Senate debates

Tuesday, 13 June 2017


National Indigenous Youth Parliament

8:00 pm

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

When Neville Bonner walked into the Australian Parliament in 1971, one can only imagine what was going through his head as he walked down the halls of Old Parliament House. As the first Indigenous Australian to sit in this place, Neville Bonner not only made history but opened doors. We have had several Indigenous parliamentarians who have come to Canberra and contributed to our political landscape since Neville Bonner made his mark nearly half a century ago.

As someone who holds institutions in the highest regard and with the utmost respect, Australia's representative democracy is fundamental to how our government works. The Australian Electoral Commission, in collaboration with the Museum of Australian Democracy and the YMCA, runs a terrific program to encourage young Indigenous people to engage with Australia's democracy and learn about how parliament functions. The National Indigenous Youth Parliament is a week-long program that provides young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people an opportunity to tour Parliament House and attend question time; meet the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, other members of parliament and senators; and participate in a mock parliamentary session.

On 28 May, the Australian Electoral Commission invited me to preside as Speaker for the 2017 National Indigenous Youth Parliament. Approximately 50 young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders travelled to the nation's capital to represent their respective states and territories. Our 'honourable members' assembled in the House of Representatives at the Museum of Australian Democracy on a crisp Canberra morning to debate the 'Improving Access to Alcohol and Drug Rehabilitation Services in Rural and Remote Areas Bill 2017'.

I was particularly pleased to welcome 'honourable members' from my home state of Western Australia: Wynston Shovellor-Sesar, Thomas Betts, Anthony Turner, Temika von Senden, and Brianne Yarran. Our sixth Western Australian member, Alice Sambo, could not attend due to family commitments. These fine young Western Australians came from different corners of the state, from communities in our treasured south-west and as far away as our Kimberley coast, more than 2,000 kilometres north of Perth.

The debate over the ever-increasing the availability of drug and alcohol rehabilitation services in rural and remote areas—where many of our participants reside—was considered, impassioned and evoked many of the feisty exchanges we witness regularly in this place. Wynston, the member for Durack, advocated persuasively for the implementation of 'on-country healing camps' driven by local Indigenous communities and argued that the bill did not provide sufficient culturally appropriate solutions to improve alcohol and drug rehabilitation services. Thomas, the member for Hasluck, raised the very real issue of transport disadvantage in rural and remote areas, presenting challenges in access to health services. Anthony, representing the people of O'Connor, argued that education was key in prevention, citing research from the Alcohol and Drug Foundation of Australia that children as young as four can already distinguish between a beer bottle and a wine bottle simply by recognition of shape. Temika also did the people of O'Connor proud by proposing regular visits from drug and alcohol rehabilitation professionals to strengthen relationships and provide much-needed support in remote communities. And Brianne, bringing it home for the Western Australian contingent as the member for Cowan, argued that greater education was needed about Australia's first nations peoples and their culture. Working with local elders and First Australians, she said, was imperative in understanding the needs of these communities.

There was much animation in the chamber that Sunday morning as the excited call of 'Hear, hear!' reverberated off the walls during debate. There was so much dynamism in those bright young people as they gave voice to their arguments. The passion and promise on show from the participants of the National Indigenous Youth Parliament was impressive and reminded me of why we are all here: to represent people across this country and give them a voice.

Nothing inspires me more to fight for something than when someone says it is impossible. Some people may say that young Indigenous people would be at a disadvantage and some would discourage them from pursuing a political career because it would seem like an uphill battle, but you need look no further than our parliament today. Look to our Senate colleagues Senator Patrick Dodson, Senator McCarthy and Senator Lambie. Look to the Honourable Linda Burney MP in the House of Representatives and, of course, our friend and colleague the Honourable Ken Wyatt, who, in his own way, like Neville Bonner, has made history as the Commonwealth's first Indigenous minister. (Time expired)