Monday, 22 May 2023
Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023. I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, and I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land which make up my electorate of Macnamara, the Bunurong people of the Kulin nation. I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.
I greatly value the opportunity to speak on this unique and historic bill. It may well be one of the most important speeches we all get to make in this place, not because of whatever merits that we say but because of the intrinsic importance of the subject matter. There is no subject more important, no bigger issue confronting this parliament and our country, than the place of our First Australians in our national life.
The history of Australia since 1788 has in many ways been an inspiring one. As the grandson of a refugee from Europe, I welcome the fact that Australia has given a new home to millions of immigrants, many of them refugees, and is still doing so today. But there has always been a dark aspect at the heart of Australian history. Our Australian nation was made possible only by the forcible dispossession of the people who were already living on this continent—the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Historian Henry Reynolds has recently estimated that up to 100,000 Indigenous people were killed during more than 150 years of violent dispossession. Only in recent decades have we come to acknowledge that shameful history.
In the 1890s Australia's elected leaders came together to write a constitution for a new nation, a federated Australia. It never occurred to them to acknowledge the prior occupants of Australia. There were only two references to Aboriginal natives in the Constitution. One reference ensured they would not be counted for various purposes, and the other ensured that the power of making special laws for them was retained by the states. In 1967 the referendum removed both of these references but put nothing in their place. The bill before us today gives us a chance to put that right.
Although the Constitution is a practical working document, it is also the charter of our fabric of our nation. It is shameful that it contains no reference whatsoever to the people who lived on our wonderful lands for 60,000 years before the Europeans set foot. Today our First Nations people are asking us to repair that injustice, that glaring omission. I think it's important to stress how astonishingly simple, moderate and yet profound the request is that has been put to us by our First Nations friends. All they are seeking is recognition and consultation. It would be incredibly small of us to refuse such a request.
As part of the reconciliation process, in the Uluru Statement from the Heart of 2017 our First Nations people have requested they be given a voice in our national parliament, in the form of a constitutionally enshrined voice to parliament. The Voice is a very simple request, as the bill before us sets out. It provides for a body called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. It provides that the Voice may make representations to the parliament and the executive government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The Voice, therefore, will not run programs. It will not allocate money. It will not be a bureaucracy, nor will it be a third chamber of parliament. It will not have legislative, executive or decision-making powers. It will be advisory. Again, I must point out how modest and simple but profound this proposal is.
What possible objections can there be? There seem to be two floating around. The first is that it gives Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a unique or special status. We are asked: why is there no Italian or Indian voice to parliament? The answer to that is quite simple. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people do have a special place in our country's history. They have been here for over 60,000 years. They are the single oldest continuous culture with connection to land and to country, and they have been mistreated and dispossessed throughout our history. Recognising them is the first step towards healing the injustice.
The second objection is that we don't have enough detail about the Voice to Parliament, supposedly. This has been raised, in my opinion, as a diversionary tactic by people who will never be happy with any amount of detail. The framers of the Constitution very wisely did not seek to prescribe how parliament should exercise its powers. They set out very broad heads of power and left it to us, the parliamentarians, to decide how to put those powers into law. For example, in section 51, the marriage power simply states 'marriage'. There is no definition of marriage and no detail about what kind of marriage law parliament is to enact. That's why we had the freedom to legislate for marriage equality without the need of a referendum. The proposed constitutional amendment says clearly:
(iii) the Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.
So the answer to the question, 'Where is the detail?' is that the detail will be enacted by this parliament after what will no doubt be a long debate in which every member and senator will get their say representing people from right across this country. That has always been the constitutional practice in Australia. It is one we are wise to follow in this case as well.
This referendum, like the 1967 referendum, marks a milestone in Australia's long journey towards coming to terms with our history and achieving genuine reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in this continent. This act of recognition is long overdue, and that's why it will be liberating for us all to begin the healing and to begin the process of building a more inclusive future.
Let me also say this. How Australians see themselves and how Australians see our country is a hard question to answer but an important question to answer. How do Australians see ourselves and the make-up of our country, this year when we are being asked to say yes to an Indigenous voice to parliament? I think it will say a lot about our country how we answer that question.
Do we wake up the day after the referendum having said no to the 250 delegates who came together in Uluru? What is that going to feel like? What is our country going to feel like if we say no? How will the young boys and girls who grow up in remote parts of our country, whose lives are fully ahead of them, feel knowing that Australia has said no to giving them the most basic levels of respect around recognition of their culture and their continuing connection to our land? How does it feel for a young Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person if Australia says no? I worry about that, but it also gives me hope to think about the opposite.
It gives me hope to think about the fact that if Australia says yes, what is that going to take away from any of us? Nothing. Not a single right of any other Australian will be removed by this proposition—not one. It won't be diminished. It won't be touched. Yet, if Australia has the heart to say yes, think about the message that that sends about the recognition of our past and the sort of future that we want to build. What's it going to feel like in Australia if we say yes? And progress is never everything for everyone, but I know that the thought of saying no will set us back. But there's the hope and the promise and the possibility of saying yes, where each and every one of us, I hope, will do everything we can to help deliver this referendum for our country and for our future. I really hope that our country takes this step.
I'll finish by saying why it's so important to me. The idea of a voice is not a new one; it's one that has been around for decades. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been asking for greater representation and for a say in the matters that are determined in this place and in others. Over 80 years ago, a man named William Cooper asked for a First Nations Voice through representation in parliament. At that stage, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people didn't even have the right to vote in this country. They were not counted as part of our population. And William Cooper knew that the best way for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to have a better shot at life was to have a say in those matters that decided their future.
