The SA Parliament has passed a Bill recognising past injustices and acknowledging Indigenous citizens as the first owners and occupiers of the state. 
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26 Mar 2013 - 7:47 AM  UPDATED 26 Aug 2013 - 10:48 AM

South Australia has formally recognised Aboriginal people in the state's constitution.

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

Parliament has passed a Bill recognising past injustices and acknowledging Indigenous citizens as the first owners and occupiers of the state.

But some have criticised the change as tokenistic, doing little to address the disadvantage that's arisen from past injustices.

The Bill's passage was briefly disrupted by a protestor calling for historical rights granted to Aboriginal people to be honoured.

And as Karen Ashford reports, the challenge faced by South Australia to ensure the change is more than just symbolic is also facing the nation, as it moves towards constitutional recognition.

"A Bill for an Act to amend the Constitution Act 1934." "The question is that this Bill do now pass. Those in favour say Aye (AYE), those against say no... it's carried." (applause, fade under voicer)

And with that, 175 years of not acknowledging Indigenous citizens was reversed.

They're now formally recognised in the South Australian constitution as the original owners of the land.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ian Hunter says it's a big step forward for reconciliation, fixing glaring omissions in the state's founding document.

"It makes no mention of the Aboriginal occupation of the lands and the waters that were proclaimed, nor of the relationship of Aboriginal people with those lands and those waters. New and respectful words can help to address those omissions. And while perhaps injustices cannot be undone, they can at least be acknowledged."

Premier Jay Weatherill says South Australia's acknowledgement adds impetus to the push for Indigenous recognition in the national constitution.

Unlike the state constitution which can be amended by Parliament, the federal constitution requires a referendum to achieve change.

By joining New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland in recognising Indigenous citizens, Minister Hunter says South Australia has avoided humiliation.

"It would be embarrassing if South Australians were to be voting on changes to the Commonwealth constitution that have not been adopted in our state constitution. Sir, in passing this Bill, we ensure that our constitution remains a living document that responds to our times. In relation to Aboriginal people, it means certain historical facts can now be included; that respect for Aboriginal spiritual, social and cultural practices can be spelled out in our state's founding document."

Dignity for Disability MP Kelly Vincent says well-meaning words are inadequate unless they're backed by positive action.

However she says recent government policy decisions have shamefully stripped Aboriginal people of rights and she fears that will continue unabated, even as the government cloaks itself in credit for its constitutional achievement.

"So while I am proud to be taking a step forward with the passage of this Bill today, I am more concerned that it will not be long before we see this government's selfishness and lack of respect and cooperation drag us back two steps again."

The wording of the constitutional change was devised by a panel of prominent Indigenous leaders and experts.

It contains an important caveat that the changes have no legal effect.

It means the constitutional recognition cannot be used to sue for compensation for past injustices, nor to further future claims for land.

It also acknowledges the existence of a decree unique in Australia, called the Letters Patent.

The Letters Patent was an order by King William the fourth issued in 1836, declaring that Aboriginal people should not be deprived tution.Eof occupation or enjoyment of their lands by settlers.

The Letters Patent has never been honoured, but there's a groundswell of pressure for its principles to be adopted, even if it's impractical to entirely return alienated lands.

Opposition MP Terry Stephens says the Letters Patent is an example of good intentions unfulfilled, and diligence is needed to ensure the same fate doesn't befall the state constitution.

"There is no doubt that these conditions and hardships with which Aboriginal people live in this state have been born out of white settlement. But it's not good enough to say this, say sorry for wrongdoing and leave it at that. The point of which is that official documents can say one thing, but what happens in practice is what really matters and is what truly affects people."

But when government MP Gerry Kandelaars mentioned the Letters Patent , it provoked an outburst from the public gallery, with Aboriginal activist Karno Walker decrying the entire procedure as a sham.

"This includes any rights under the letters patent and the express acknowledgement of the letters patent shows this as a matter was not overlooked..."

"You should be ashamed of yourself!"

"I should mention that the inclusion of the caveat was itself a matter for consultation and discussion..."

"You did not speak to me or my people!"

"The panel's report note..."

"You fellow should be really ashamed of yourself and this Parliament, supporting the Ngarrindjeri and Kaurna before the conclusion of Native title."

"Sir take your seat. You are to take your seat quietly or..."

"Under false pretences of Ngarrindjeri and Kaurna ..."

"Sir take your seat, you are to take your seat quietly."

"... being that you are acting under false pretences ..."

"I am now asking you to leave. I'm now asking you to leave sir..."

"You're committing genocide. How hard is that?"

"I'm asking you to leave sir."

The outspoken Ramindjeri man's refusal to leave saw matters adjourned while the chamber was cleared and he was arrested.

He's been charged with interrupting a public meeting, disorderly behaviour, failing to cease to loiter, resisting police and property damage.

He was not the only objector, but others took a less confrontational approach to getting their message across.

Social Justice campaigner Tauto Sansbury drafted independent MP John Darley to read his statement to the parliament, thus ensuring his views were captured in Hansard.

"While the proposed Act may be well-intentioned, it creates a dangerous sleight-of-hand scenario. It creates the impression of a tangible benefit to Aboriginal people, while in practical terms their position is not materially advanced. The feel-good emotions it is calculated to create in the wider community tend to mask the real plight that Aboriginal people experience in society. The issues of poverty, poor education, health, housing and over-representation in the criminal justice system are matters to be addressed prior to the window-dressing of an amendment to the South Australian constitution."

Premier Jay Weatherill acknowledged there are differing views about the appropriateness of the change, but thinks it enjoys broad support.

"The overwhelming majority of South Australians, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, think this is an important step to acknowledge in very truthful terms the importance of the Aboriginal people to this state and their historical relationship to the country, and the importance of the continuing Aboriginal culture for South Australia. So this is an overwhelmingly positive and supported measure by the South Australian community, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal; it doesn't mean it's supported by every single person in the state though."

Greens MP Tammy Franks says ractution.Eism remains a significant problem that the constitutional recognition won't immediately eliminate, but it is a move in that direction.

She says although the change is largely a symbolic gesture, history shows symbols are important and often powerful contributors to change.

"And indeed let us not forget the more recent history where the peoples of over 40 nations within the mapped boundaries of this state, and indeed the several hundred nations across the continent of this island, were treated as invisible, as sub-human and as somehow lesser. Let us remember there was a past where policies and practices sought to assimilate and eradicate the very existence of the first peoples. Where those who invaded or settled were guilty of murder, of rape, of poisoning, of stealing, of paternalising and more recently I believe patronising. Let us pledge as a Parliament today we will never repeat these crimes against humanity, or should we see them, we will never stay silent if they are witnessed by us."