Monday, 22 May 2023
Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023; Second Reading
I rise today to support this bill, the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023. I believe that it's time we asked the Australian people to make this change to our Constitution. This change will be both symbolic and practical. It will right a 122-year-old wrong. When it was written, our Constitution had two references to First Nations people and they were both negative. First Nations people were not to be included in the census, and no laws were to be made for their benefit. The 1967 referendum was a good first step, including Indigenous people in the census, and, in 1992, Mabo was a good second step, recognising their relationship with land. It's now time to be honest with ourselves about history, through constitutional recognition. It's time to commit to listening so we can develop policies that work and level the playing field for First Nations people over the next generation.
Recognising First Nations people through a voice will stimulate informed debate, set priorities and lead to practical outcomes. There's no doubt that this is a difficult policy area. We're particularly bad at developing policy to address the deep disadvantage faced by First Nations people. Mainstream government services have failed to improve outcomes for First Nations populations, and sometimes have even made them worse. That's why we need a different way. If we don't change how we approach the development of policy in this area, we'll be in the same situation in 20 years time, spending billions of dollars on programs that largely don't work. Constitutional recognition is a low-risk, high-return step towards a better way.
The idea of listening to people affected by policy through a voice is consistent with the values in my community. My community is compassionate. They know that the life outcomes of First Nations people in Australia are often appalling and unacceptable and we need to do better. My community is interested in taking action now for long-term benefit. Intergenerational disadvantage is not solved overnight, but it remains urgent. This change is an example of the sort of long-term thinking we need to see more of in politics. If we act now we can create the conditions for better policy development, which will change lives over the next generation. My community appreciates an evidence based approach. They can see that listening and working in partnership is the only thing currently working in Indigenous policy.
This constitutional change is steeped in both sides of politics. John Howard first proposed constitutional recognition, and every Prime Minister since then has supported the idea. The wording of the constitutional change has been developed in partnership with constitutional conservatives. It's measured and reasonable. Every state government has committed to working in partnership under the Closing the Gap agreement, along with the federal government, because it's now commonly accepted that that is the only thing that works, and you can't work in partnership without listening. The Voice provides the structure needed to listen consistently and well.
I've come to this view based on my experience as well as on the views of my electorate. I was peripherally aware of the issues faced by First Nations people earlier in my life through my uncle and his 60 years of advocacy in this area. But I can track my own learning on this issue through various experiences over the last 20 years, as I have realised again and again that listening makes all the difference. Twenty years ago, as a consultant, I went on secondment to work for Indigenous organisations in Cape York. As a management consultant with a large firm, I thought I had the answers. Frameworks, problem-solving approaches—I was being paid by big companies to solve their problems. After four months with Noel and Gerhardt Pearson in Cape York I learned that it just doesn't work when you rock up with your assumptions and your solutions. Listening is a fundamental prerequisite for any meaningful change when it comes to complex issues. I was taught this lesson patiently and kindly by people who had seen so many like me before and who were still seeking better outcomes for their families and their communities.
Later, I was Aboriginal affairs manager at WesFarmers. When preparing our first reconciliation action plan I took what I thought was a pragmatic approach. As the largest private sector employer in the country, we needed to focus on opportunities, specifically jobs. This was where we could really make a difference. I thought the respect-and-relationships actions under the RAP framework were secondary. There were nice to have but not overly practical. I was advised differently by our Aboriginal steering committee, but it really took me about a year to fully 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. 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. This can only be done by listening and learning.
Later again, I saw the same problem from a service delivery perspective while working at Anglicare WA. We partnered with 30 Aboriginal community controlled organisations, and I saw that our services were far more effective when they were delivered in partnership, built on Indigenous knowledge and informed by the experience of those affected. From these experiences, I can see that we need to spend more time listening if we want anything to change and that embedding the Voice in the Constitution will move us in the right direction.
I want to address some misconceptions and scare campaigns about the Voice. I think they fall into three categories: misconceptions about its origin, about its power and about its role in our broader system. Firstly, on the Voice's origin. This is not a Canberra voice. It's the next logical step in a long and thorough consultative process that culminated in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. I've heard questions about the legitimacy of this process. I sit on the Joint Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, which is currently doing an inquiry into the application of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People in Australia. I've sat through many hours of public hearings and heard Senator Thorpe trying to get all sorts of experts to confirm that the Voice process was inconsistent with the UN declaration and that it didn't constitute free, prior and informed consent. No expert has said this. In fact, so far, they've all confirmed that the Uluru dialogue and the Voice will further the principles of the UN declaration. This is one of the reasons that more than 80 per cent of First Nations people support it. There are vocal opponents, and, as with any other group, we will never get 100 per cent support, but the media coverage of the vocal Indigenous minority doesn't appropriately reflect the great majority of Indigenous people who do support it. So I'm not compelled by any of the concerns about the origin of the Voice.