Now, this is not the same as William Cooper's request for a voice and for representation. It has evolved. This request still goes back to the single fundamental premise of respect—of saying that the best people who can help shape and guide a future for our country, and especially for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, are those communities themselves.
Why does that matter to me? Because William Cooper had not only the foresight to think about his people; he also thought about my people. In 1938, William Cooper led the only private march against the treatment of Jewish people in Nazi Germany. Two weeks earlier, a little girl, four years old, left that country as a stateless refugee on her way to Australia. She left with her parents. She was considered unequal in that society. She wasn't counted among the population. She was stateless. And William Cooper stood up for her. She was my grandmother. She came to this country and our country gave her everything, and it's given me everything as well.
I think we still owe William Cooper. I still want to see this country honour his request, and I still think that the future that this Voice referendum can bring is one where it will not only make a practical difference to the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people—as it will. It will not only reflect who we are as a country and how we see ourselves but will also be a unifying moment where Australians will get a moment to stand inside a booth and think: do they say to no to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people or do they say yes? And to give something—to give that gift—will feel a whole lot better than to deny something. I say this to the Australian people: to give that gift will feel a whole lot better than to deny it. So I hope that this referendum and this bill get passed—that we say yes and we help build a better future together.
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.
Voice. Treaty. Truth. A call in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. A generous, warm invitation to Australians to support our Indigenous people; to join them on a journey to create a fairer, kinder, gentler and more inclusive country. An ask from a people who had their language oppressed; a people who were denied a count, denied a vote and denied their existence once this country was colonised. I am struck whenever I think about the notion of our referendum for a Voice. This referendum gives us as a country a moment to say yes, a moment to thank our First Australians for their 65,000-year custodianship of the land that we call home. It's an opportunity for us to right some wrongs, to progress our country. It is this generation's turn to step forward to progress the agenda, and it is our time to create a Voice to acknowledge a people with 65,000 years of continuous cultural connection to this country.
One of my first political memories was as a very young teenager. I was going home from school where we'd talked about a referendum to count Indigenous Australians in the census. I remember going home quite stressed, marching into the kitchen with some aspect of dread because I planned to ask my mother how she voted in that referendum. You can't imagine the relief for this young girl who had decided that every Australian should have voted yes and dreaded that perhaps my parents hadn't. You can imagine the relief when my mother said: 'We voted yes. Your father and I voted yes.' I shouldn't have been surprised, but when we'd been discussing it at school no-one had mentioned that over 90 per cent of Australians across six states had voted yes.
What a resounding moment that must have been for our country. What a wonderful moment for Australians to know that they were part of a journey to progress this country beyond the limitations of colonialism. And we now have this opportunity. We have this opportunity to move this, to progress this one step further. And we do so without fear. I will vote yes in this referendum without fear, because I know that, despite the misinformation program being run around the country, there is no fear in this for the Australian population. I know this is about continuing the journey.
We should vote yes. We should do it for the Yorta Yorta peoples who, in 1881, asked the New South Wales government for land grants. We should do it for William Barak, the Wurundjeri elder who, in 1886, petitioned the Victorian government in opposition to the protection bill. We should do it for King Burraga and for Yorta Yorta man William Cooper who attempted to petition the king for representation in the federal parliament that the Commonwealth did not pass along.
First Nations people have been asking for 90 years for a say in their country, and this is our chance to join in a referendum and grant that request, delayed as it is. We should approach this referendum with the spirit in which we've been asked. For me, as a former school teacher, I'll be voting yes for every student I interacted with in my English classroom over decades, where we sat together and watched Frontier, the ABC documentary miniseries about the forgotten wars in Australia. I'll be voting yes for every young person who sat in that classroom and was confronted with a history that they had no idea of before. We should do that because there are still Australians who have no idea about those frontier wars. There are still Australians who believe the myth of terra nullius. There are still Australians who believe that colonisation meant that our Indigenous population miraculously just moved to the centre of Australia and led a peaceful life there. These are the myths.
We should vote yes for every Indigenous writer, for every Indigenous singer-songwriter, for a people who have forgiven us so much. And we should do it for every young person in this country, for their compassion, for their empathy. I think of the young people that I taught and, when these issues would come up, their outrage at our history, their outrage pre-dating the apology. We should do it because we've been on this journey for such a long time. We've been on this journey—for me it's been since that day when I asked my mother that question about that previous referendum. We watched Gough Whitlam with the sands with Lingiari. We listened to the Redfern address. We listened to the 'sorry'. We saw the reconciliation marches across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Now we have an opportunity to embrace the future, to support the calls from our First Australians. We should do this for my friend Anita. We should vote yes for all of those who are part of the stolen generations. Anita is my friend, and she told me she had memories of riding her horse through town, followed by Aboriginal children who at the time she didn't know who were her cousins, because she was part of that generation. We should do it for her grandchildren—my nieces, Alix and Caitlin. We should do it to acknowledge in our Constitution that the First Australians existed then and still exist today.
This is a great opportunity, and the referendum provides all Australians with the opportunity to have their say. The passage of this bill today is required to hold that referendum to amend the Australian Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia in the Constitution by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice. Once this bill is passed by an absolute majority of the House and an absolute majority of the Senate, a referendum will be held in the second half of this year. I know standing here the excitement in my local community about that referendum. In the City of Wyndham this year there will be 15,000 new citizens created, some thousands already done in the first half of this year, and when I meet with those families and when I meet those new Australians it's one of their questions. They're very excited about a referendum, they're very excited about being part of Australia's democracy and most say to me they will vote yes. For them, thinking about 65,000 years of continuous connection to this country is unfathomable. They are stunned when they hear about that continuous connection to this country, and they as new citizens want their opportunity to acknowledge that. They want to be part of a country that's on this journey. They want to be part of a country that can look back at its history since colonisation with honest eyes.
