Tuesday, 23 May 2023
Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023; Second Reading
All of us labor in webs spun long before we were born, webs of heredity and environment, of desire and consequence, of history and eternity.
Webs of history and eternity, heredity and environment—how could we not feel the weight of these words in this place today? The weight of heredity, of history, maybe even of eternity—we all feel it.
We meet here to discuss a proposed amendment to enshrine an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice in our Constitution, a proposal that has dominated column inches, airtime in the media and political debate in our national life in recent times, and rightly so. It is a proposal that not we the legislators but we the people will be called upon to vote on in a referendum this year—a proposal whose meaning is impossible to grasp without feeling for oneself the fine webs of history it is spun from.
Like the majority of members and senators in this parliament, I was not yet born when modern Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land rights began, but I know that the kind of Australia that I was privileged to grow up in was profoundly altered, and always for the better, by each of the many struggles and successes of First Nations people in our nation. Take the Yirrkala bark petitions, the beginning of land rights in 1963, when the Yolngu people from Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land protested the loss of their land to a mining lease. This petition from the Yolngu was addressed to this very parliament, to this very House—down the hill from here, but you know what I mean, Deputy Speaker. And what was the object of this protest? That the federal government had decided, unilaterally and without consultation, that part of the Yolngu people's homeland would be excised for a bauxite mine—unilaterally and without consultation. When that protest, that clear Aboriginal voice, was heard by the federal government at the time, it was dismissed. The mine was opened and the voice ignored. We would see a repeat of this pattern in the Yolngu people's 1971 Gove land rights case, in which the NT Supreme Court rejected their claim because it didn't conform to the European notion of property, so the case was thrown out.
We see the glimmers of a new approach in the 1966 Wave Hill walk-off, when Gurindji man Vincent Lingiari led a strike for better working conditions at a cattle station in the Northern Territory. Vincent Lingiari also demanded the return of his traditional lands, which Prime Minister Gough Whitlam returned in 1975. On this occasion, the Voice was just as clear and strong as in the Yirrkala bark petition. Indeed, in 1972, in my electorate, the Larrakia people had petitioned for their land.
When it comes to Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, that simple act of listening to and acting on First Nations people's concerns, where laws and policies affect them, an act which can hardly be called radical and should just be good manners, did reshape Australia into a fairer land. The whole country learned to listen, in the 1967 referendum, when 90 per cent of voters agreed to remove race based clauses from our Constitution and to treat Aboriginal people like full citizens by counting them at the census.
Progress on restoring the land rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was slow and hard going in Australia, but breakthroughs only came when they were listened to. The solutions we take for granted as great milestones today didn't come from non-Indigenous Australians and they didn't come from public servants here in Canberra. They came from First Nations people themselves, from local communities advocating to government, and we should always remember that fact.
We saw this in 1976 when land rights legislation passed that would eventually allow Aboriginal people to have almost 50 per cent of the Northern Territory returned to them. We saw it in the landmark Mabo case in 1982 that threw out the concept of terra nullius, that old lie that the land belonged to no-one prior to colonisation. We saw it again in the far-reaching consequences of Mabo, which led this place to legislate the Native Title Act in 1993, through which 32 per cent of the Australian continent has now been recognised under native title. None of this is ancient history. It's recent history: 1993. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people weren't even given full voting rights, federally, by being required to register on the electoral roll like all other Australians until as late as 1984. But even the past is not yet passed. History is unfinished business in Australia.
I learned this in 2004 when I joined the activist and legendary Essendon football player Michael Long's long walk to Canberra. What he wanted to do was to seek a meeting with the then Prime Minister John Howard, to talk about the abysmal state of First Nations affairs in our nation. I decided to go up the Hume Highway and support Michael. I got a lift up the highway with my brother, looking for Longy and the other walkers. I couldn't find him because they had been kicked off the Hume Highway onto the Old Hume Highway.
It was a great experience to walk through country Victoria and then country New South Wales, to see people come out of their properties and say, 'Good on you, Longy,' and to give him a sausage in bread, or passers-by who stopped to walk with us for kilometres then went back to their cars and kept driving. They wanted to be part of what they saw as a massive deficiency in our nation. That was 19 years ago. Things haven't improved a great deal. For me, it was a great privilege to walk alongside Aboriginal elders. When you walk, there's lots of time for talking, and I was able to gain more understanding. I got more understanding, again, from spending time on country with Aboriginal soldiers, with NORFORCE, and with Aboriginal health professionals prior to coming to this place.
Eventually, John Howard said that he would meet with Michael Long. But what he decided would be a solution was another imposition—the intervention, without consultation. So there is, I think, evidence in the Northern Territory that action taken to other people—in this case, First Nations People—without involving them does not get the outcomes we need. What it also showed me—spending that time walking with the Long Walk 19 years ago and reinforced last weekend with Michael and thousands of Australians as he announced he will walk again in September—was the intergenerational trauma and that original dispossession the Aboriginal people experienced of the land they are so closely connected to. The ramifications of that echo today.
The guiding thread in the history of reconciliation in our country is: when non-Indigenous people have listened to First Nations peoples' desires on policy, on land rights, on culture and on their experiences as First Nations people over millennia, we have moved forward on the long and twisting back roads of reconciliation. But when we have ignored First Nations people and ridden roughshod over their concerns and requests, and when we have damaged their sacred sites or their rights, the good name of all Australians has been diminished.
Martin Luther King Jr, that powerful voice of racial equality and a great conscience of all humanity, talked about the moral arc of the universe being long but bending towards justice, and I think our history bears out that prediction. Reconciliation is a gruelling walk for all involved, but every step brings us nearer to the promised land for our nation, which we all seek.
The next milestone on that walk is clearly the Voice, and that's what this bill is all about. This bill is required to hold a referendum to amend the Australian Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution through a Voice, in order to get better outcomes, in order to progress reconciliation in our nation, and so that there is a process by which we here, lawmakers, can listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the practical changes that will have an impact in their communities to address intergenerational issues.
A Voice is a form of constitutional recognition called for by over 250 First Nations delegates from around our nation in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It is a modest request: that the Voice be established to make representations to the Australian parliament and to government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It will amplify the voices of those First Nations people that have the solutions. Now, listening to that Voice when we make and change laws and policies will improve the lives of First Nations people, I have no doubt. It will also help us to close the gap. We will get better outcomes when we work in genuine partnership with First Nations communities.
Importantly, the parliament and executive government will also not need to wait for representations from the Voice before making laws or decisions. So the Voice's representations are advisory. It will complement the existing structures of Australia's democratic system. Every Australian voter will have the opportunity to vote on this important change. And I call on every Australian who can do so to vote.
I began by speaking of history, whose weight every member in this chamber must feel on this day. As we consider this proposed Voice, the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' struggles for rights and for reconciliation are alive in our minds and in our hearts. Like many here, I have enjoyed the fruits of these struggles growing up—those of a fairer and more enlightened society today. That's the Australia I want my children to grow up in—an Australia where we listen to First Nations people and it's a natural instinct and a cherished part of our democracy; an Australia where First Nations peoples and their concerns are raised to the highest levels, not kicked down to the lowest levels and ignored; an Australia where the yawning gap between First Nations and non-Indigenous people is not only closed but where that gap is history. When Australian children ask their history teachers, 'Why did such inequalities persist for so long?' we want that conversation and those questions from Australian kids around our nation to be in the past tense: 'Why did it take so long?' Hopefully, we'll be able to say proudly that that is in the past. The past is what calls us—each of us in this place; each of us around the nation. It calls each of us by name, every Australian, and I hope the Australian people take the opportunity to support the Voice.