House debates

Monday, 22 May 2023


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

6:27 pm

Photo of Kylea TinkKylea Tink (North Sydney, Independent) Share this | Hansard source

I want to start, tonight, by saying I'm a proud Australian who can trace her family's history in this country back to the First Fleet, which arrived in 1788. Members of my family forged pathways across this vast landscape. They helped build communities, drive industry, defend our shores and protect and assist those who needed help. I am proud of this history, and, indeed, I'm often inspired by it. But I also recognise it pales into insignificance when measured against those who were here before the arrival of the First Fleet—our First Nations people, who, science shows, have walked this land for over 60,000 years. In this context, I feel an extraordinary responsibility as I rise to speak, as North Sydney's representative, to the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Voice 2023. In doing so, I acknowledge that before 1788 my electorate on the north shore of Sydney was inhabited by two First Nations communities—the Cammeraygal and Wallumedegal.

This bill enables an act to alter our Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice. It is a bill which I believe many will look back on in years to come as they reflect on how our nation came to be where it is. It is a bill that I am unashamedly looking at as a proud Australian, as someone who wants my nation to be all it can be and my community to have a unifying expression of who we are, where we have come from and where we are striving to go.

While the current debate seems to want to divide us, I believe there is one thing we are all united on—that is, regardless of our history, as we stand here today we are all Australian. I believe that for us to realise this truth, however, we must commit ourselves to living proudly in a reconciled fashion, with our shared history stretching back over 60,000 years. While this bill is not perfect, having looked at it and listened deeply to those who speak with authority about how it has come about, the ambitions and desires that supported its creation and the optimism that comes with it, I am convinced it represents a positive opportunity for us to move forward as a country.

Even so, there remain questions as to what this change will mean. In truth, as we stand here today, public opinion on its merits, needs and potential impacts is divided. As we move forward, then, I commit myself to facilitating respectful conversations that pursue a simple agenda of ensuring every Australian is confident of their own decision when it comes time to vote on the referendum. It seems like a simple thing to wish for for those who came before us: recognition and empowerment. From my perspective, it's a privilege to be a part of a generation that is prepared to step into this space and begin the process of evolving our nation into a land where we're all rightfully respected and connected through a shared history going back 60,000 years.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart is not just a beautiful piece of writing; it is fundamentally an invitation to take part in a meaningful process of reconciliation. That starts with listening to our First Nations peoples, which is what this constitutional alteration enables. I want to specifically thank the First Nations leaders, activists and communities behind the Uluru Statement from the Heart—the Referendum Working Group, the Referendum Engagement Group and the Constitutional Expert Group—for their counsel and leadership.

When our Australian Constitution was first written, its creators were people—all men—from distinct communities who believed that, for the modern nation of Australia to grow, it needed a framework that enabled representatives from each area to negotiate and agree by consensus the best way for us to move forward. It took eight years for the Constitution to be drafted and two more for it to be ratified on 6 July 1900. While there was much to celebrate as the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act came into effect on 1 January 1901, it is noteworthy that not only were First Nations people not consulted or involved in the drafting of the Constitution; they were deliberately excluded. Not only did First Nations people have no say in the way the Commonwealth of Australia was to be governed; the Constitution specifically prevented Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from even being counted as part of the Australian population. Regardless, First Nations people were bound by the law brought into place on that day.

In 1967, then, the Constitution was amended to enable First Nations people to be counted amongst Australia's citizens and for this place to make laws specifically for First Nations people. But even then that change did not recognise the fact that, prior to white settlement, a nation consisting of 250 different mobs and countries already existed in this place. It is for this reason that, in 2023, we as a parliament and a people are trying to find a way to finally right what I believe is a longstanding injustice.

The truth is that, since colonisation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have experienced profound and continuing disadvantage. We may not like to speak of this history. It makes many people uncomfortable. But our constitutional history cannot be considered in isolation from the present levels of economic and social disadvantage suffered by a high proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. At almost every consultation conducted by the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians, those levels of disadvantage and frustration with failed policies were raised. Indeed, the findings of the panel were unequivocal. The Closing the Gap statistics are by any standard a cause for concern. The best intentions of governments at all levels have failed to achieve acceptable results.