Let's be serious: this referendum acknowledges First Australians through a Voice to Parliament and will progress the other parts of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Once we have a voice in that Constitution, truth and treaty will be what follows. This is an important moment for Australia, an incredibly important moment. I personally cannot express how privileged I feel to stand in this place to even discuss it, to be here while this parliament considers this referendum, this moment in history that is before us. It feels somehow like we've always been driven towards this, that we are compelled. The Australian people get to say if this journey continues, and a yes vote, when this comes, will create that.
I commend this bill to this chamber because I commend the advancement of the ideas enshrined in this bill for this country. It will build a sense of unity that we haven't felt since the 1967 referendum. It gives us an opportunity as Australians to say that we are all-embracing, to say that we are an inclusive country, to acknowledge our past, 65,000 years worth of past, to acknowledge that First Australians belong in the Constitution and that a Voice to Parliament and a voice to government is what has been missing, despite 90 years of recorded history of First Australians asking for this. It's an incredibly important opportunity.
I commend this bill to the House, and I would ask all members here to support this bill to create the referendum and to take us on that united journey where, as a country, we can imagine ourselves going forward, completely united around the acknowledgement of the First Australians in our Constitution. They sound like dry words, but what they mean to me is that, in my decades on this planet and in this country, this is an incredibly important moment, and not just a historically important moment. This moment will be about the future. In this House, when we vote on this bill, we take the first step towards what that future might look like. Despite the things that were done to First Australians in the earliest years of the colonies, despite the deaths in the frontier wars, despite the suppression of language, and despite the stolen generations and governments allowing children to be taken from their families based purely on race, this is an opportunity for us to nod at the past and move forward as a united country where we acknowledge, and have the opportunity to acknowledge, First Australians in our Constitution. It's a small ask but a huge agenda that that would bring forward, where we could move together as a country, healed, and that's the most important part.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart, as the Prime Minister says so often, is a generous invitation to walk on a journey with First Australians. Voting on this legislation in this parliament is the first step. Then a referendum and a vote at that referendum is the second step, and what a unifying day it potentially could be. I know that, in my part of the world, the families that I represent and those I speak to are really looking forward to the opportunity that this referendum provides, they're really looking forward to the notion of uniting Australia around this idea and they're really looking forward to having a Constitution that actually acknowledges our history, most importantly. I commend this bill to the House. I look forward to the vote. I look forward to the referendum.
The legislation before the House, the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023, proposes a new section in the Australian Constitution that the Nationals fundamentally disagree with. We support the right of all 26 million Australians to have their say, to have their vote in this referendum, but it should be the right question. It will be the people of Australia who decide the outcome of this referendum. That is why we supported the passage of the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022 through this parliament. The bill before the House is about changing the Constitution, our nation's founding document.
The Nationals have major concerns about the committee process we just witnessed when it comes to examining the proposed bill. As my Nationals colleague Pat Conaghan, the member for Cowper, a member of the Joint Select Committee on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice Referendum, outlined in his dissenting report:
The time afforded for consideration of the provisions of the Bill has been inadequate and does not acknowledge the magnitude of changing our constitution. The Committee has held a total of five public hearings over 15 consecutive days, in which an unreasonably tight deadline was dictated to explore the evidence and provide a report.
It was disappointing and a thoroughly flawed process.
Ultimately, the Voice will not help practically improve the welfare of Indigenous communities, especially women and children, in regional, rural and remote Australia. It will create another taxpayer funded level of bureaucracy in Canberra. Our nation needs a better bureaucracy, not a bigger one. Prominent legal experts hold serious concerns over this legal risks of this change to our nation's birth certificate and the prospect of normal government decisions being caught up in the courts for years. There's still no detail on how the Voice would operate and the powers it would potentially wield. It will also divide Australians by conferring extra political rights on a separate and special class of people in our Constitution.
The Nationals consulted in genuine and sincere faith with our electorates, constituents, members and grassroots organisations, as well as representatives of the 'yes' and 'no' campaigns, about the proposed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament. The Nationals also went through a comprehensive internal process which was led and guided by Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, an incredible, passionate and strong Indigenous leader with lived experience in the issues impacting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. As the party dedicated entirely to regional, rural and remote Australia, the Nationals have examined this through a unique lens. We bring a different perspective with lived experiences when it comes to addressing the challenges and the impacts of Indigenous Australians. It's an essential point to make.
The Nationals believe that adding another layer of bureaucracy in Canberra will not genuinely close the gap for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. Australia has had an Indigenous representative bureaucracy before. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was notorious for its inefficiency, dysfunction and wastefulness. To this day, across rural, regional and remote Australia, we still live with and are dealing with the consequences of this failed approach. More bureaucracy in Canberra is not the solution for tackling systemic and entrenched disadvantage. Simply put, we don't need bigger bureaucracy, we need a better bureaucracy. The reality is that vulnerable communities have real issues which require practical and frontline evidence-based responses which empower local elders and leaders, rather than adding more red tape for the way government operates in our nation's capital.
In contrast, the Nationals want to address the serious issues, impacting Indigenous Australians by delivering frontline evidence-based and place-based solutions which will help lift Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people out of poverty by stimulating economic participation, improving access to education, enhancing the provision of health services and eliminating domestic and family violence. We believe that bureaucracy should leave Canberra and visit communities and meet with local elders and leaders around regional, rural and remote town halls and camp fires instead of bureaucracy coming to Canberra. Each community has vastly different needs.
