NATIONAL: The Gillard government has introduced its Act of Recognition bill, designed to replace the promised referendum into constitutional reform in the interim, which could be for at least the next two years.
Labor announced the bill earlier this year following concerns there was not enough public support for a referendum into recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the constitution.
The promise, to acknowledge Indigenous Australians in the preamble of the constitution, was an election eve commitment by former Prime Minister John Howard. It was seized upon by his successor Kevin Rudd, and his successor Julia Gillard, who announced an expert panel to undertake community consultations on the issue.
The results of those consultations, and the report of the expert panel conducting it, were released earlier this year.
Since then, there has been little bipartisanship between major parties on what questions to take to a referendum, and when a referendum would be held, amidst concerns that time was running out to rally support for a yes vote.
Referendums have had a low success rate Australia, with only 8 out of 44 being successful.
Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin announced instead she would introduce an Act of Recognition, to commit both parties to a referendum in the future.
Ms Macklin introduced the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition bill into the lower house this morning.
“We do recognise that there is not yet enough community awareness or support for change to hold a successful referendum at or before the next federal election,” Ms Macklin told Parliament.
“The Act of Recognition that will be established by this Bill will continue to help build the momentum we need for successful constitutional change.
“The Act of Recognition will largely reflect the introduction to recommendation 3 of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians.
“The Act makes a clear statement of recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first inhabitants of Australia, and acknowledges their unique history, culture and connection to their traditional lands and waters.
“To allow all of us here in this Parliament to show our support for these truths.
“And through our support, to build awareness and support in the wider community.
“To maintain momentum towards a referendum, a sunset provision in the Bill limits the effect of the Act to two years. The sunset date ensures that legislative recognition does not become entrenched at the expense of continued progress towards constitutional change. “
The bill will now go to a joint parliamentary select committee.
Greens Senator Rachel Siewert welcomed the bill.
“The Joint Select Committee should build on the work already undertaken by the Expert Panel and continue to consult widely on this issue.
“The Committee will have an important responsibility to develop cross-party political momentum in favour of Constitutional Recognition and improve understanding and awareness of this issue in the wider community.
“Constitutional Recognition remains a priority issue for the Australian Greens and we will continue to work hard to see this delivered.”
It was also welcomed by Oxfam Australia.
“This bill is an important step forward on Australia’s journey towards recognising the special place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our nation’s founding document,” Oxfam Australia’s Indigenous Rights Policy Advisory Andrew Meehan said.
“It’s good to see reference to the work of the Expert Panel… as this needs to be the starting point for committee considerations.
“Importantly the bill does not restrict the scope of what proposals on constitutional recognition might be taken to a referendum.”
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