House debates

Monday, 22 May 2023


Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023; Second Reading

3:35 pm

Photo of Josh BurnsJosh Burns (Macnamara, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023. I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, and I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land which make up my electorate of Macnamara, the Bunurong people of the Kulin nation. I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.

I greatly value the opportunity to speak on this unique and historic bill. It may well be one of the most important speeches we all get to make in this place, not because of whatever merits that we say but because of the intrinsic importance of the subject matter. There is no subject more important, no bigger issue confronting this parliament and our country, than the place of our First Australians in our national life.

The history of Australia since 1788 has in many ways been an inspiring one. As the grandson of a refugee from Europe, I welcome the fact that Australia has given a new home to millions of immigrants, many of them refugees, and is still doing so today. But there has always been a dark aspect at the heart of Australian history. Our Australian nation was made possible only by the forcible dispossession of the people who were already living on this continent—the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Historian Henry Reynolds has recently estimated that up to 100,000 Indigenous people were killed during more than 150 years of violent dispossession. Only in recent decades have we come to acknowledge that shameful history.

In the 1890s Australia's elected leaders came together to write a constitution for a new nation, a federated Australia. It never occurred to them to acknowledge the prior occupants of Australia. There were only two references to Aboriginal natives in the Constitution. One reference ensured they would not be counted for various purposes, and the other ensured that the power of making special laws for them was retained by the states. In 1967 the referendum removed both of these references but put nothing in their place. The bill before us today gives us a chance to put that right.

Although the Constitution is a practical working document, it is also the charter of our fabric of our nation. It is shameful that it contains no reference whatsoever to the people who lived on our wonderful lands for 60,000 years before the Europeans set foot. Today our First Nations people are asking us to repair that injustice, that glaring omission. I think it's important to stress how astonishingly simple, moderate and yet profound the request is that has been put to us by our First Nations friends. All they are seeking is recognition and consultation. It would be incredibly small of us to refuse such a request.

As part of the reconciliation process, in the Uluru Statement from the Heart of 2017 our First Nations people have requested they be given a voice in our national parliament, in the form of a constitutionally enshrined voice to parliament. The Voice is a very simple request, as the bill before us sets out. It provides for a body called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. It provides that the Voice may make representations to the parliament and the executive government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The Voice, therefore, will not run programs. It will not allocate money. It will not be a bureaucracy, nor will it be a third chamber of parliament. It will not have legislative, executive or decision-making powers. It will be advisory. Again, I must point out how modest and simple but profound this proposal is.

What possible objections can there be? There seem to be two floating around. The first is that it gives Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a unique or special status. We are asked: why is there no Italian or Indian voice to parliament? The answer to that is quite simple. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people do have a special place in our country's history. They have been here for over 60,000 years. They are the single oldest continuous culture with connection to land and to country, and they have been mistreated and dispossessed throughout our history. Recognising them is the first step towards healing the injustice.

The second objection is that we don't have enough detail about the Voice to Parliament, supposedly. This has been raised, in my opinion, as a diversionary tactic by people who will never be happy with any amount of detail. The framers of the Constitution very wisely did not seek to prescribe how parliament should exercise its powers. They set out very broad heads of power and left it to us, the parliamentarians, to decide how to put those powers into law. For example, in section 51, the marriage power simply states 'marriage'. There is no definition of marriage and no detail about what kind of marriage law parliament is to enact. That's why we had the freedom to legislate for marriage equality without the need of a referendum. The proposed constitutional amendment says clearly:

(iii) the Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.

So the answer to the question, 'Where is the detail?' is that the detail will be enacted by this parliament after what will no doubt be a long debate in which every member and senator will get their say representing people from right across this country. That has always been the constitutional practice in Australia. It is one we are wise to follow in this case as well.

This referendum, like the 1967 referendum, marks a milestone in Australia's long journey towards coming to terms with our history and achieving genuine reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in this continent. This act of recognition is long overdue, and that's why it will be liberating for us all to begin the healing and to begin the process of building a more inclusive future.

Let me also say this. How Australians see themselves and how Australians see our country is a hard question to answer but an important question to answer. How do Australians see ourselves and the make-up of our country, this year when we are being asked to say yes to an Indigenous voice to parliament? I think it will say a lot about our country how we answer that question.

Do we wake up the day after the referendum having said no to the 250 delegates who came together in Uluru? What is that going to feel like? What is our country going to feel like if we say no? How will the young boys and girls who grow up in remote parts of our country, whose lives are fully ahead of them, feel knowing that Australia has said no to giving them the most basic levels of respect around recognition of their culture and their continuing connection to our land? How does it feel for a young Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person if Australia says no? I worry about that, but it also gives me hope to think about the opposite.

It gives me hope to think about the fact that if Australia says yes, what is that going to take away from any of us? Nothing. Not a single right of any other Australian will be removed by this proposition—not one. It won't be diminished. It won't be touched. Yet, if Australia has the heart to say yes, think about the message that that sends about the recognition of our past and the sort of future that we want to build. What's it going to feel like in Australia if we say yes? And progress is never everything for everyone, but I know that the thought of saying no will set us back. But there's the hope and the promise and the possibility of saying yes, where each and every one of us, I hope, will do everything we can to help deliver this referendum for our country and for our future. I really hope that our country takes this step.

I'll finish by saying why it's so important to me. The idea of a voice is not a new one; it's one that has been around for decades. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been asking for greater representation and for a say in the matters that are determined in this place and in others. Over 80 years ago, a man named William Cooper asked for a First Nations Voice through representation in parliament. At that stage, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people didn't even have the right to vote in this country. They were not counted as part of our population. And William Cooper knew that the best way for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to have a better shot at life was to have a say in those matters that decided their future.

Now, this is not the same as William Cooper's request for a voice and for representation. It has evolved. This request still goes back to the single fundamental premise of respect—of saying that the best people who can help shape and guide a future for our country, and especially for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, are those communities themselves.

Why does that matter to me? Because William Cooper had not only the foresight to think about his people; he also thought about my people. In 1938, William Cooper led the only private march against the treatment of Jewish people in Nazi Germany. Two weeks earlier, a little girl, four years old, left that country as a stateless refugee on her way to Australia. She left with her parents. She was considered unequal in that society. She wasn't counted among the population. She was stateless. And William Cooper stood up for her. She was my grandmother. She came to this country and our country gave her everything, and it's given me everything as well.

I think we still owe William Cooper. I still want to see this country honour his request, and I still think that the future that this Voice referendum can bring is one where it will not only make a practical difference to the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people—as it will. It will not only reflect who we are as a country and how we see ourselves but will also be a unifying moment where Australians will get a moment to stand inside a booth and think: do they say to no to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people or do they say yes? And to give something—to give that gift—will feel a whole lot better than to deny something. I say this to the Australian people: to give that gift will feel a whole lot better than to deny it. So I hope that this referendum and this bill get passed—that we say yes and we help build a better future together.


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