Tuesday, 17 October 2023
First Nations Australians
I want to say a few things about what led us to the recent referendum and what it means for those first peoples Australians most affected by the outcome, particularly the first peoples Australians in my electorate of Lingiari. Because of some arcane parliamentary tradition, which I understand derives from English House of Commons, we are obliged to call the making of a speech at this time and in this place a 'grievance debate'. We are told that we should follow such traditions and treat them with respect, no matter how arcane they may seem. No matter that for someone of my background they represent a distant pantomime from a pompous colonial past. So I follow the protocol and accept the rules and customs which apply here.
In contrast to that, over recent weeks throughout this country there has been, at times, a belligerent chorus of ridicule and derision from a surprisingly large number of people directed at Welcome to Country ceremonies. That chorus has included people elected to work in this building. Underlying the ridicule and derision has been a view about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their place in this nation. The views of 'Let's pour scorn on Welcome to Country' is in effect saying that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders may well have been here before colonisation, but that shouldn't give them any ongoing or contemporary rights and status as first peoples—whether in relation to their traditional lands or anything else. 'We're all the same now,' they say. 'We're all Australians, and I'm buggered if I'm going to ask permission or be treated as a visitor in any corner of Australia. I belong here just as much as them.' That is basically the terra nullius view, and it is alive and well. This referendum has revealed some fault lines, and we are going to have to address them.
In my part of Australia, in Lingiari, I believe we have moved beyond the terra nullius view. I'm not just talking about my Aboriginal constituents when I say that, but it is primarily my Aboriginal constituents I am thinking of now as we consider the way forward from here, because these things primarily concern them. First Peoples who have survived the relatively recent history of colonisation in Lingiari include the Tiwi—my people—Yolngu, Mirarr and Jawoyn at the top; the Arrernte, Luritja, Warlpiri and Pitjantjatjara down the bottom; and so very many in between. They overwhelmingly voted yes to the proposition of recognition. In the context of Lingiari, the proposition of recognition is the proposition that the various Lingiari First Peoples were here before the sometimes desultory and sometimes brutal attempts to progress white settlement and control of the northern frontier; that they are still here now trying to exercise self-determination on their traditional country; and that respect is due to them as custodians of the land and culture which they look after not just on their behalf but also, in the way they see it, on behalf of all Australians.
The bush voted for that recognition to be confirmed and advanced through a voice which would be drawn from and feed back to those many First People communities. This is what we call substantive recognition. I'm committed to making the vote for substantive recognition in the bush count, for it to mean something. That won't be by way of the Australian Constitution; I've heard the voice of many non-Aboriginal voters in my electorate as well, and I must also represent them in relation to this matter. But there are other possible pathways and options, which will be the subject of discussion when I go back out bush to talk to my people and their communities in coming weeks and months.
We'll also talk about how we can change things for the better at the local level. In particular, I'll be wanting to follow up on complaints made to me in communities throughout the Territory about the way the local organisations which used to manage the old CDEP scheme have been undermined and marginalised. This has been done to preference mostly non-Aboriginal labour hire companies and compliance monitoring entities favoured by the bureaucracy, which have made a fortune from government contracts. This legacy of the intervention has imposed hours-limited Work for the Dole rather than the real CDEP jobs which used to exist.
I said I would mention what led us to the referendum, and I think it is important to say a few words on that before the caravan moves on. Before he became a senator, my friend Patrick Dodson, a great Australian, worked with other advocates for constitutional reform and developed a proposal to remove section 51(xxvi), the race power, from the Constitution and replace it with a provision that would enable the Commonwealth government to make laws for the benefit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander First Peoples. This would shift us from the colonial preoccupation with race to an acknowledgement of the need for recognition of the special place in our country of our First People. That proposal was rejected by the so-called constitutional conservatives, who said they were concerned that it would be a trojan horse for a bill of rights. At the dialogues leading up to Uluru, all our First Nations delegates discussed and finally settled on the alternative option of recognition through a voice.
With the failure of the referendum, we are stuck with a Constitution built on a deliberate plan for exclusion and discrimination by way of race, which still retains a race power rather than a mechanism for recognising the special relationship the Commonwealth government must have with its First People as a result of the way this continent was colonised. That is something which we are all going to have to accept and do our best to work around going forward.
Returning to where I started, although this is called a grievance debate speech, and although others have claimed that the yes case agenda was all about grievance, grievance is not what motivates me in trying to advance recognition to make this a better and more united country. The same goes for millions of Australians, including Indigenous Australians, who voted yes. The grievance camp were in fact the ones who were directed to vote no. And many of them did.
I do feel aggrieved and disappointed about a couple of things. I feel aggrieved that Senator Price and Senator Thorpe have each purported to speak on behalf of First Peoples communities in Lingiari, when the overwhelming yes result shows that their views have been totally rejected in those communities. I feel aggrieved that Senator Price suggested, most insulting at all, that Aboriginal voters in the bush should not have been given how-to-vote cards when approaching a polling booth, while triumphantly embracing the no vote cast by untold thousands throughout the country who were assailed by no campaigners outside the polling booths, through social media and text messages with claims that a vote for the voice was a vote for reparations; or that the UN would be taking over; or that they would lose their backyards. I was even told a young man was voting no because black men rape their child every night.
But we move on. I will be doing my best to try and achieve better outcomes for all my constituents, including those living in towns who have various ongoing concerns, including crime, the economy and the environment. We must also address the cost of living and housing issues in Northern Territory towns, in Katherine, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs. I look forward, beyond this parliament, to going back out and talking to my communities. I have had so many phone calls from young people—particularly young people. When we have the debates in this place, no-one thinks about those young Aboriginal people who for the first time in this country cast their vote, their feelings, and how insulted they are feeling by the comments that are being made for the first time and that vote being rejected. So I am looking forward to going back out and saying we have to build this country into a better country. I look forward to making sure that Aboriginal people take their rightful place in this country.