Around Australia there are some positive models and initiatives which have made a real difference. The Indigenous Procurement Policy, the IPP, is one of them. The IPP stimulates Indigenous entrepreneurship and business development, providing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with more opportunities to participate in the economy. Since 2015, the Indigenous procurement program has made a tremendous difference, generating over $5.3 billion in contracting opportunities for Indigenous businesses. By the time the coalition left office, this involved over 35,700 contracts awarded to more than 2,100 Indigenous businesses. This procurement program has been a genuine game changer for creating Indigenous jobs and generating economic growth. But there were other success stories.
The cashless debit card was specifically designed and aimed at protecting vulnerable women and children in disadvantaged communities by preventing welfare payments being used for cash to purchase alcohol and drugs and engage in gambling. Before Labor scrapped it, evaluations of the cashless debit card showed that this program was working. Now that it has been removed from some of our most at risk communities, the reports of the chaos, dysfunction and violence which this decision has unleashed have been heartbreaking.
While we were in government, the federal coalition also invested $1 billion into Closing the Gap measures, including early childhood, health, education and support for families. Although huge challenges remain, there has been some progress on some important targets, such as improving access for early childhood education, children being born with a healthy birth weight and reductions in the rates of youth detention. This should give us some hope moving forward.
The proposed Voice to Parliament conflates two entirely separate issues. Support for recognising Indigenous people in the Australian Constitution, a move that I'm confident would have the overwhelming support of the Australian people, is a totally different matter to supporting a constitutionally enshrined Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament. Combining the two is not conducive to securing real, genuine, sincere and long-term reconciliation, which should be about fostering unity.
Referenda are supposed to be about detail. The Constitution gets interpreted by the High Court, so the Nationals believe it's essential that we take a sensible, considered, serious and orthodox approach to what is being proposed by examining the available information. On this front, the central questions and concerns remain unanswered. Given the deliberate lack of detail, establishing the Voice risks embroiling the High Court of Australia in inflamed political debate. This has enormous risk to the way that our democratic system functions.
Here in Australia, our core democratic values are worth fighting for. They're worth preserving and protecting. The Nationals believe that the Voice undermines our robust, genuine liberal democratic values, values which we will always support and which have helped make our country the best in the world. Crucially, a core component that underpins our free, liberal, democratic society in Australia is the fundamental principle that every citizen is considered equal under the law. A constitutionally enshrined advisory body to parliament based solely on a person's race does not align with this. This is about making sure we come back to one principle, one tenet: we're all equal. There are 227 voices here in the Australian parliament representing all 26 million Australians, no matter their colour, no matter their creed, no matter their religion. We take that seriously. I'm proud of the fact that this nation has elected 11 Indigenous Australians not just to represent Indigenous Australians but to represent all Australians. It's for these reasons the Nationals will, therefore, be opposing this bill.
Deputy Speaker Claydon:
We, gathered at the 2017 National Constitutional Convention, coming from all points of the southern sky, make this statement from the heart.
I wish to address a few points made in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which, as the Prime Minister rightly says, is an invitation to all Australians to walk forward together. It is an auspicious time for the Uluru statement and the Voice to Parliament, for now we see a crystallisation of many months and years of effort—not a flawed effort, as the member for Maranoa suggested just now.
It was deeply concerning to hear a number of the points the member for Maranoa spoke to. I hope that, on reflection, hearing the speeches that those on this side and those on the crossbench and those within his own community make may well enable his entire National Party to reflect as well, and, at the time and the day of voting, to think of voting yes. There are moments of truth in every parliamentary process, and they are generally twofold. The first is when the bill is laid before the parliament for the first time, and the second is when it is passed by the parliament. For a referendum bill, there are three.
Growing up in the small country town of York, I used to work at the local courthouse as a volunteer. I was deeply alarmed and shocked taking in tourists and looking at the holding cell only for Indigenous Australians, where the ball and chain was still present on the floor. In this courthouse there were a number of different, rather horrific stories, but none I could forget more so than those that were experienced by Indigenous Australians in that cell. It was just a small cell, the equivalent of four seats in this chamber, with a sand floor where, we know, from the history records, they endeavoured to escape by scraping away at the sand. The reasons they were taken to those cells were so appalling and shocking, and so simple in essence: they were just trying to be able to stay on their land and feed their family. Up until quite late, around the 1970s, Indigenous Australians still had to hold a pass to be able to come into the town centre of York. This is not ancient history; this is recent history which we know so little about. We have such little understanding of exactly what our First Australians have had to endure since colonisation.
The people that convened to progress the Uluru statement asked for, first, a voice to parliament; second, a truth-telling to understand those stories and understand the impact on the intergenerational trauma that has endured since; and, thirdly, the makarrata. I believe we are in an amazing, privileged position, as this parliament of 2023, to progress the very first step in full reconciliation by enabling a voice to parliament. As one of the larger urban communities of Indigenous peoples, I have heard different questions raised within my community. One of them was about ensuring that sovereignty is upheld. The Uluru statement addresses sovereignty: that there have been sovereign nations here for tens of thousands of years, that the sovereignty is spiritual and finds its incarnation in ancestral ties to the land and that the sovereignty has not been ceded and co-exists with that of the Australian government. So, whilst many people have been concerned about sovereignty in this debate, it stands there within the statement upon which the referendum for a voice to parliament finds its firm foundation.
