COMMITTEES - Constitutional Recognition of ATSIP - Report

I present the report of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition Relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, and I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I rise to speak on the report of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition Relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, a committee I co-chaired with the member for Berowra, Mr Julian Leeser, and I offer my thanks and respect to him as the co-chair. Labor welcomes this report. I place on record my thanks to the members and senators on the committee for their thoughtful contributions to this most important challenge to our country. The committee members carried out the primary task of the committee with dutiful care and consideration. They listened to the First Nations peoples in hearings across Australia. They considered what they heard, and they have arrived at some shared understanding on a way forward for the parliament to consider.

The committee was established in March, presented its interim report in July and held 27 hearings in communities around the country. In June and July, the committee had hearings in Kununurra, Halls Creek, Fitzroy Crossing, Broome, Canberra, Dubbo, Sydney, Adelaide and Perth. The committee also attended a meeting of the four Northern Territory land councils at Barunga. Barunga commemorated the 30th anniversary of the promise of a treaty by the then Prime Minister, Mr Hawke. I was there 30 years ago when that promise was made. I was working for the Central Land Council. In September and October, the committee conducted additional public hearings in Canberra, Wodonga, Shepparton, Melbourne, Thursday Island, Townsville, Palm Island, Brisbane and Redfern. The committee received nearly 500 submissions and 47 supplementary submissions, and I acknowledge with gratitude the work and good humour of the secretariat in managing a significant workload and major logistic challenges. Labor recognises that differences exist between the parties on these nationally-significant issues, and we appreciate the efforts of committee members to find common ground, which will enable the parliament to go forward if we are of the will.

In its interim report, the committee considered the proposal coming from the Statement from the Heart for a voice to parliament in detail, and since July the committee has continued to seek the views of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and others about how best to achieve constitutional recognition. In this report, the committee endorses the proposal for a voice. The committee recommends a process of design between government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to work through the detail of the voice during the term of the 46th parliament. The committee also recommends that the legal form and role of the voice should be determined through a process of co-design. We see these recommendations as significant steps for the parliament to discuss and consider in the hope of moving towards a more cross-party and agreed approach for constitutional recognition. The committee also makes important recommendations in relation to truth-telling about Australia's history. Seeking a fuller understanding of Australia's history will lead to a more reconciled nation. One important recommendation of the committee is the establishment of a national resting place in Canberra for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander unknown remains that cannot be returned to any of our own people. It will be a place of commemoration, healing and reflection.

Unfortunately, while we achieved common ground in support of the recommendations, we ended up with two members taking different views on the options for the way forward. Senator Siewert and the Greens, in their minority report, take the view that a referendum should take place before any co-design process, subject to First Nations peoples' views. Senator Stoker, while agreeing with the recommendations that the majority supports, also supports the establishment of regional entities to get greater outcomes than a national voice or a constitutional amendment can deliver. Those members may, of course, speak to their positions and correct me if I've made a misinterpretation of their views. Their views are important and should be considered and weighed, and, as the co-chairs, we respect their opinions.

As co-chairs, Mr Leeser and myself had to do quite a bit of political shoe shuffling within our own parties as well as within the committee. We took very seriously the concerns and issues raised by all parliamentary parties and the independent member, the member for Indi, Ms Cathy McGowan. We particularly thank her for her efforts to encourage community members from her electorate to participate in the work of the committee.

I'd like to make some remarks from a Labor point of view now, as it seems that public comment has been made already in the press about the report and about Labor. Labor will be guided by this committee's report. As a party we remain committed to using this report as one step towards the future of a reconciled Australia which recognises First Nations people in our Constitution, values the history of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander contribution to modern Australia, and entrenches recognition in our nation's birth certificate, the Constitution. Labour remains committed to all elements arising from the Statement from the Heart and will continue to work with First Nations peoples for a voice to parliament, for constitutional entrenchment of the voice and for a truth-telling and agreement-making process. These are high-order issues for Labor.

There was some quite intense discussion in the committee about what should come first: a referendum, legislation or some co-design form of legislation. In some ways, this is a matter of political judgement, working through all the legal consequences that words bring to constitutional considerations to achieve a successful outcome for First Nations and the community. The challenges of new words in the Constitution have their own tyranny, and we didn't have the time to do all the constitutional checking.

As a matter not covered in this report, the matter of the republic, has arisen in the pre-press before the tabling of this report, I want to make some comments about that. Labor is also keen to hold an important conversation with the Australian people on the issue of the republic and holding a plebiscite. The republic will be an important conversation, but I make it clear that we have committed to a constitutional change for the First Nations voice as our priority and our clear focus. If Labor were ever returned to government, clearly we are committed to working with First Nations leaders in the development of a national voice to the parliament and at the regional levels, as well as other elements of the report and the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Labor will take up the challenge of enabling regional and local voices in this process of establishing a voice to the national parliament. Labor will begin the co-design process with legislation to set up the voice early in the first term of a Shorten government. Labor will also consult nationally and regionally on the appropriate words for the voice to be included in the Constitution, an issue on which the committee received some 19 different, competing suggestions and on which there were different and diverse views from First Nations leaders themselves.

Simultaneously, Labor will be consulting with Australian people in the broader community about the referendum and the way to entrench the voice. Labor understands the general desire to get on and to get things done quickly but thoroughly and to push forward for an early referendum. It will take the government of the day passing a law to make possible any constitutional change. Then it will take the opposition of the day and the parties of the crossbenches to support the question and the process for any referendum. Then it will take a majority of the voters nationally and in the majority of the states in favour of the question that has to be put to the nation. This is where we, as politicians and our parties, come in, and an interest of the parliament of the whole— (Time expired)

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