Secondly, there are misconceptions about the power of the Voice. These are in both directions; either it will do too much or not enough. There's been some alarmism about the legislature grinding to a halt because every piece of legislation will be challenged on the grounds that it didn't listen to the Voice. There is no evidence to back this up. The Voice has an advisory role. It's appropriately up to the parliament to decide how to respond to advice. There's no obligation to accept the advice. The power is political, not legislative. This is like the alarmism we heard about land rights, that everybody was going to lose their backyards. It just won't happen. The former Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, Robert French, points out that parliament couldn't in fact make a law limiting its own law-making powers by legally requiring prior consultation. It's appropriate that parliament will retain the decision about how to respond to the advice. This is the job of parliament—to weigh up different interests.
Others say that the Voice will want to make representations on every issue. This is nonsensical. As representatives of First Nations communities, the Voice's mandate will be based on it focusing on the most important issues. There'll be plenty to keep it busy that's directly relevant to the lives of First Nations people. Members won't last long in their representative roles if they stray into irrelevant matters. The reality is that the Voice will not affect most people's lives. It will just reassure us that government is better advised and equipped to spend taxpayers' dollars when it comes to ensuring that First Nations people have a good chance in life. The flipside is concerns about it doing too little and being ineffective. The Voice is a start and a step in the right direction. It won't solve everything overnight, but it signifies a shift. It's worth remembering that the republic referendum failed, with many saying, 'The model isn't quite right; we'll wait for a better model.' Twenty-three years later, no better model has been seriously floated. We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. And parliament retains the ability to continue to improve the model. I'm satisfied that we have the right balance on power. Not too much and not too little.
The third type of misconception is about how it will fit into our existing system of government. Some have claimed it will be divisive, giving additional rights based on race, but the Voice is based on historical status as the first peoples here, not race. We have already acknowledged the existence of some collective rights through land rights 30 years ago, and the sky didn't fall in. This collective right is nothing more than being heard. Life outcomes are already divided, and this will bring us together, not drive us apart. Some have talked about the presence of First Nations MPs and senators in our parliament. These elected representatives have a duty to represent their communities. This is a very different role. There's a fundamental difference between representing a group of 100,000 people and an advisory role to government on a particular area of policy.
Putting the concept of the Voice into the Constitution will ensure that we don't give up when it gets hard. We have plenty of historical examples of Indigenous voices, but they have not had the legitimacy of recognition and a representative appointment process. It has been too easy to get rid of them if we don't like what they're saying. By putting the Voice into the Constitution, we're making a promise to keep listening and trying even when it gets hard.
Others have wanted more detail, but detail doesn't belong in our Constitution. The Constitution is a place for ideas and principles—for example, only the concept of the High Court is covered in the Constitution. The mechanics of the court are set out under statute. The Constitution has one line about corporations, and the Corporations Act is more than 4,000 pages long. While a lot of work has been done on what the model might look like, it's appropriate that we only deal with the principal in the Constitution and that the model is developed building on the work done and in consultation with First Nations communities across the country. So I'm also comfortable with how the Voice will fit with the rest of our political, legislative and judicial system.
I want to speak about the particular form of words being put to the referendum. I've thought open-mindedly about the wording and read the expert opinions. Three aspects of the wording are worthy of comment, on issues of sovereignty, the executive and the power of parliament. Firstly, the introduction to chapter IX says:
In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia:
This is important symbolically and puts right the original oversight, but some have expressed concerns about its legal effect. I'm reassured that experts such as Robert French have clarified that this doesn't compromise the sovereignty of the Crown—or First Nations people, for that matter.
Secondly, the proposed amendment provides that the Voice can make representations to the parliament and the executive government. Some have concerns about the inclusion of the executive being too broad. But the reality is that ministers develop policies, and public servants implement them. They are the executive. It's not just the passing of laws that requires input but the development and implementation of laws too. The Voice won't necessarily have an adversarial role with government, although it can hold government to account. The executive arm is likely to seek its advice to develop policy that actually works, and to work out how best implement it. This is completely in the interests of executive government and the country. Removing the executive would make the Voice significantly less effective, as well as being contrary to the request put by First Nations people to Australians in the Uluru statement.
The third aspect of the wording worthy of comment relates to the powers of parliament. The wording proposed doesn't limit parliament's powers to work out the mechanics of the Voice. Only the concept is protected, and everything else will be decided by the parliament, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures. This is appropriate. The Constitution is the place for principles, and the mechanics are governed by the parliament.
In conclusion, I believe that Australians can look beyond the fear based language they're hearing and understand that the Voice is a simple, modest ask. The time has come for us to make a promise to listen. It won't fix everything, but it will give us a chance to learn, change and get better returns on our investments in better life outcomes for First Nations peoples. I commend this bill to the House. I look forward to the people of Australia having their say in the referendum later in the year and choosing a different future for our country and for our First Nations peoples.