The statement goes on to say that the ancient sovereignty can shine through as a full expression of Australia's nationhood. And here is the gift that is offered from Uluru to Australia, from the heart of the nation to the nation at large. Here are the first peoples recognising that for Australia to move forward together, reconciling the tragedy and dispossession, the racism, the hurt and the violence, the stolen, the unseen, and the unheard, the whole country must be offered the gift that only the first peoples can offer—the gift of themselves. Gifts require a giver and a receiver to be perfected, and this is the gift of culture. The Prime Minister has spoken of a hand outstretched from Uluru. The statement says:
When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.
Australia has created in its first peoples intergenerational dispossession, intergenerational poverty, intergenerational dislocation and intergenerational trauma. Over two centuries and more, we have failed to value the gift of culture that is now being offered. The opportunity that I have had throughout my life of being able to travel to different countries around the world and experience different cultures firsthand and see how much they're valued and loved helps me to really see the contrast of where we are as our own nation and how we regard our own First Nations culture. I treasure and value that culture. I look forward to seeing it elevated and continuing to grow and be understood across schools in our nation and for multicultural groups to participate and witness Indigenous culture. It is truly a gift. But there are still people who think that the Voice will be a gift from Australia to Indigenous people.
The referendum may even pass simply on the number of goodhearted Australians who believe that when they vote yes, they will be doing someone else a favour, and it won't cost them anything. In truth, when we vote yes and support this change to the Constitution, we will all be doing ourselves a favour and will be changing the very nature of our nation. We will at last be receiving the gift and embracing the gift of culture into the very heart of our government—from that is where the Constitution lies. It is not possible to hear the statement, 'This is the torment of our powerlessness', and believe it without then also realising that the remedy to powerlessness is always power.
Once the referendum has passed, then there shall be a body to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Once the referendum has passed, then 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. This is the way we create power in our system of government, with laws, and when laws are not enough, we go further. From the heart of the country, we respond to the challenge to bring real and lasting change to the very heart of our power, the Constitution. The Uluru statement closes with:
We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.
When I visit schools and have the opportunity to present three Australian flags, our Australian flag, our Torres Strait Islander flag and our Aboriginal flag, the children are proud of all three in equal measure. They are proud to speak to what the colours mean. They are proud to speak to what the symbols mean. They are proud to speak to what the lines mean. Where I live, they embrace the opportunity to sing the national anthem in Noongar language. I trouble and I worry about what the curriculum will say on the Monday following the referendum. What will the teachers say to the children if it is anything other but a resounding yes?
I call upon those opposite to reflect on the statement you are actually making about yourselves and about your party. This is an opportunity to rise above the politics and think about what we can say as a nation. I accept the invitation. I will walk on that path to the future of this country. I ask and implore that you reach deep into your hearts, speak to our First Nations people and ask yourself, 'Will not a Voice to Parliament mean that they are able to have an opportunity to speak directly to the parliament, to the executive, to the government, about laws that relate to them; to ensure that they have an opportunity to say what the impact would be, what the change will be; and an opportunity to be able to fully direct their own future?' I commend the bill to the House.
I acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the First Peoples of Australia and as the traditional owners of this land for more than 60,000 years. I also acknowledge and pay my respects to the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, on whose ancestral lands we meet. I also acknowledge the palawa pakana of lutruwita.
Although I am standing here today in the privileged position of an elected representative, my goal today, as it has always been when speaking on matters that directly impact my local community, is to endeavour to reflect the views of those I represent. Today I have sought to elevate the voices of First Nations people, including in my home state of Tasmania, in this speech, because, as others have already pointed out today, the Voice is not about me or other politicians in this place; this is about all Australians. As my friend the member for Menzies pointed out, reasonable people can disagree, and the law is, by definition, contested. As elected members, those are considerations we have to weigh up.
In this instance, I return to what our First Nations people have asked us to do as a guiding principle which is reflected in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. As shared in the 2017 statement:
With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia's nationhood.
Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.
These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness.
We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.
We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.
The impact on Indigenous communities from white settlement in Australia continues to this day, and Tasmania is sadly no different. The first documented contact between Indigenous Tasmanians and Europeans occurred in 1772. In 1803, the first permanent European settlement in Tasmania was established at Risdon Cove. In the years that followed, as the British population grew in the state, so the number of first inhabitants began to fall, their destruction hastened by violence, dispossession and disease. By 1818, there are fewer than 2,000 left on our island. Just a few years later, rising tensions gave way to the Black War. I would highly recommend Nicholas Clements's book to anyone wishing to gain a greater understanding of this war and its significance in the history of our country.
A recent trip to Wybalenna on Flinders Island with Minister Linda Burney was an emotional reminder of the cruelty inflicted. This remote location, on a remote island far from their own island home, was used as an Aboriginal settlement for more than 130 Aboriginal people from 1834 to 1847, with just 47 surviving before eventually being transferred to Oyster Cove, south of Hobart. Abductions of women and children were rife from the very beginning, paving the pathway towards forcibly removing children from their own loving homes, perpetrating unspeakable pain that we can't begin to imagine.
Time and time again, we can look to the pages in our history to see how government policies, through deliberate action or inaction, have led to consistently poor outcomes for the world's oldest culture. We know we cannot change the past, but, this year, we have an opportunity to turn the page and to take the first meaningful steps towards true reconciliation in this country.
