PARLIAMENT HOUSE, Canberra: I am pleased to introduce this bill to extend the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Act 2013 for three years, until 28 March 2018.
In the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Act 2013, or act of recognition, parliament recognised, for the first time, that the continent and the islands now known as Australia were first occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
While not a substitute for constitutional recognition, the act demonstrates the parliament’s multipartisan commitment to recognition, and is an important step on the road to a referendum.
The act of recognition passed the previous parliament with unanimous support. An important part of the act was its two-year sunset date, included to make sure that parliament and the people knew that the job wasn’t done. The member for Hasluck has likened it to a post-it note on the fridge, a reminder for us to complete the job. The act is an important form of recognition. But the ultimate goal remains constitutional change and that is the goal we have firmly in our sights.
Since the introduction of the act we have taken a number of key steps towards a referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution.
The act required us to undertake an assessment of our nation’s readiness to support a referendum. This included an assessment of the proposals that would be most likely to obtain the support of the Australian people, and the levels of support amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the wider public, and state and territory governments.
On 27 March 2014 a review panel was appointed in accordance with the act. The review panel’s report was tabled on 19 September 2014.
The final report makes clear that we have not yet reached a point where we can proceed immediately to a referendum. But by taking certain concrete steps, we can get there. The report notes that to give a referendum the greatest chance of success, a number of preconditions need to be met, including agreeing a final proposal that can win the support of Indigenous Australians, parliaments and the people; setting a clear time frame to show renewed commitment and urgency; and significantly raising the profile and understanding of constitutional recognition across the population.
The review panel also recommended that the act of recognition be extended for no more than three years, to demonstrate continuing commitment while we prepare the country for a referendum.
I can assure the parliament that the government is absolutely committed to holding a referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution. It would be a watershed moment. It would right the wrongs of the past. It would acknowledge our shared history and the incredible value we place on our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage. It would be one of the most powerful, unifying moments in our nation’s history. And that is why we must work together now as a parliament to get this right. Failure is simply not an option.
The government is taking action on the recommendations of the review panel. In December, the government announced an additional $5 million for the Recognise campaign, to help raise awareness of why recognition is so important.
We have indicated our desire to proceed to a referendum as soon as the nation is ready—by, we hope, 27 May 2017, and our willingness to work across parliament, with Indigenous leaders and the Australian people to get it there.
In a few months’ time, the joint select committee will report on its favoured model for constitutional recognition. From there, we will enter a period of discussion and engagement with the Australian people to arrive at the proposition that has the best chance of success.
During the past two years, the act of recognition has had an impact. We have a multiparty process in place through the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, the review panel’s final report, and a clear set of recommendations to guide our path towards a successful referendum. But there is much work to do. We are still at the beginning of this journey, rather than near the end point.
We need more time, and we need to keep the post-it note there. Three years is ample time to get us to our goal. Three years, not just to see how we go, but to do everything in our collective power to achieve a constitutional change.
During this period, we must redouble our joint efforts to find consensus on a time frame, a process, and ultimately, a form of words capable of winning support from a majority of Australians nationally, and in a majority of states. It is imperative that we now work together to turn this aspiration, shared by so many Australians, into a reality.