Aboriginal Representative Body Bill

02 Dec 2021

Second Reading

The Hon. D.C. VAN HOLST PELLEKAAN (Stuart—Deputy Premier, Minister for Energy and Mining) (16:29): In my contribution to the Aboriginal Representative Body Bill, I will begin by quoting from the preamble to this bill:

Aboriginal people have long called for their voice to be heard in Parliamentary and Government decision-making processes. Too often, Aboriginal representation, advocacy and influence is absent and decisions are made for Aboriginal people by others.

The Parliament of South Australia wants to ensure that the voice of Aboriginal people is heard by the Parliament and the Government of South Australia. When their voice is heard, Aboriginal self-determination becomes a step closer.

This Act sees South Australia accept the invitation of Aboriginal people to join them and walk together towards a better future.

Those words that I have just read out from the preamble were not drafted by the government, although the government certainly does agree with them. They are the aspirations of Aboriginal people expressed to the government through the Commissioner for Aboriginal Engagement, Dr Roger Thomas. Let me quote from the Premier's second reading speech to explain the bill:

The initiative in this bill represents a landmark in the social and political development of our state and our people and an important step in the national journey towards reconciliation…

With this bill we create formal, legal communication channels through which a representative body of Aboriginal South Australians can speak to the heart of our system of government with reciprocal obligations to listen.

Again, these words I have just read are not words written by the government. They were drafted as a further step in a journey that has been entirely Aboriginal-led from its beginning more than three years ago. At the forefront has been Dr Roger Thomas, supported by many other respected Aboriginal leaders in our state and members of their communities. Dr Thomas gave a historic address to this house last December. He concluded that speech by saying:

I strongly believe that for us to progress what has been started today, as it is often stated, Aboriginal affairs should be bipartisan, and it is to that end I strongly encourage this parliament to fully apply the full spirit and principles of bipartisanship in working with me and other significant Aboriginal people to progress the Aboriginal voice.

This is the government's continuing wish.

In giving his address to this house, the commissioner also tabled a report which explained the consultation he had undergone on Aboriginal engagement reform. He explained that this reform was one of the 32 initiatives identified under the government's Aboriginal Affairs Action Plan released in December 2018, almost three years ago. He explained that he had developed a new engagement model as a result of a five-stage process, which had involved initial discussion with Aboriginal community leaders followed by statewide engagement.

As a result, he presented in his report a model for an Aboriginal representative body, which has been incorporated into the bill now before the house. In doing so, he described this model as 'a significant step in the Aboriginal community's road to self-determination'. Dr Thomas also commented:

Importantly, the Body will embody one of the key tenets of the Uluru Statement from the Heart: Voice. It will be a voice of the Aboriginal community to the Parliament of South Australia.

The government cannot emphasise enough that what is before the house in this bill faithfully reflects the advice the commissioner has presented to us as a result of all his consultation. In his report to the house last year, the commissioner referred to the challenges COVID had presented to his continuing work, and he wrote:

I recognise that there is a level of nervousness among Aboriginal people across the state about the risks of COVID-19, which may continue to present challenges for engagement and the electoral process. However, it is important not to lose sight of the significance of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, in which truth-telling and an Aboriginal voice remain key to the broader Aboriginal community.

After the commissioner presented a draft bill in August for cabinet's consideration, cabinet sought a final round of consultation to ensure what had evolved into legislation was clear to those stakeholders who had been involved in the design of the new engagement model. As a result, the commissioner held four consultation forums, supported by representatives from parliamentary counsel, the Crown Solicitor's Office and the Department of the Premier and Cabinet.

He also met with the South Australian Aboriginal Advisory Council, the State Aboriginal Heritage Committee and the Australian Electoral Commission, amongst others. In addition, 51 regional Aboriginal organisations were presented with a consultation pack. As a result, the commissioner advised the Premier that, while there was a minority of attendees who felt that the time given to review the bill in detail was insufficient, a common narrative of strong support for the bill was evident throughout all the forums.

Contrary to what the Deputy Leader of the Opposition said in her contribution on the bill, the subject of Aboriginal engagement reform has been widely canvassed with Aboriginal people and communities. It has been done in an entirely Aboriginal way, led at all times by the Commissioner for Aboriginal Engagement. The opposition, in its response to this bill so far, has encouraged distrust of this process and its outcome. Typical of Labor, it pretends to know what is best. It ignores the empowerment of our Aboriginal people and communities.

And what did Labor do when it was in government? Very little until the last of its 16 years in office. In February 2017, it established the Office of the Treaty Commissioner. In July 2017, Dr Thomas, as the Treaty Commissioner, presented a report to the former government following consultation with Aboriginal people and communities. The house will note that this was a much shorter period of consultation than has occurred for the development of this new engagement model—four months compared with almost three years.

Dr Thomas advised the former government that there was widespread community support for the establishment of an Aboriginal Representative Body as a step in the process of further consideration of treaties. But his advice was rejected, with the former government directing instead that negotiations about treaty had to commence before the end of 2017.

In May 2018, Dr Thomas reported to this government about the treaty process of the former government and he advised that from the outset there were widespread concerns expressed by the broader Aboriginal community and the commissioner about the very short time frames for the consultation process to be carried out across South Australia. The consequences of these unrealistic time frames placed insurmountable pressure on those nations that had been selected to commence negotiations. They had little time to adequately comprehend treaty and fully prepare for negotiations, let alone to properly consult with their own community members.

The government accepts the engagement process enshrined in this bill is breaking new ground. That is why the Premier asked Dr Thomas more than three years ago to initiate consultation with our Aboriginal community. The model the commissioner has developed will provide a voice to Aboriginal people that will be independent, representative and genuinely connected with Aboriginal communities. It establishes a body whose existence and functions, as well as independence, will be enshrined into law.

It establishes formal communication channels between Aboriginal people, the parliament, the government, ministers and government agencies. It establishes accountabilities for ensuring that views put on behalf of Aboriginal people are considered and respectfully responded to. This parliament now has the opportunity to provide Aboriginal people with a voice that will be heard by the parliament, the cabinet and state government agencies.

Because what is proposed is new, clause 59 of the bill provides a review mechanism to include a scheme of consultation to be determined by the review body itself and to be undertaken no more than three years after the commencement of the bill. This will leave the destiny of this reform where it should be: in the hands of Aboriginal people. The government urges the house to recognise and respect the work of Dr Thomas and support the engagement model he has proposed on behalf of the Aboriginal people of our state.

Debate adjourned on motion of Dr Harvey.