Senate debates

Thursday, 23 August 2018


Constitutional Recognition of ATSIP; Report

6:20 pm

Photo of Andrew BartlettAndrew Bartlett (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I refer to the interim report of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition Relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. This is an ongoing process which, unfortunately, has been going on far, far too long. I've had cause to reflect a number of times since coming back into this place after a 10-year break on how many issues remain unresolved that people were talking about many years ago.

I think it should always be said that constitutional recognition of the unique place Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have in the history of this land was talked about and recommended, as part of a wider range of measures, by the final report of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in 2000, at the end of a 10-year process that was legislated through this parliament in 1991. One of the chairs of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, Senator Patrick Dodson, of course is now in this chamber. He was one of the co-chairs of the committee that has produced this interim report.

I listened to Senator Dodson's comments when he tabled this report, and all I can say is that he's far more polite than I would be about how long this has taken and how little progress has been made on such a fundamental issue. I don't just mean constitutional recognition—there are a range of views about that, of course, including amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples—but all of the related, unfinished business that was summarised very well, I should say, in those Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation reports almost 18 years ago.

We saw that process derailed pretty comprehensively and, frankly, pretty offensively by the former Prime Minister, Mr Howard, who was very dismissive of 10 years of work and a massive amount of consultation with both non-Indigenous and First Nations peoples from communities large and small. As a result of that, little progress was made. We made some advances during the Rudd years but none in regard to those key issues of treaty, recognition, genuine reconciliation and a genuine voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It is an advance that we have now some people of Aboriginal background in this chamber and in the House of Representatives, and all parties here need to look at ways that we can improve that level of representation. But that is not the same as having a significant, separate, self-contained, genuine process of self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

In my official first speech in this place towards the end of last year, I started by speaking first about the major failing of our entire political and parliamentary process going back more than a century. The core failing has been the way it has dealt with and treated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. My colleague Senator Faruqi started her excellent first speech just last Tuesday making the same point on the same themes.

This report does note the frustration about the length of time it has taken to advance these issues. There have been a lot of people this week criticising Prime Minister Turnbull about a range of things—many of them, of course, from his own party—but, if we're looking at failings, to me, the completely contemptuous and dismissive way that the underpinning, underlying, core component of the Uluru Statement from the Heart was swept away and misrepresented was a sign of the extent to which the Prime Minister had lost his way and was unable to deliver, as people thought he might have been able to, on any promise.

There are divergent views amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people regarding the Statement from the Heart—in what way it should be prioritised, how it should be addressed—but there is very, very strong support for the continuing need to push for a treaty. That, I would suggest, is not something we're likely to achieve anytime soon via constitutional amendment, but that's no reason to step away from it. We have, as a nation, signed up to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which does include the core principle that Indigenous peoples should be involved meaningfully in processes and decisions that directly affect them; that they should be able to give, and have the power to decline to give, free, prior and informed consent to the decisions that directly affect them. Implementing that principle in how we go about things in this chamber and in this parliament, and outside of it as well, is an area where all of us need to improve significantly.

The specific aspects of constitutional recognition that the report goes to are important and merit examination. The inability for this path to be navigated to a successful conclusion, I think, is a very poor reflection on this government. As with so many other issues, it's been unable to navigate its own internal disagreements, its own internal tensions. In fact, there is no consistent, shared set of beliefs or values anymore in today's coalition parties. But on something as fundamental as this, where our whole political process has failed so many times, over and over again, in so many different ways, we need to call ourselves out and commit ourselves to doing better.

I seek leave to continue my remarks.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.