I rise today with great pleasure to support this very important bill, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012, which recognises the distinctive and unique place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the first peoples of our nation. The Labor Party has a long and proud record of supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. As we heard yesterday from the Prime Minister, our efforts in closing the gap show our commitment and genuine desire to advance Indigenous Australia and also to recognise historic wrongs and injustices. I commend the Prime Minister for her courage in standing up to state and territory governments who turn their backs on the serious social and economic problems that affect some communities.
The bill before us is another measure Labor is taking to advance Indigenous Australia and promote reconciliation because Labor has always been a party that advances Indigenous Australia and the process of reconciliation and respect. It was Gough Whitlam who championed land rights and upgraded the office of Aboriginal affairs to ministerial level. It was under Labor that Uluru was handed back to its traditional owners. It was under Labor that the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was established. In 1989 it was Labor that passed a resolution on Indigenous prior ownership and dispossession, and it is worth noting that this was opposed by the Liberal Party.
In 1992 it was Labor's Paul Keating who delivered his landmark Redfern speech at the launch of the International Year of Indigenous People. There Mr Keating articulated the goal of all in Labor when he said: … we cannot confidently say that we have succeeded as we would like to have succeeded if we have not managed to extend opportunity and care, dignity and hope to the indigenous people of Australia—the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people.
And last year, on the 20th anniversary of the historic High Court Mabo native title decision, our former AttorneyGeneral Nicola Roxon remarked: The Mabo decision marked a turning point for reconciliation in Australia.
The Attorney-General echoed all our sentiments—all in Labor—when she said Mabo: … was a significant step forward in truly recognising the proud history of the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures on our planet.
It was on 13 February 2008 when Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised to the stolen generations in what was one of the most moving and significant moments this parliament has ever seen. And yesterday Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered her Closing the Gap statement that highlighted the great progress this government is making to ensure more Indigenous children than ever before are getting access to preschool. As the Prime Minister said, 95 per cent of Indigenous four-year-olds in remote communities are now enrolled in preschool. It is an extraordinary achievement, and anyone who saw the images last night on television would celebrate that. This is just one measure where we are closing the gap.
Now we have more landmark Labor legislation in the form of a provisional measure, a starting point on the road to formal recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution. As we work towards that goal, this bill will go a long way in raising public awareness and building a national consensus in Australia for constitutional change. Labor has committed $10 million to support this campaign, and the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians, a body established by the Labor government, came up with a package of recommended constitutional amendments that they considered would be successful at a national referendum. But we recognise that a referendum must be held at a time when it has the most chance of success. That is vitally important, and this was something that the expert panel recommended.
I understand that much work is already underway in laying the groundwork for constitutional change, and among these measures are the reconciliation action plans—business plans that craft meaningful relationships and produce sustainable opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Since the program's inception, over 300 Australian corporations, governments, government agencies and community organisations have signed up to reconciliation action plans, and the expert panel has played a leading role in this process of laying the groundwork, as has Reconciliation Australia, which has previously done a lot to raise public awareness and support for constitutional change.
I was involved in developing the reconciliation action plan for the Department of Defence, an enormously comprehensive plan that took about a year in negotiation and consultation with all arms of Defence. It was, I understand, the first reconciliation action plan that was introduced in government agencies. It was an absolute tome, and I commend and congratulate the Department of Defence for the efforts that they put into this in really wanting to achieve reconciliation and understanding across the behemoth that is Defence. There are so many different arms, so the reconciliation action plan has a specific section for Navy, a specific section for Army, a specific section for Air Force and specific sections for the various agencies and arms of Defence, including DSTO and what at that stage was the Defence Support Group. Right across the organisation and right across Australia, every part of it was touched by this reconciliation action plan.
