations to be both recognised and heard. Yet the Turnbull government has turned its back on the demands of our First Nations people to be heard and recognised—leaving our First Nations people, right now, both distraught and heartbroken. Despite this, Labor fought to establish the joint select committee on constitutional recognition to keep the issue of constitutional recognition on the agenda of this parliament, and Labor has worked hard through the committee to get cross-party support for an Indigenous voice to parliament. Labor has made its point of view very clear: it is completely disrespectful to ask First Nations people for their views and thoughts regarding constitutional recognition and to then completely reject their feedback out of hand.

That is why Labor fought hard for the formation of the joint committee for constitutional recognition. The Labor-initiated committee has today released its interim report, putting calls for a voice for First Nations people back on the national agenda. The interim report puts all options back on the table, including constitutional change, the establishment of regional voices, truth-telling, a makarrata and a treaty.

The debate regarding recognition and inclusion of our First Nations people has been going around in circles for far too many years now. The circuit-breaker for this debate was the Uluru Statement from the Heart. This report follows on from those recommendations, with the committee working closely with our First Nations people around the country. What is clear from the report is the committee's intent. For any change to occur it is important to build consensus both among the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and among the people in the general community.

Through the report it is clear that many people support the principle of constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, but there is still much more to be done and further consultation and work to be carried out regarding the design of the recognition. It's important to get the detail of any change right. The committee is currently seeking additional submissions examining the principles and models outlined in the report and addressing the questions posed in the final chapter.

The committee have also made their intentions clear to undertake further consultation, travelling to other parts of Australia to speak with both First Nations people and broader communities before delivering the final report in November. I implore the committee to visit Palm Island and the Torres Strait in order to engage with the wider North Queensland community. North Queensland has a large First Nations population, and their evidence to this committee would be highly valued. It would also show respect to those First Nations people.

I encourage all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island organisations and community members to make a submission to this very important committee. Please note in particular the questions in chapter 7 that the committee is seeking further evidence, support and clarification on. This issue is far too important for people not to be involved in the conversation. We must get this right.

Our First Nations people have clearly articulated their position and they want the process started now in order to work towards reconciliation, recognition and truth-telling. Labor has always supported the Uluru Statement from the Heart and remains committed to working with First Nations people to ensure their voices are heard and respected, including through a voice to parliament. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull can no longer ignore our First Nations people. It's time for the Prime Minister to reverse his position and to back the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

5:52 pm

Photo of Cathy McGowanCathy McGowan (Indi, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I acknowledge the words of the member for Herbert and I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker Andrews, for your support. I am a member of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. It gives me great pleasure to talk to this interim report and to call for the community to be involved. There are a few things I'd like to cover in my brief presentation. I'd like to talk about the committee; I'd like to talk about some of the key points in the report; and I'd like to finish by acknowledging an event that took place in my electorate that is relevant to the report.

Colleagues, I come from north-east Victoria. One would not normally associate me with being on this committee, but I am so pleased to be there. I am one of 12 members. There have been five Labor members, five LNP members, one Independent member—me—and one Greens member. In my career to date this has probably been one of the nicest and most productive committees I've been on. 'Nicest' is probably really not a good word, but the level of respect and the contribution that the committee people want to make to doing this really well should give the people of Australia enormous confidence. It is a parliamentary select committee, so we actually report to the parliament. It has got senators and House of Representatives people working together. The sense of collegiality that exists has been just the most wonderful thing in my experience. I'm so pleased that this interim report is bipartisan. We've worked really closely together on it. It brings to the people of Australia our best efforts at this time.

So what's in the report? There are two things in particular that I'd like to bring to your attention. The first is a very strong commitment from the committee to what people have told us—that they support the concept of a voice. What is that voice about? This is one of the areas where we're looking for more input, but in the report we talk about:

The Voice will fulfil a number of functions including: serving as a representative body or bodies which provide mechanisms to consult and engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on policies, legislation, and services which affect them, leading to a reduction to barriers to access, to advance self-determination, and as a consequence lead to greater local decision making … to a more unified and reconciled nation and be supported by the over whelming majority of Australians.

So that's no small ask of a voice. But I think it's really important to understand and know that that's encapsulated in the report, and that's what we're trying to do.

The second thing I'd like to talk about in the report, which I find so useful, is what we call 'design principles'. Chapter 3 outlines the principles which we're looking at to design that voice. I want to use a quote which I think will help set the scene here:

… there has been a shift in thinking from the primacy of a national voice to some combination of a local, regional, and national model.

