The Joint Parliamentary Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples has endorsed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012 without any recommended changes. The Committee, made up of representatives from all major political parties and independent MP Rob Oakeshott, released its report on the Bill on 30 January 2013. In 2011 an Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition appointed by the Federal Government undertook an extensive national consultation and made a number of key recommendations for potential Constitutional reform. Instead of proceeding directly to a referendum due to limited community awareness of and lack of multi-party support for the recommendations, as a compromise and interim step the Government introduced the current Bill to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as Australia’s First Peoples.
While the Bill is a welcome step towards Constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the HRLC and other community bodies raised concerns during the Select Committee’s consultation that the Bill didn’t adequately ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples would be included in the process of developing a referendum proposal, consistent with the right of self determination and rights contained in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The HRLC and other organisations also raised concerns that insufficient weight was given in the Bill to the recommendations of the Expert Panel. The Panel’s recommendations included the removal of discriminatory race powers and inserting a prohibition against racial discrimination. The Bill and Explanatory Memorandum however focus almost exclusively on Constitutional recognition only, creating a risk that future debate and direction from government would be confined to this recommendation.
The Select Committee emphasised in its report that the Bill is intended as a stepping stone towards Constitutional reform and is not intended to limit matters that could be put to the Australian public in a referendum.
On that basis the Committee recommended that the Bill be passed without amendments. The Bill was passed in the House of Representatives on 13 February 2013 with unanimous support and will now be introduced into the Senate.