Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP calls for Constitutional Recognition

10 June, 2020


I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which I currently stand, the Ngunawal and Ngambri people, and I pay respect to their elders, past, present and emerging. I would also like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the electorate of Warringah, the Gayamaygal, the Gameragal and the Borogegal, as the first people of Warringah, and pay respect to their elders.

Sovereignty was never ceded. I accept the invitation extended to all Australians through the Uluru Statement from the Heart to walk with us in a movement of Australian people for a better future. The depth of Indigenous history, knowledge and culture adds a depth of richness to this continent that makes it all the more special. I wish to use this opportunity to push for a better way, one where we elevate this to a moral issue, recognise the Indigenous voice in this place and in the Constitution and establish the Makarrata Commission to oversee the process of truth-telling about our history.

Just two weeks ago we learned of the destruction of a key historical site in the name of profit and greed. Rio Tinto detonated explosives in the Juukan cave in the Pilbara on the land of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people. The caves contained significant Indigenous artefacts proving the existence of the people in the place for 46,000 years. That site proved that people had lived in Australia through the last Ice Age. I'm ashamed by our lack of respect for the traditional custodians of the land. I'm also ashamed by our lack of pride in the history of this nation. These caves contained artefacts around 40,000 years older than the Pyramids. This is a loss to humanity, not just the traditional custodians of that land. Worse still is that yesterday we learnt that Fortescue Metals have applied to destroy another significant site, on the lands of the Eastern Guruma people in Western Australia. The Queens mine expansion has a footprint covering more than 70 heritage sites, including rock shelters, campsites, rock paintings and engravings, including a 60,000-year-old rock shelter among them.

Indigenous people have been here for over 60,000 years. They have done wonders with this place through all sorts of climates. For humanity to thrive, we must acknowledge and learn from our history—the evolution and journey of mankind on this planet. The destruction of these caves is not the first piece of history we have lost. Aboriginal land care and agricultural techniques are only just being rediscovered now through hard work. Bruce Pascoe has demonstrated that there was once a grain belt that extended across the whole continent. There were indigenous crops that are far better suited to the Australian environment. Aboriginal land management was proactive and uniquely adapted to this place. The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements will no doubt highlight the importance of Indigenous use of fire in land management. There's so much to share, yet not only do we fail to listen but we actively silence them.

Internationally, the riots in the US surrounding the death of George Floyd during his arrest have generated a harsh reminder of police brutality, including towards Indigenous people here in Australia. It is a story of systemic failure to walk with one another, personified in police brutality. Many of the recommendations from the 1987 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody have not been implemented. Since the conclusion of the royal commission in 1991, 432 Aboriginal people have died in custody without any person being convicted. I express my deepest sympathy to the many families who have suffered through this traumatic experience. The system has failed you. The Uluru Statement from the Heart states that Indigenous people are not innately criminal people. Yet today Indigenous people represent two per cent of the total population, 28 per cent of the prison population, 34 per cent of incarcerated women and 48 per cent of juveniles in custody. Since 2004, the number of Indigenous people incarcerated has increased by 88 per cent, while the number of non-Aboriginal people incarcerated has increased by 28 per cent. This is a systemic failure based on discrimination and bias.

The 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart asserts that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sovereignty has never been ceded and calls for enshrining a First Nations voice to parliament in the Constitution. Enshrining a First Nations voice to parliament in the Constitution requires a referendum process. The questions that could be put to the Australian people have been drafted in the submissions of Professor Davis to the 2018 parliamentary inquiry into constitutional recognition relating to Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people. The Dodson-Leeser report found that a voice to parliament, not a voice to government, was the only viable reform proposal. The power and success of that voice depends on its public status, and a referendum will provide the public discussion and education necessary to validate the voice within our democratic process.

I welcome the Prime Minister's appointment of the Hon. Ken Wyatt MP as the first Aboriginal Minister for Indigenous Australians, but I am concerned that the minister appears focused on only legislating a voice to government. I suspect this is due to internal party room dynamics. This issue needs to be elevated above the party room. It is a moral issue for all MPs, above party politics. If there isn't enough support in the coalition party room for constitutional recognition and a voice to parliament, Minister, know there is support from many across the chamber. Call for a conscience vote to enable a referendum. As Teela Reid, a proud Wiradjuri and Wailwan woman and lawyer, states:

… what mob don't want is more bureaucratic red tape suffocating their communities through a 'Voice to government'. This is not what the Uluru Statement from the Heart calls for.

The community wants a voice to parliament; anything less has already been rejected as symbolism.

The Uluru statement ends with an invitation:

We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.

This sentiment is so selfless and so empowering—to be invited to share in a history and culture that reaches back over 65,000 years. This is a moral choice for all Australians to make. What kind of Australia do we want to be? In the past nine years, there have been five formal taxpayer funded, government endorsed processes; a legislative framework, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Act 2013; and eight reports. The work has been done. Now is the time to put the moral question of constitutional recognition to the Australian people.

The ask is simple. Prime Minister, we have seen you act on a health crisis decisively. It's now time to act on injustice. Empowerment of our First Nations with a voice to parliament and the Uluru statement is the way forward. The ask is simple: (1) that Minister Wyatt devise a question and publicly commit to a referendum on the voice to parliament without delay; (2) that the referendum to be put to the Australian people during 2021 without further delay; and (3) that the Prime Minister urgently convene a national cabinet meeting on Black Lives Matter, inviting experts from the Indigenous community to agree to a national plan of action to address Indigenous deaths in custody and incarceration rates. As the Eddie Mabo decision showed 28 years ago, change can happen against the odds. We again need urgent reform of our Constitution, and the best time to start is now. So, in answer to the Indigenous people and the Uluru Statement from the Heart: I will walk with you, my fellow Australians.