We find ourselves, then, at a juncture—one where I'm sure Einstein's famous words that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result have never been truer. We cannot rewrite our history, but we can decide to move forward with purpose, compassion and optimism. Facing the truth can be uncomfortable, but the truth is that, to address the fundamental, systemic and long-held exclusion of First Nations people in our country, we must do something differently. I hope the Voice to Parliament can be that something different.

As a generation, by ensuring the Voice is enshrined in our Constitution, we are binding future generations to the same determination we feel today—a determination to ensure any change from this point forward is not just symbolic but substantive. This ask has come directly from First Nations people following a long and involved process of community consultation, seeking to improve the disadvantage faced by the communities. I believe all Australians would agree that any person impacted by specific laws should have the right to have a say in the development of those laws. In this context, I believe, then, that the majority of Australians would agree that First Nations people should have a say in the laws that directly affect them. It is this that is the ultimate purpose of the Voice—nothing more, nothing less.

To this end, I welcome the constitutional alteration proposed by this bill, and I support the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia. I also support the provision for the establishment of a new constitutional entity called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, because, in truth, our country is an outlier when compared to others worldwide. Constitutional or legal mechanisms recognising indigenous people are common globally, with many OECD and Commonwealth countries having made the move to ensure representation. In fact, the Parliamentary Library identified 44 states which have some mechanism for special representation, including countries like New Zealand, where the parliament has reserved seats for Maori people, or the Danish parliament, where they have established seats for Greenland. In this context, we can and should look to other countries who have a constitutionally or legally recognised representative body to ensure we learn from those that have gone before us. Ultimately, when we take that look—and that has been done—we see that a constitutionally enshrined voice to parliament is indeed a practical way to achieve recognition in Australia.

Whilst I have heard community concerns about embedding the core representation-making function of the Voice in the Constitution, I'd like to reassure people that enshrining the existence of a voice in the Constitution is very different to managing or dictating the role and functions of the body. That's why I fully support the provision for parliamentary legislative powers to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures. This provides flexibility to ensure the Voice can adapt and respond to the contemporary needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples whilst ensuring the supremacy of the parliament itself. In this way, the function of the Voice complements existing functions of the Australian democratic system and enhances the normal functioning of the government and law. Whilst it does create a separate institution that will speak to the parliament and executive, it is important to note the role it will play will be advisory in nature. It will not replace or impede the directions of either institution. Nothing about the Voice's representation will hinder our democratic processes.

I have worked through quite a process to come to the realisation that I support this bill, a process of deep learning and listening, and I believe most other Australians will need to work through a similar process in the months to come. In acknowledging the reasons why I support this bill, I also acknowledge that there are still genuine concerns and questions. Specifically, clause (ii) has triggered questions, as the clause states that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to the parliament and the executive government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Fearmongering aside, I've been approached with honest and valid concerns from North Sydney constituents about how far this representation to the executive government will go, and I want you to know your questions are valid and I hear you. Personally, though, I am reassured by the advice that this clause would not oblige the parliament or the executive government to consult the Voice prior to enacting, changing or repealing any law, making a decision or taking any other action. Rather, the Voice will play an advisory role only. It is in this context I'd argue that the earlier such potentially important advice can be offered to any parliament or government on any day, the better.

The Voice will not change or take away any right, power or privilege of anyone who is not Indigenous. Rather, the clear goal for the Voice will be to influence government on what is best for First Nations communities, resulting in better laws and policies, better targeted investment and, ultimately, better outcomes for First Nations people.

As a member of the 47th Parliament, I will make my best endeavours to facilitate open conversations in North Sydney in the lead-up to the referendum to ensure every person is equipped to make their own informed vote. Ultimately, I welcome this bill and the consequential constitutional alterations. The future I think it will enable excites me, and it is a future I think my children want, but ultimately each of us will have to make our own decision on the day our vote is cast. I just hope that in my role as the member for North Sydney I can ensure that as many people as possible cast their vote that day from a place of optimism and courage, seeking to leave this place better than we found it.

I want to finish tonight with the closing statement from the Uluru Statement from the Heart itself:

In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.

I say, then, in 2023 together we can achieve this better future. I commend the bill to the House.


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