So what does that mean for our Tasmanian Indigenous community? Alison Overeem from Leprena Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress told me:
The voice is a stepping stone
It's the first in many yes threads of restorative justice that will follow on
It's leaning into the wisdom of
those who gathered around the Uluru statement from the heart
It's not the final YES
It's the thread that will lead to treaty and truth-telling and begin to acknowledge the history that sits on and with the Lands now Called Australia
We must weave and unweave the justice and injustice narrative of a nation with this referendum
This is a first step
This is a step we must take
To allow others to follow
To allow truth and treaty to be appreciated, actioned and upheld.
For Nick Cameron, Chair of the melythina tiakana warrana Aboriginal Corporation and director of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Legal Service, son of renowned elder Aunty Patsy Cameron, it's a chance to move beyond what has already been done and create a stronger, brighter and more equitable outcome. I would like to read his commentary to me in full, as it bears listening to. He says:
Intergenerational trauma and disadvantage remain high within Tasmania for Tasmanian Aboriginal people. The impacts of invasion, dispossession, genocide, segregation, family separation and institutional and community racism has had and continues to have significant impacts to the health and wellbeing of Tasmanian Aboriginal people. The voice will allow Tasmanian Aboriginal people to bring advice to the national government and Parliament on what needs to happen to improve the services and support programs specifically needed for Tasmania. This is critical for improving the lives of Tasmanian Aboriginal people, whilst we share many of the same problems as other jurisdictions many are also unique due to our history and culture. A voice for Tasmania is critical to bring the issues directly impacting on us as Tasmanian Aboriginal people to the national stage.
Incarceration rates especially for our young people remain significantly higher than the general population. Life expectancy, suicide, health in general and mental health are below national levels. Social disadvantage with intergenerational family poverty, financial stress, poor educational outcomes, family violence are all at unacceptable levels without signs of improving. Again, the issues and solutions to these problems are unique to Tasmania and only the Tasmanian Aboriginal communities through our own voice can genuinely improve these systemic problems. Our communities have many of the solutions to our problems, we just need to be provided the opportunity and respect to be heard. The answers to the problems for the Northern Territory or Western Australia may not be the right answers to the problems we face in Tasmania, the voice will provide carriage for our issues and solutions.
The Tasmanian Aboriginal Community has its own unique challenges with political and funding imbalance and recognition of identity impacting on the Closing the Gap targets. The voices of Aboriginal communities and individuals is silenced due to the power imbalance and until the voices of the wider community are heard the lives of Tasmanian Aboriginal people will not improve. Funding in who receives it and who it is made available to continues to be a big issue within Tasmania directly impacting on the access to services that are needed to support the wider communities. Funding needs for Tasmania are specific for Tasmania and its regional communities, we need a voice to represent everyone so a level of equality and equity can be assured. This is something TRACA has been calling on for many years without success.
Tasmania has a very high level of lateral violence that prevents communities and individuals from speaking up, we need support to stop this intercommunity abuse, so all people are free to speak without fear of reprisals or social media violence. The Voice will provide opportunities for individuals to stand up and become new leaders within our communities which can only be a good thing.
Government at a State and National level has a responsibility to help communities navigate lateral violence which is a tool to silence and disempower the ones without the capacity to defend themselves.
Tasmania is 6 years behind the other States in a state process for treaty and truth-telling, this is a tragedy and directly impacting on the lives of Tasmanian Aboriginal people. We need the national voice to help the state transition to a treaty and truth-telling process as quickly as possible to prevent the disadvantage of our communities compared to mainland mobs. Land returns and self-determination through treaty is critical for Tasmania to move forward, the voice will be needed at a state and national level to push forward these important agendas. The voice at both levels will be critical to ensure the entire community are empowered to be involved and have a say in this process.
Something needs to change; we cannot continue to do the things we have always done. The communities want more than symbolic recognition, they call for positive solutions that will improve the lives of our people. We are yelling loud and clear it's no longer acceptable for our challenges to be used as a political game for personal self-interest. The Tasmanian Aboriginal community expect and deserve leadership, the voice will give us an enshrined and protected platform through the referendums national mandate to be heard loud and clear and not ignored or further silenced.
There are tangible and intangible nuances within all communities and Tasmania is no different. It is implausible for decisions made by Canberra on policies and support programs to be made without direct advice from the people who live within the communities it is targeted towards and impacts on. This is the core purpose of the voice for Tasmanian Aboriginal people, to give those in power and policy-making positions the critical community-level advice they need for appropriate and considered decision-making, nothing less and nothing more.
For John Clark, Chairperson of the Flinders Island Aboriginal Association, the Voice is an opportunity to be heard and create practical change on the ground in his community. He says:
The hope if successful would give the organisation a vehicle to raise our thoughts and concerns about legislation, policy and how proposed policy on how it would impact the day to day lives of the aboriginal community we deliver services to and advocate on behalf of. It means the decision makers hopefully take into account all the concerns and input from all the communities across Australia, not just peak bodies or others with vested interests. I think it has the potential for decision makers to be more informed in order to make better decisions as most of the time, it is not one size fits all.
I do think it's critical to address some of the concerns about the question in the referendum. No, the Voice will not have veto power nor act as a third chamber. It will simply and reasonably give advice on laws made specifically for and about Indigenous Australia. To claim otherwise is a deliberate and harmful misrepresentation of the facts, and I'm disappointed to have seen this wilfully perpetuated by some.
Nor does the argument that this referendum is dividing the country by race make sense. When the Constitution was drafted in 1901 it specifically excluded Indigenous Australians. While the exclusion was removed at the 1967 referendum, the races power still exists, providing parliament with the power to make laws specifically about any group on the basis of race, and this power has only been used to make laws about our First Nations people. So, if these laws exist, it's reasonable in my mind that Indigenous people have their voices heard over those laws. I'm also certain that the reintroduction of the cashless welfare card is not in keeping with that sentiment.