It was not just a case of lovely words and great design; there were substantial KPIs and tight time lines in there on what needed to be achieved by a particular date, such as what Navy needed to do not just in addressing and improving access of Indigenous Australians to Navy but also in terms of improving cultural understanding. That is particularly important in every government agency, and it is particularly true for Defence, even though they have a very strong track record of achievement in this area, particularly with NORFORCE up north; I understand that about 95 per cent of NORFORCE comprises Indigenous Australians. So it was a comprehensive and extraordinary body of work that was developed through extensive consultation over quite a bit of time, and I commend and congratulate Defence, as I said. I understand that there have been a number of iterations since then. Defence also, in a way, led the way for other government agencies with their work. I was involved in the launch of that first reconciliation action plan. There was the smoking ceremony. It was conducted with great dignity and also with great respect and a large degree of involvement of the Indigenous community in the launch of the event. Defence also has Indigenous Defence personnel drawn from all over the country, from civilian and military areas. They advise and assist, and they are the management in Defence on what is appropriate for their communities both in a working environment and in a social and economic environment. So, again, hats off to Defence for that extraordinary work on the reconciliation action plan.
It is just wonderful to see that so many Australian organisations—private, public and community—have signed up for these plans, because the benefit of these plans is the fact that they focus the organisation on the Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander community needs. It is not just a case of writing these papers; the key word is 'action', so they outline some objectives on what they want to achieve and then how they are going to achieve, it, and it focuses everyone's attention on the fact that, 'Okay, there is this gap here, and we need to fill it and address it, and this is how we're going to do it.' So everyone is mobilised and there is a broad sense of ownership in that organisation in achieving more equitable outcomes for Indigenous Australians.
When the expert panel delivered its report to the government early last year recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution, there was a clear acknowledgement that in Australia there is not a great deal of support or awareness for the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution. In my electorate of Canberra there is a very strong level of support for formal recognition. I have received a number of emails on it and Canberrans are 110 per cent behind this.
As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, just from prayers each morning, the ACT is the home of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples. They are the original inhabitants and their traditional lands do not just encompass Canberra but much of the area around the ACT region. The Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples have inhabited this area, including the land that this parliament is built on, for about 20,000 years. Along with all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, they warrant formal recognition, and so many Canberrans are supportive of this. Like me, there are many in the electorate who are equally passionate about recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution.
It is the small investments, the on-the-ground projects, that are making the difference. Here in my electorate the government's Find Your Science Hero project was developed by the Questacon ScienceLines Indigenous Outreach Program to complement and work with the ACT Department of Education and Training's Indigenous Student Aspirations program. The Find Your Science Hero project was developed by ScienceLines, in response to lower levels of engagement with the sciences amongst young Indigenous students. We have low levels of engagement by students in science across Australia, particularly so with young Indigenous students. The project challenged the students' notions about what science is and who uses science. With the help of the ScienceLines team, students made a personal connection to science by identifying a 'science hero' from within their own family or community. It is a great idea. The ScienceLines team offered the students who participated in Find Your Science Hero the opportunity to present their projects at a public event held at Questacon during National Reconciliation Week last year. I understand that the presentations were inspirational. Many people attending reported that it was one of the best events held in Canberra during that week. That is just one example of Labor's commitment to respect and recognition.
As I said before, we concur with the expert panel that it is important for a referendum to be held at a time when it has the most chance of success. As we all know, referendums in this country are not often passed; they involve a huge amount of agreement across the entire nation. This issue certainly has the potential to undermine the reconciliation process between Australia's first peoples and the broader community. That is why we are starting with this bill. It signifies our desire to pursue meaningful change to the Constitution that echoes the hopes and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
In saying this, it is important to stress that this is not a substitute for constitutional recognition. This bill does not include all of the recommendations of the expert panel as many of the recommendations specifically refer to sections of the Constitution. This bill creates a mechanism where all Australians can become familiar with and aware of the possible wording for a constitutional statement that could be included in a referendum in the future on the constitutional recognition. So in many respects this bill is part of the ongoing conversation that needs to be held in the lead-up to constitutional change. There are many reasons why this bill is so important in the long-awaited recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It is critical to this nation that we recognise the first peoples and finally give them the respect and formal acknowledgments that are long overdue. It is equally critical that we educate and inform the Australian people—all of them—about why we are proposing this and what it means. We also need to show how successfully this has been achieved in other countries. This is why we have committed $10 million to establish a public awareness campaign and build on community support.
Formal recognition and respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, wherever they are—Cobourg Peninsula, Bamaga, Nullumbuy, Thursday Island, Redfern, Townsville or over in the west—should not be a divisive or controversial issue; it should be a process that unites all Australians in recognising our first peoples' unique history, culture and connection to this land. It is an important step in Australia's history and a process I hope all members of parliament will support and embrace.