I'm really pleased with that, because I think if we can come up with a model that works at the local level, works at the regional level and works at the national level, and in each of those spheres of government, whether it be local government or regional government or the national government, we provide opportunities for voices to be heard, I think we'll be doing a really good thing.

The third part of the report that I'd like to bring to the chamber's attention, as mentioned by the member for Herbert, is that chapter 7 is called 'Committee comment'—as separate from some of the information we've been hearing during the inquiry. There are some very strong comments here from the committee and questions that we are seeking more information on. All of chapter 7 talks about this voice:

… common themes have emerged from the submissions and evidence presented to the Committee.

There is strong support for the concept of The Voice.

What we haven't really got at the moment is what the voice will look like. What's the flesh on the bones? What's the detail? How do we actually make a national, regional and local voice work? So we're calling for greater input on some of those specific questions. I'm so looking forward to the next period when we actually get to flesh out the question: what are the models that could work and how can we work together on that?

The second area I'd like to pick up on, other than the voice, is what we call truth-telling. The committee is of the view at this stage that there would be value in considering what truth-telling means and how it might work, both in formal and informal settings, at the national, regional and local level, where communities could come together to commemorate both positive and negative examples of the history of our communities. There are some ideas about how that might work. I know in my community there is an enormous interest in truth-telling and how it works both informally and formally. I'm particularly putting the call out to communities to give us some feedback on the voice—in your community, how would you like to be involved in truth-telling? I know in Australia, we often talk about what happened in South Africa after apartheid and the truth-telling commission that was set up there. So there are some really useful examples that we might be able to look at.

In closing, I'll tell a short story about this report and how it's working in my electorate. I'd like to acknowledge Senator Malarndirri McCarthy. Senator McCarthy is on our committee. She's a senator from the Northern Territory. On Sunday, 29 July, she was invited to present the Kerferd oration, which is an annual oration that's held in my electorate of Indi, in Beechworth. Senator McCarthy was the orator. I was looking forward to seeing her and hearing her ideas, but what I didn't expect is that 500 people would turn up in Beechworth on a cold, wet, rainy day. The population of the whole Indigo shire is not much more than 500! It's a few thousand. But there was a huge number of people who turned up. Senator Malarndirri McCarthy did a fantastic speech and, at the end of it, there was a standing ovation. I don't think I could even begin to explain the feeling in the room of support for what we as a nation are trying to do with this committee. The community want us to do it well. They really want us to address the problems of the past and move on to a future where we as a nation can recognise our history and be proud of who we are and our long history—60,000-plus years we've had on this continent—and confidently step out into the future in the next 50 and 100 years, knowing that we are a united people, proud of our history and heritage and ready to really make the most of it.

So thank you so much, Senator McCarthy, for coming to Beechworth, to my electorate. Thank you so much for sharing your story and for being there for us. I say to my electorate: I'm on this committee and it's got my full commitment to do my very best for the future of Australia. I'm looking forward to representing my community in the next stage. The closing date for submissions to be in is 17 September. One of my other colleagues, the member for Farrer, Sussan Ley, is also on this committee. We share a boundary through the twin cities of Albury and Wodonga. We've invited the committee to come to Albury-Wodonga. We are hoping that will happen on Monday, 24 September. It will be an opportunity for both Albury-Wodonga and surrounding communities to talk to the committee about their aspirations for this report.

In closing, I would like to acknowledge the work of the secretariat—some enormous goodwill, far beyond what's expected in a normal job. You've done a fantastic piece of work in working with the committee and helping us do our job really well. Could you please pass that on to the relevant people. I am particularly looking forward to being in parliament on 29 November when we present our final report, which I'm really hoping will be unanimous and will do for the people of Australia what they're asking us to do.

6:01 pm

Photo of Tim WilsonTim Wilson (Goldstein, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is a great pleasure to be able to get up and talk on the inquiry of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition Relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples as part of one of the big challenges this country faces around the legacy of constitutional recognition and what that means and what policies and proposals are being put forward for consideration by the parliament. I know that this issue has gone through lots of different iterations and that the focus now—I think, rightly—is on the importance of a national voice and a local voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to their communities, those allied communities, to state governments and to the Commonwealth government. I really welcome the shift in focus from the Constitution towards being I think, frankly, much more on outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

