Page 1457 - Week 05 - Wednesday, 1 June 2022
MS STEPHEN-SMITH (Kurrajong—Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, Minister for Families and Community Services and Minister for Health) (11.09): As members would be aware, we are sitting today during National Reconciliation Week, which this year has the theme, “Be Brave, Make Change”. I take this opportunity to speak about the importance of reconciliation for all Canberrans and all Australians.
Reconciliation Week is held each year between 27 May and 3 June. Each of these dates commemorates a milestone in the advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ rights in post-colonial Australia. The date 27 May marks the anniversary of the 1967 referendum, which was successful in amending the Constitution to remove clauses that were actively exclusionary of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It is especially timely for us to reflect on the 1967 referendum during this year’s Reconciliation Week, given the commitment from the incoming federal Labor government to advance further constitutional reform.
The Constitution is the formative document of our nation. It has profound legal and symbolic significance to our democracy and national identity. The 1967 referendum, one of only eight to succeed since federation, was a victory for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activists and their allies. The successful constitutional amendment removed clauses which, in effect, allowed discrimination against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples under state law, and which prevented them from being counted in the population. While this remains worthy of celebration and reflection, the 1967 amendments to the Constitution do not go far enough in actively recognising the unique status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their cultures in the conception of our nation.
Indeed, conversations about further constitutional reform have been ongoing in the decades since the 1967 referendum. In 2011, the Gillard government convened an expert panel to explore options for constitutional change and approaches to a referendum that would be likely to obtain widespread support from the Australian community. In 2013, on the five-year anniversary of the historic national apology to the stolen generations, the Gillard government passed an Act of Recognition in the House of Representatives.
This act acknowledged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the first inhabitants of this continent and sought to capture momentum towards a referendum on constitutional recognition within a two-year time frame. Tony Abbott, then opposition leader, committed to an even more ambitious 12-month time frame. But, of course, this never eventuated when Mr Abbott was Prime Minister. In 2015, the then Turnbull federal government, with bipartisan support from the Labor opposition, appointed the Referendum Council to further explore the question of constitutional recognition.
The Referendum Council undertook First Nations regional dialogues with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across Australia, and in May 2017 this culminated