I've also heard the argument that the Voice is, at best, tokenistic. To me there is nothing more tokenistic than supporting the recognition of our First Nations people and falling short of providing a permanent platform to ensure their voices are heard now and for generations to come. If you support constitutional recognition but you oppose the Voice, what exactly do you hope to achieve? You can't have the symbolic without the practical. They are intrinsically linked.
This referendum provides an incredible chance to begin righting so many wrongs and to bring about tangible differences in quality-of-life outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I think that most Australians agree that the status quo isn't acceptable and that as a country we must do better. Here is our chance. This is what First Nations people have asked for.
Let's reflect on just how many referendums have been held over the past 122 years. If this opportunity is lost, how long will it be before the chance comes around again? As one lady from the Flinders Island Indigenous community said to me during my visit to the area with Minister Burney a few months ago, just how long do we have to wait?
The proposed referendum question is:
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?
For our First Nations people, particularly in my home state of Tasmania, who have long been advocating for a better, brighter and more equitable future, my answer is yes.
I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners and thank them for their strong and continuing stewardship, particularly the Yuggera people of my electorate of Moreton. I'd also like to acknowledge, sadly, the death of a senior Indigenous person in my life, Yvonne Long, the mother of my good friend Wayne Long. She passed away on Friday. Vale, Yvonne. Later this year, Australians will have an opportunity to change our Constitution via a referendum, and I would have loved for Yvonne to be involved in that referendum. For those under 42, this is your first chance to vote in a referendum. My oldest son turned 18 earlier this year, and so he will have an amazing opportunity to change the country that he lives in on the very first occasion he goes to the ballot box.
The bill we're debating, the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023, is the next step, a chance for the Australian people regarding two simple things, recognition and consultation: firstly, recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who have been here for over 65,000 years as being this nation's First Peoples—recognising our First Peoples—and, secondly, consultation. It's about listening to First Nations people on the practical changes that will have an impact on them, their families and their communities—consulting our First Peoples. It is about recognition and consultation.
These concepts didn't come from Prime Minister Albanese or Prime Minister Morrison—definitely not Prime Minister Abbott, despite him moving Aboriginal affairs into the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, or even prime ministers Gillard or Rudd, despite the latter delivering that historic apology to the stolen generations on my first day in this chamber. Sadly, the opposition leader chose not to hear that apology. He missed that apology, just as he's missing the mark when he deliberately misrepresents recognition and consultation as concepts springing from Canberra. Imagine spending 100 nights a year in Canberra every year for more than two decades but still having the hide to use 'Canberra' as a pejorative term. Badmouthing the place where you deliberately chose to spend more than 2,000 nights sounds a little bit counterintuitive or hypocritical.
The truth is that First Nations recognition and consultation aren't new ideas either. They've been talked about for decades. These ideas were started by First Nations people and culminated in their Uluru Statement from the Heart. This document is a powerful and emotive statement that a modern, progressive, reconciled Australia simply cannot ignore. To quote Thomas Mayo:
The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a sacred First Nations' invitation to the Australian people. It was conceived on 26 May 2017 from the collective experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples during an unprecedented process of dialogue and consensus building. Forged from more than two centuries of hardship and struggle, the Uluru Statement gives hope to a nation born from many nations, that we may find our collective heart.
I remind the chamber that the first step outlined in the Uluru statement was to have an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice enshrined in our Constitution—a Voice that will enable local representatives to make representations to the Australian parliament and executive on matters that relate to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It will amplify the voices of First Nations peoples from communities and regions on matters that affect them, sending grassroots into the halls of Canberra. That's a metaphor; there wouldn't be actual grass, obviously.
I return to the legislation before us. When this place listens to the Voice regarding making and changing relevant laws and policies, we know that it will improve the lives of First Nations peoples. It will deliver better bang for the buck re spending taxpayers' hard-earned dollars. It will help us close the gap, as Prime Minister Kevin Rudd committed to 15 years ago and as every prime minister thereafter has committed to. Governments at all levels achieve better outcomes when they work in genuine partnership with First Nations communities. The constitutional amendment ensures that the Voice will be an enduring, independent representative body that cannot be taken away by the whim of politicians.
This bill is the product of robust and detailed consideration by the Referendum Working Group and the Constitutional Expert Group, and via consultation with state and territory governments. It empowers this parliament to legislate about the day-to-day operation and functioning of the Voice, allowing it to evolve over time. This is how this document works, our Constitution. The heads of power are contained in the document that was signed off by Queen Victoria back in August 1900. On the level above us, on level 1, the public can look at the British act of parliament signed by Queen Victoria's own hand during her 64th year on the throne. This document, our Constitution, has only been altered eight times in 122 years, despite 44 different questions having been put to the Australian people. The design principles for the Voice, which the referendum working group developed and agreed on, will inform the government's design of legislation to establish the Voice.
There is a lot of bunkum floating about at the moment, especially on social media, but also down at your local bar or local coffee shop, and maybe even coming from the other side of the kitchen table. So let me be clear about the design principles:
… … …
… … …
The Voice will be empowering, community-led, inclusive, respectful and culturally informed
A true grassroots organisation. Fifthly:
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
The Voice will not have a veto power—
Parliament will retain its primacy when it comes to legislation.
So the Voice is not a threat to this place; it's an invitation for our place of work to be better, more effective and even, dare I say it, a little more noble. A parliament and executive that is better at making laws and establishing and running programs to close the gaps in education, health, housing, justice—the list goes on. This invitation from our First Nations people is not to be feared but is to be accepted and embraced. This bill contains the constitutional amendment for parliament's consideration prior to it being put to a referendum.
