Recognition in the country’s founding document will go some way to redressing the racial discrimination Indigenous Australians “live, eat and breathe”, Labor senator Nova Peris has told the Guardian
A bipartisan parliamentary committee looking into constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders issued its final report on the matter on Thursday. The report will form the basis of Australia’s next referendum question.
Photo Above Ken Wyatt MP and Senator Nova Peris with Matilda House at recent Canberra Event
The committee unanimously backed all the recommendations, with no dissenting report presented
Speech by Ken Wyatt MP tabling the report on constitutional recognition:
Today I present to the House the final report of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. The journey has been a long one. The journey has been an emotive one.
The journey for me started in 2012 with the establishment of the expert panel under the former Labor government. The expert panel explored the various possible forms of constitutional recognition and undertook extensive consultation with Australians from every corner of our great nation.
Following the expert panel process, a parliamentary committee was formed to examine the options presented and build consensus on the referendum process, timing and wording. The committee has extensively consulted across the nation and taken on significant legal advice from prominent constitutional lawyers.
This final report is the culmination of that process and the culmination of an extensive consultation and listening tour that has taken place over many years.
We are now down to the gritty details of how recognition should look and the process we must take for it to be successful.
This referendum cannot and must not fail.
I appreciate that there are many different views on this issue and that within the community and parliament, there are supporting and opposing viewpoints on the matter.
To all of those who say, ‘Why should we recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution?’ I say this: for the last 114 years Australia’s founding document, the Constitution, has been silent on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Excluded from voting, and excluded from participating in the convention debates that lead to the drafting of the Constitution, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were not considered citizens of this great nation and had minimal rights and protections. In fact, for many years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were considered to be fauna of the land.
While many have said that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should not be recognised separately to any other group of Australians the fact is we were not even considered to be real citizens of Australia when the Constitution was drafted and written.
The oldest continuing culture in the world was rendered invisible.
And there is a large, unspoken silence in our Constitution.
It is time to right that wrong. It is time to acknowledge and fix that silence.
What the committee is proposing is a repeal of the redundant section 25, which is a provision to disqualify races from voting, and a repeal or amendment of section 51(26), of which we propose three options. Through this we deal with the need to have a head of power to deal with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-specific legislation in the parliament and address the actual recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first peoples of this land.
This is not about singling out Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, or affording them extra rights above other Australians. This is about correcting the contextual silence that is so currently deafening in the Constitution.
The committee also explores a number of different proposals for recognition, including a Declaration of Recognition and an Indigenous Advisory Body which have both been debated in the media. The committee’s views are reflected in the report.
There has been much discussion, that began with the expert panel, of the desire to include a prohibition on racial discrimination in the Constitution.
The committee has reached the view that there are other options available to the parliament that would strengthen existing mechanisms. The committee considered all views associated with the expert panel’s proposed inclusion of section 116A. These options are outlined in the report.
Public discourse on this matter is essential and should be encouraged; however, none of us should seek individual glory or ownership over the issue.
This is not about me. This is not about the government. This is not about the Prime Minister. This is not about the opposition, nor is it about the Leader of the Opposition, nor the Greens. This is not owned by any of us, nor is it owned by any particular public voice.
This is owned and must be owned, by all Australians: black and white, urban and regional, rich and poor. This is about all of us as a nation—about all of us as Australians.
We must not be afraid to debate this issue. And we who support it, and those in the media, should not rush to judge. Just because someone does not support constitutional recognition that does not make them racist. Just because someone has an alternative viewpoint, that does not make them isolated from the discussion.
There is a place for all voices; however we must all be respectful in the debate that will ensue.
That is why we propose, following the July 6 meeting convened by the Prime Minister, a full day of sittings set aside in parliament for debating the proposal followed by a series of constitutional conventions with the aim of ultimately building a universal, multiparty consensus on the wording.
I would ask though, that parliamentarians, media, stakeholders—all fellow Australians—read the report in its entirety, not just the recommendations.
Inform yourself of the motives for the particular decisions and conclusions we have come to. Please do not just take a shallow, cursory look at the recommendations and make your judgement from that. Engage, inform yourself—participate.
This is a time to walk together, towards a common goal of an inclusive, vibrant, culturally-rich Australia.
The difficulty that we all face is the fact that we must balance the aspirations of society to include a stronger set of words with the many sets of competing interests and expectations across the community.
Recognition must be real. It must be substantive. It must, most importantly, succeed.
That is the challenge we all now face.
I am confident that there is enough goodwill between the various interests in this issue that we can find common ground.
I am also confident that this is the parliament that can deliver a positive outcome.
I want to thank my fellow committee members, those who have been there since the beginning and those who have joined us recently: my deputy, Senator Nova Peris, Senator Rachel Siewert, Senator Bridget McKenzie, Hon. Shayne Neumann, Mr Stephen Jones, Ms Sarah Henderson, Senator James McGrath, Hon. Christian Porter and Senator Anne Ruston; the people across the country that attended a consultation, forum or made a submission to the committee; the committee secretariat, in particular Toni Matulick, who has done an outstanding job in facilitating the work of this committee, and I also want to pay special mention of committee staff, Aleshia Westgate and Erin Pynor; my own staff, who have dealt with many, many competing interests on my time, liaised with stakeholders and effectively managed the increased workload; and finally, my colleagues on all sides of parliament who have engaged with the committee and sought us out to learn, contribute and become part of the process.
I want to end by saying that, while this journey has been a long one, I am much more confident in the success of this referendum today, as opposed to when I became part of the process in 2012. Australia and, by extension, Australians are diverse and multicultural. We are all proud of our heritage and our culture. Let us make it stronger. Let us fill the silence. Let us complete our Constitution. Let us recognise. I commend the report to the House.