NSW bill recognises Aboriginal people

By Julian Swallow and AAP 8 September 2010
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Aboriginal people in New South Wales are set to gain consitutional recognition after a bill was introduced to Parliament.

INDIGENOUS COMMUNITY LEADERS GATHERED today at NSW Parliament House in Sydney to watch Premier Kristina Keneally introduce a bill that will amend the state’s constitution to acknowledge Aboriginal people as the traditional custodians of the land.

The symbolic inclusion would amend the Constitution Act 1902 to acknowledge Aborigines as “the state’s first people and nations.”

Introduction of the bill followed a traditional smoking ceremony in the parliament’s forecourt, attended by MPs from all parties as well as representatives of the indigenous community and NSW Lieutenant Governor James Spigelman.

Describing the occasion as “humbling”, the Premier said it was a “proud day in this state’s history”. “Our intention is to provide recognition that is long overdue,” she told parliament. “Our intention is to provide recognition – recognition that is long overdue.”

The state’s first indigenous MP, Community Services Minister Linda Burney, said it was “overwhelming” to welcome such a bill. “People here … in this chamber born prior to 1967 were people who fought wars for this nation, who died for this nation, who worked for this country, who died for this country and yet were non-citizens,” she said.

“As a 10-year-old girl growing up in Channel Country NSW (I was) not a citizen as this country. I was not taught that Aboriginal people had a place in this nation. This parliament isn’t just a place for the dry making of laws,” she said. “It is a place for telling true stories of people and places. It is a place for feeling; it is a place for people to demand their rights; it is a place for achieving social justice.”

Following suit

Queensland and Victoria have already introduced similar constitutional changes and the Federal Parliament is considering following suit.

Before the August election, federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin announced the establishment of a bipartisan panel containing indigenous leaders, politicians, constitutional law experts and members of the public to build support for the recognition of Aboriginal people in the Australian Constitution.

The Minister said the proposal is a first step and hasn’t indicated when the panel will be formed or outlined its terms of reference, drawing scepticism from Cape York Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson, who has said the Government’s failure to date to recognise his people in the constitution was a missed opportunity.

Citizens in 1967

Aboriginal Australians had to wait until as late as 1965 to be given the vote at both a federal and state level, and in 1967 a referendum was overwhelmingly passed supporting their inclusion in the census, ending years of discrimination.

Neville Bonner became the first Indigenous Australian to enter parliament in 1971, but remains one of only three to have been elected to Federal Parliament. This year Ken Wyatt of the Liberal Party became the first Aboriginal politician elected to the House of Representatives, where he represents the Perth seat of Hasluck. A number of other indigenous people have been elected to state and territory parliaments across Australia, but gross political under-representation of Aboriginal people persists.