I want to begin by congratulating all the people who were involved in this discussion. It is one of those issues that I dipped my toe in from time to time in my former capacity as Australia's Human Rights Commissioner, particularly working with my good old friend the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda. That was around the need for some redress, whether it's through the Constitution or law, to give voice to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I came to the discussion, actually, with a bit of scepticism as well as a deep-seated sense of optimism—scepticism about the idea that we needed to change the Constitution but optimism because I could see the goodwill of the Australian people. I know the member who spoke previously has reflected that from her own community, but I think it's shared across the whole of this great nation. It's an optimism about the capacity to redress past wrongs and an optimism that we, this generation, can get things right for the future. That's not a naive optimism where we just simply go off and spend money or resources willy-nilly to try to show our compassion or signal our virtue. But, actually, we believe that we're the generation that can fix and settle so many of the debates that have occurred, address those injustices and find a way that we as a nation can go forward together.

And I have optimism from spending time in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, coming—and I'm quite open about this—from the relative naivety of a boy who grew up in the Mornington Peninsula in the great state of Victoria, where there were a very small number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I had a relative absence of understanding of the challenges being faced. To have spent time on the land and in the community helped me to understand the cultural connection, particularly to land, that's the foundation of who Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are.

That that might finally be respected in the way that they have a voice and are represented in our country is so important, because that connection to country is central to identity. It is central to how people see their lives and it's where they build the foundations and building blocks of themselves into their nationhood and, ultimately, into our shared nationhood.

That's why I'm such an optimist, because I think that recognition is coming through in this interim report. What we see are people moving on from the idea that the best way to deal with all problems is through the prism of Canberra. We are shifting the focus into the prism of community. Let's not be under any misunderstanding that when we focus on people's hardship and challenges through community, it's not simply to dismiss the concern and say, 'It's their problem.' It's actually to say the reverse, 'It's their opportunity and empowerment.' Our job is to back them and to build the foundations of a sustainable community; to help people help themselves so they can stand on their own two feet and so they can be in the best position to help others also and to create the opportunities for the next generation.

That's what I see coming out of this interim committee report today: a recognition and understanding of the power of community as the foundation, not just of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's identity, connected directly to country, but the foundations for what is ultimately a national voice. The paper that was written by Warren Mundine under the banner of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy outlined what potential is realised when you move away from focusing on the Constitution and having big national bodies to focusing on the legitimacy that can come from local representative bodies connecting directly with other local representative bodies and local communities. The power is when they organise together and what can happen around their legitimacy to build state based bodies to engage with state governments. Critically, when you have local bodies voicing to and being part of state bodies you can ultimately get national bodies that carry the legitimacy and the voice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. That is so earth-shattering because of its strength and its connection to country that it can move the mountains of legislation in this place to advance the interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

That is what I see coming out of this report: a final recognition that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should have their say—that after the abolition of ATSIC, they have lost their voice to our country and they have lost their voice of their nationhood. No-one is trying to replicate ATSIC or trying to pretend that there weren't issues. But there is a need to give that voice back and to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be able to have their say on the affairs that affect them. If we're going to go down a model of local community based representation that can build up to Canberra, that voice will only be heard in this place because of its strength and because of the common agreement that will sit behind Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from country to Canberra. That is what is being realised.

I think it is the most exciting proposal that I have seen in this place. I think it is the one in which we, as members of parliament, representing the whole of the country, can have the greatest affinity for. It is one where any voice that speaks to this nation has the weight that we would expect of it to be able to influence the national agenda appropriately and in a way that seeks to unite the nation.

There are lots of different opinions about what the consequences are if we have legal structures or let legal voices into the Constitution. I don't want to indulge in some of those conversations right now, but one of the reasons that I've always been deeply concerned about a constitutional voice is not a reason that other people have come forward with. It is because I think a constitutional voice would falsely draw legitimacy simply from its place in the Constitution, and that wouldn't mean that it didn't have other work to do, whereas the organisation of people from country, through community groups and community representation, through states and nationhood, comes with a legitimacy that, frankly, the Constitution could never give, because it is truly representative and carries the weight and voice and representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

This committee's interim report provides an opportunity for a reset and a refresh which is truly empowering for Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It is something that is genuinely exciting, and I can only wish the committee all the best in their endeavours to keep up the work. I reiterate the statement of the member for Indi: the hope is that the final report will be a position that's shared by all members, one that can be made unanimously to the parliament, seeks to unite the nation and is part of a pathway to that final point of settlement about so many of the wrongs of the past, a pathway that we can move forward on together.

Debate adjourned.