Tuesday, 23 May 2023
Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023; Second Reading
I acknowledge and pay my respects to the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, on whose land we gather here. I extend this acknowledgement to the traditional owners of the Kulin nations, on whose land my electorate of Hawke sits. I also recognise my First Nations colleagues in this parliament, particularly Linda Burney, Senator Pat Dodson, Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, Marion Scrymgour and my very good friends Senator Jana Stewart and Gordon Reid.
I rise in support of the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023. Before us is an opportunity to put a question to the Australian people for the 41st time in our history, and for the first time in nearly 25 years. This bill asks a simple question, to right a wrong that has laid at the heart of our Constitution since Federation:
A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
Do you approve this proposed alteration?
That's it. It's not some bizarre Orwellian plot, as the Leader of the Opposition so shamefully insisted in this place yesterday; it's about long overdue recognition. It's about furthering the path to reconciliation. And it's about listening to First Nations people when it comes to the laws and the policies that affect them, their families and their communities.
For over 60,000 years, Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people have inhabited our continent. Theirs is the oldest continuing culture in the world, and we have all benefited greatly from their rich heritage, history and contributions. However, our Constitution, drafted only a century ago, fails to acknowledge Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first people of Australia. This omission is a significant and grave oversight that we can no longer ignore. It is an integral part of our history and our national identity. The absence of constitutional recognition denies our First Nations people their rightful place in that history and that identity. Without recognition, we cannot adequately address the historical injustices experienced by Indigenous people or acknowledge their unique role in our Australian story.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart represents the largest consensus among First Nations peoples on a proposal for constitutional recognition in Australian history. It is a beautiful, powerful and clear call to action, founded in the experience of thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders from around our country. After the most proportionately significant consultation process that has ever been undertaken with First Peoples, it humbly offers a path to reconciliation through voice, treaty and truth, in that order. This referendum serves as the first step in responding to that call. By enshrining a voice in our Constitution, it provides Australians with the opportunity to walk alongside First Nations people on the path to reconciliation.
The lead-up to this referendum has been marked by an extensive prereferendum process unmatched in our nation's history. Since 2010 there have been comprehensive consultations, parliamentary inquiries, expert working groups, councils, dialogues and reports. Indeed, no referendum has been preceded by more debate and more engagement by parliamentarians, legal experts and community members than this one. The referendum enjoys support from peak bodies representing First Nations people in each state and territory as well as the overwhelming popular support of First Nations people. What is being asked of us is a voice, a voice that we can no longer delay. It is time for this parliament to legislate with First Nations people, not merely for them.
In 1996, Senator Dodson highlighted the need for reconciliation and an early path toward it during his address to the National Press Club. His words remain as relevant today as they were then. He said: 'The track behind us is littered with the remnants of failed policies, programs and projects that wasted taxpayers' money and failed to deliver real outcomes to those who needed them. They failed primarily because Indigenous people were not included in the decision-making process.' Yet for almost 30 years we have failed to heed Senator Dodson's call. Despite good intentions, substantial investments, consultation bodies and minor progress, no enduring, protected national mechanism has been established to enable First Nations people to have a genuine say in the decisions that affect them.
The impact of that is not symbolic; it is real. It is felt in Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander communities around our country. It is seen in the shameful gap in outcomes for First Nations people and their fellow Australians. It is heard in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which says: 'Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are removed from their families at unprecedented rates, and not because we lack love for them. And our youth languish in detention centres in alarming numbers when they should be our hope for the future. These aspects of our crisis reveal the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness.' The weight of these words arises from a painful history of dispossession, marginalisation, loss and immense suffering; from slavery, forced adoption, deaths in custody, high mortality and persistent and pervasive racism. The crisis is indeed structural, but there is hope because in a voice there is power.
This referendum provides us with the best opportunity to address these past injustices and create transformative change for a better future. When we listen to that voice and collaborate with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities we achieve better outcomes. Evidence of this can be seen in Indigenous ranger programs, Aboriginal community controlled health organisations and Koori courts. In my home state of Victoria, the success of the First Peoples' Assembly, led by my brilliant friend Marcus Stewart and Aunty Geraldine Atkinson, showcases the immense power of an enshrined voice. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Victoria possess a democratic voice through the First Peoples' Assembly whose second election is currently underway.
The Yoorrook Justice Commission, an established truth-telling process shaped by the community, holds extensive powers to examine ministers, senior public servants and decision-makers. Its mandate includes recording the impact of colonisation on First Nations people, fostering a shared understanding of this impact and making recommendations for reform and healing, all while the treaty process to properly acknowledge the sovereignty of First Nations people and improve their lives is advancing.
Throughout Victoria's journey towards reconciliation, the First Peoples' Assembly has consistently advocated for further progress, securing better outcomes, and acting as a powerful voice for their community, while partnering with the Victorian government. The success of the assembly underscores the necessity of delivering voice, treaty and truth—in that order—and is precisely why we need a national voice for First Nations people.
One year and two days ago, the Australian people elected this Albanese government with a mandate to fully implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart and present this referendum question. If successful, the Voice to Parliament will become a permanent, independent advisory body representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It will make representations to the Australian parliament and executive government on laws and policies affecting First Nations people.
The Voice will operate based on eight design principles, endorsed by the Referendum Working Group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders. These principles stipulate that the Voice shall make representations to the parliament and the executive government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; the Voice will be chosen by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples based on the wishes of local communities; the Voice will be representative of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, gender balanced, and include youth; the Voice will be empowering, community led, inclusive, respectful and culturally informed; the Voice will be accountable and transparent; the Voice will work alongside existing organisations and traditional structures; the Voice will not have a program delivery function; and the Voice will not have a veto power. It will not be, as the Leader of the Opposition claims, a voice from Canberra but rather a voice to Canberra. As Aunty Pat Anderson put it, 'It is about amplifying grassroots voices and channelling them into Canberra, representing the views and voices of their communities.'
There are people in our community who still disagree with the idea of a First Nations Voice. There are many more who just don't know what it is about. But the privilege we have been given by our First Nations friends and neighbours is the opportunity to campaign for and pass this referendum. To do it, we will need to organise. We will need to have conversations around kitchen tables and on people's doorsteps, to bring those that don't know along the journey with us and explain the immense symbolic and practical value of this Voice. We stand on the precipice of something extraordinary.
The concluding words of the Uluru Statement from the Heart remind us:
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.
In 1967, the referendum passed with an overwhelming majority, serving as a unifying moment when Australia chose to do what was right and what was fair. In 2023, this referendum holds the same potential for national unification. It is an opportunity to show First Nations people that we see and recognise them, acknowledging their rights to have a say in their own affairs. The cost of failure is too great.
When this question is put to the Australian people and the polls close, each one of us who has chosen to join First Nations people on the path to reconciliation must be satisfied that we did everything we could to see this referendum succeed so that we can wake up the next morning and know that Australia has changed for the better, because Australians will vote for it to be so, because Australians will have fixed a wrong, because we will give a voice to our First Nations people and build a better future for all Australians.