Thursday, 29 November 2018
Constitutional Recognition of ATSIP; Report
I will be brief. I too would like to place on record my thanks and appreciation to the co-chairs, Senator Dodson and Mr Leeser, who I'm pretty sure, through this process, developed a special affection for one another, herding the cats as they did. It was a huge process with a great many hearings. Many of these I couldn't attend myself, but it did mean there was a lot of reading to do. Both Senator Siewert and Senator McCarthy, also members of the committee, have already alluded to the notion of respect. Given the process that was gone through, taking into account the very different and divergent views about where we should end up, I think we did get a fairly reasonable outcome with regard to the road map forward from here. The fact that we were able to sit around a table many times over and go through our differences, working out where we could meet and mapping out the way forward, was a good thing to do.
I think all of us who participated in the work of this inquiry did take note—and I think I heard Senator Siewert refer to this as well—of the differences of view from different witnesses and submitters to this inquiry as to how best to structure things with regard to what we were setting out to achieve, and that is the notion of constitutional recognition. There were very many different views about how best to do it—from the bottom up, from the top down, different models, different proposals. I will turn a little later on to the submission from Mr Michael Mansell of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, the only submission from Tasmania, just to highlight the differences of view that came into the inquiry, which is why I think where we landed is exactly where we wanted to go.
I don't think anyone who was a member of, or participated in the work of, the inquiry wouldn't have a passion for getting the best outcome for our Indigenous people, including on this particular issue. Having been a former member of the community affairs committee with Senator Siewert, and having worked with both Senator Dodson and Senator McCarthy as well, this is something we have spent a bit of time talking about. It is a very deep and complex issue, and dealing with this particular issue is only a part of it—an important part, but, as Senator McCarthy pointed out in her contribution, it is one of a great many issues that, as a country, we do need to properly take on and get to the bottom of. Of course, my background, my context, as a Tasmanian senator means I have a very limited perspective on these things, and that's why it's valuable working with colleagues like the ones I've already mentioned.
Turning to the points of difference, my colleague Senator Amanda Stoker provided some additional comments which I think provide a good explanation of why, from a coalition point of view, it was important to reach consensus as best as possible and provide that road map for future members of parliament—future governments, oppositions and crossbench members as well. The one thing that I really want to highlight is the notion of parliamentary inquiries engaging only a very narrow audience. The issue we're talking about here, of changes to the Australian Constitution, is a very important one and one that impacts on every Australian. While it is focused on addressing and supporting a particular part of our community, removing some discrimination and providing better recognition, it is something that relates to every Australian, and we need to take everyone on that journey. That's why the final report does set out a road map which, I think, gives us a chance of actually doing that.
Going finally to those points of difference from witnesses and submitters, I refer to the comments of Mr Michael Mansell, who leads the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre. He was the only submitter from Tasmania, which I think is regrettable on such an important issue. Homing in on comments that have been made by previous contributors, no doubt there will be people disappointed in this report in that it doesn't recommend specific, hard-and-fast actions, which they were calling for in their submissions, but we went as far as we can. As Mr Mansell said in his contribution:
The biggest weakness in the race relations debate in Australia is the absence of a roughly agreed goal. The Committee cannot be expected to impose its own agenda but it can take note of stated indigenous sentiments ... and declared aspirations.
Mr Mansell went on to say:
Symbolic gestures such as constitutional recognition have had plenty of time to make a difference. Recognition has been going on since 2004 with no visible benefit Aboriginal people.
That's a point that many submitters would not agree with, but it does paint the picture that there are individuals in our Indigenous communities across the country who have a different view compared with many others.
I conclude where I started. I again want to put on record my thanks to the co-chairs, to my colleagues on the committee and to all those submitted. I commend the report to the Senate. I seek leave to continue my remarks.