Sr Margaret Hinchey to Present to Joint Select Committee

Parramatta Sister of Mercy, Margaret Hinchey, has been invited to present to the Joint select Committee on Constitutional Recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, in a session in Sydney today.

Following the written submission to the Committee in August 2014, the Sisters of Mercy Parramatta were invited to make a presentation to the Committee, and Sr Margaret Hinchey, a passionate social justice advocate, represent the Parramatta Mercy Congregation.

The full text of Sr Margaret's presentation to the Committee follows.


My name is Sister Margaret Hinchey. I represent the Sisters of Mercy Parramatta who sent a submission to the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Change.

I thank the Committee for the opportunity to speak at this hearing.

Recently I went to the cinema to see the film Selma, set in the United States in the 1960s. It depicts the struggle of African Americans against the discrimination, non-recognition and exclusion they suffered because of their colour. As I watched I could not help thinking that today, more than fifty years later, we have an Australian Constitution that can still discriminate on the basis of race, that does not recognise the 40 000 or more years of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ presence in this land and, as a result, a Constitution that excludes them from the recognition they so rightly deserve as the longest continuing culture on the planet.

Both Sections 25 and section 51(xxvi) as they stand in the Constitution allow for the making of laws by reference to the concept of so-called ‘race’. – in the case of section 25, State laws disqualifying people of a particular race from voting at State elections; and in the case of section 51(xxvi) Commonwealth law which, although amended in 1967, does not prevent legislation that potentially discriminates, either positively or negatively, on the basis of race.

As Noel Pearson eloquently stated:

As long as the allowance of racial discrimination remains in our Constitution, it continues, in both subtle and unsubtle ways, to affect our relationships with each other. Though it has historically hurt my people more than others, racial categorisations dehumanise us all. It dehumanises us because we are each individuals, and we should be judged as individuals. We should be rewarded on our merits and assisted in our needs. Race should not matter.

The Sisters of Mercy support your efforts to bring about the changes to the Constitution we believe are necessary and timely. We have been involved in many ways to try to bring about justice for Australia’s First Peoples. We began the Wunanbiri pre-school for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in Surry Hills in the 1960s, a pre-school that is now controlled and run successfully by the local people; we have been part of the Reconciliation process leading up to the Apology to the Stolen generations; with the consent of the local Darug people we named our Harris Park Convent, Wiangabirong, Sisters Place, and dedicated our garden to the memory of Pemulwuy, the Aboriginal hero who tried for many years to defend their land around the Parramatta area against the British; as educators we have made many efforts to raise awareness among our students and other non-Aboriginal people about the need to redress the centuries of discrimination against Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples. With many other Australians we are ready to see implemented the changes suggested by the Joint Select Committee to make our Constitution something of which we can be proud.

The Recommendations you have published are similar to those we made in our submission. In general we agree with them but would like to offer the following suggestions:

Recommendation 1. Instead of one full day of sittings for debate on the issue we think at least two or three days would allow all members of Parliament who wish to speak on the issue to do so without the undue pressure of time restraints.

Recommendation 5. While we believe no group in our nation should experience negative discrimination, the focus and purpose of the proposed changes to our Constitution are because of the history, culture and the unique place that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Peoples should have in Australia.

Therefore, of the three Options suggested for 51A, we support Option 2 which specifically mentions Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

While Option 1 incorporates the Expert Panel’s 116A amendment that has a broad prohibition against discrimination to cover any group it does not mention Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

Recommendation 6. We are not in favour of holding the referendum at the next election of 2016 unless there is a clear, certain and large majority of States and of the people who will vote ‘yes’ to change the Constitution. Election time can become divisive along Party lines and could take away the focus on the importance of the referendum.

However we do believe a campaign for a ‘yes’ vote should begin this year as soon as the Parliament has agreed to the proposed changes to the Constitution. An appropriate date can be set either in 2016, separate in time from the election, or early in 2017.

In regard to the steps and mechanisms that can be taken to build support for recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples the most important seems to us to be that, as stated by the United Nation Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Parliament needs to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples give their free, prior and informed consent to the proposed changes.

There will need to be bipartisan agreement in the Parliament.

A well-resourced campaign should include a designated committee to lead the process including eminent people respected by the broader community. Groups such as YouMeUnity and Recognise already have made significant and positive steps for engaging the public.

The use of mass media is essential, using creative digital technology of course but also print material since many older citizens are not as familiar with modern means of communication as are younger generations.

Community forums were very successful during the debates on the Republic. They gave people the chance to have the issue clearly explained and to have time to question and clarify their own positions.

The vote to be put to the Australian people should be simple, unequivocal and certain, eg ‘Do you support changing our Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples? Yes/No.

I began this presentation by lamenting the fact that we have an Australian Constitution that can still discriminate against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples on the basis of race.. We believe the time has arrived for Australia to demonstrate its maturity and fairness by not only acknowledging this ancient yet ongoing, still vibrant culture and peoples, but also to celebrate its special place in our nation. It is time to change the Constitution.

Thank you.

(Sr) Margaret Hinchey Sisters of Mercy PO Box 2012 North Parramatta NSW 1750

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