Monday, 21 November 2022
Private Members' Business
First Nations Voice
I rise to speak in support of the private member's motion by the member for Jagajaga relating to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. In my community, on Whadjuk Noongar land, there's been strong support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart, to accept the modest request from First Nations people of Australia to let them speak for themselves and jointly tell the truth about our past. There was much enthusiasm in Curtin about the Prime Minister's commitment to the Voice immediately after the election. Since then, some questions have started to emerge. Recently, I've heard two main concerns about the Voice: firstly, that there are more urgent issues that need to be addressed, like the safety of women and children in remote communities; and, secondly, that we don't know exactly how it will work. I want to talk today about why these concerns shouldn't dampen momentum for the Voice and the rest of the Uluru Statement from the Heart: the truth-telling and the agreement-making.
Firstly, in relation to the idea that we need to prioritise more urgent issues, I draw on my own personal experience. About 13 years ago, I was manager for Indigenous affairs at Wesfarmers Ltd, which owns Coles, Target, Kmart, Bunnings and other companies. With an advisory group, I was pulling together Wesfarmers's first reconciliation action plan, committing to actions under the headings of 'respect', 'relationships' and 'opportunities'. I took what I thought to be a pragmatic approach. As the largest private sector employer in the country, we needed to focus on opportunities and, specifically, jobs. This was where we could make a difference. I thought the respect and relationships actions were secondary: nice to have, but not overly practical. It took me about a year to realise how wrong I was. If you're followed around a retail store by the security guard, you probably won't apply for a job there. The penny dropped for me, and I realised that, without resetting our relationships based on respect, we would never succeed with the jobs. You need to get the foundation right before you can build anything that will last.
The Uluru statement offers that foundation. In order to effectively contribute to addressing intergenerational disadvantage, we need to listen to the people affected. We need to establish a shared understanding of how we got here. We have a long history of government intervention into the lives of First Nations people, but many of our current interventions are failing. We can and we must do two things at once: do our best to make improvements in the short-term on vital issues like the safety of women and children, but we must also commit to longer-term, deeper change through the Uluru statement. If we don't reset our relationships and give First Nations people a voice on laws that affect them, there is no reason to believe that the next 50 years of intervention will be any different to the last 50 years.
I want to address the second concern that has been emerging: that we don't know exactly what the Voice is. The first draft of the words proposed by the Prime Minister are:
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to parliament and the executive government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.
The parliament shall … have power to make laws with respect to the composition, functions, powers, and procedures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
I initially had some concerns that this was too broad and uncertain, but, after reading about the work already done and learning from some experts, I understood why the detail needs to be left to the parliament. The Voice will not be effective if it's appointed by government. It will need to be owned by First Nations communities, which are diverse. Marcia Langton and Tom Calma recommend that local and regional Voice bodies will need to be flexible, so their communities can determine how the representatives are appointed There is complexity between local, regional and state voices, as well as the parallel processes on agreement-making and truth-telling. We may not get it right at first. We need to have patience and the flexibility to change it as we learn. The Constitution is the governing principles, not this sort of complexity. It may take 10 years to get the Voice right, but, if we're committed to it in the Constitution, our legislative body can work through the details.
There is no doubt that there is work to be done before the referendum, but this is the sort of long-term thinking that has been lacking in government. My community lamented the fact that often governments think in political cycles, rather than providing long-term leadership. When government shows a willingness to bravely embark on long-term change, we must be willing to take the first steps and be patient. I support the motion and I look forward to working with First Nations people, the government and my community to build the understanding of the benefits of implementing the Uluru statement over the next year.