The constitutional amendment proposed through the document that Queen Victoria signed on Monday 9 July 1990—a Monday, which I guess is a good a day as any to start a country. Queen Victoria's signature was only the royal assent, and then it was proclaimed on 17 September 1900. But, as we all know, technically our country didn't kick off until Tuesday 1 January 1901. The United States started on 4 July 1776. That was a Thursday. Canada started on 1 July 1867, a Monday—but I digress.
The constitutional amendment will fulfil the first request made in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which the Albanese government is committed to implementing in full. The proposed amendment to this document is:
In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia:
1. There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice;
2. 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;
3. The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.
Of course, there is a litany of people with their own agendas banging the drum for the 'no' case, who almost always do so with misinformation and scare tactics. I think the respected journalist Niki Savva put it best when she said:
While it is not true to say that every Australian who votes No in the Voice referendum is a racist, you can bet your bottom dollar that every racist will vote No.
These 'no' campaigners are standing side by side with those racists who are spreading lies and mistruths to stop this happening. I thought I might put together my own top five hot miss-takes from the 'no' campaign. No. 5—and all lists of loony conspiracy theories—must start with Rowan Dean, obviously. So many rants, so little time, but here goes:
The Voice is 24 people on massive salaries living in marble palaces in Canberra for life, condemning Indigenous people to socialism, communism on steroids, and it will end in tyranny.
'Steer-roids' is how Mr Dean pronounces steroids. All that marble palaces and lifetime appointments obviously is complete bunkum. Remember, kids, tell your parents: never watch Sky after dark, SAD—sad in any language.
No. 4 is Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, who is now the shadow minister for Indigenous Australians. The senator for the Northern Territory was originally part of the Recognise a Better Way 'no' campaign but then drifted over to the right-wing Advance lobby group's 'no' campaign. Amongst many mistruths, the honourable Senator Price referred to First Nations people who supported the Uluru Statement from the Heart as being part of the 'Aboriginal industry'. The honourable Senator Price dismisses those very same grassroots people who've worked tirelessly to support their communities to improve First Nations people's lives. I don't know the honourable Senator Price, so I'll leave it up to those who know her well, the Central Land Council, to sum up Senator Price best:
Her people are the non-Aboriginal conservatives and the Canberra elite to which she wants to belong.
No. 3 is Warren Mundine, prominent 'no' campaigner and political chameleon untroubled by loyalty, perhaps. In the Daily Telegraph in April Mr Mundine wrote that the referendum, if successful, would reverse the 1967 referendum. This notion comes straight from the cookers and QAnon crowd. It's complete rubbish.
No. 2, we sadly go to Queensland with Senator Hanson, who, for those that can remember, was kicked out of the Liberal Party over comments about First Nations peoples all the way back in 1996, so it isn't a surprise she is on the 'no' campaign. Such positioning is part of her political business model. Senator Hanson was first out of the blocks in September last year, claiming the Voice was a form of apartheid. This term has become the calling sign for many and goes back to what Nikka Savva said about all racists voting no. This reference is utterly without foundation and shows great disrespect to the people of South Africa, like the late Nelson Mandela, who fought against real apartheid in that country. Anyone who thinks this is the same almost certainly belongs in that racist column.
Before I get my number one pick, some more dishonourable mentions: the Hon. Senator Michaelia Cash, for thinking that the Voice would give advice on parking tickets; Tony Abbott, saying it would do nothing, coming from the man who cut and slashed funds from First Nations programs and communities; Peta Credlin, who worked for the Abbott government, who just last week likened the debate to what happens in North Korea—again, like the apartheid comments, go talk to North Koreans and see what they think—and the lower house MP who held a community forum with two white men speaking for two hours about the Voice and then, when a First Nations person wanted to speak, said, 'Sorry, we don't have enough time.'
My number one pick is the member for Farrer, the Deputy Leader of the Liberals. The member for Farrer, just like that angry old white man, Mike O'Connor, forgot that Australia has a long history of First Nations men and women fighting for Australia in overseas conflicts—Mike O'Connor was another mention from the Sunday Mailwith many losing their lives on the shores of foreign countries, never to come back to their homes where their people had walked for 65,000 years or more. Why I mention this again is the member for Farrer said that the Voice would have a de facto veto over Anzac Day—yes, that's correct; that's what she said. Even the honourable member for New England, to his credit, said this was utter nonsense, and if the $100 lamb roast bloke thinks you're dribbling nonsense, you deserve the Voice bunkum gold medal.
I prefer that people get their information from people like Professor Megan Davis, Dr Marcia Langton, Thomas Mayo, Eddie Synot, Marcus Stewart, Noel Pearson, Pat Anderson, Professor Tom Calma, the Hon. Ken Wyatt, Nathan Appo, Professor Anne Twomey, the Hon. Linda Burney, Senators Pat Dodson and Malarndirri McCarthy, former chief justice Kenneth Hayne and Bret Walker, to name but a few. Locally, I've spoken to elders, including Aunty Deb Sandy and Uncle Bob Anderson, and my other colleagues in this place: Jana Stewart, Marion Scrymgour and Dr Gordon Reid.
I want to make sure, when I wake up on the Sunday after that referendum, I'll have done my bit and voted yes. I want my son's first vote to have made a difference—the same one vote every eligible Australian will be able to make, whether you're the Prime Minister or a year 12 student who has just turned 18. Your vote will be the same. When you vote yes, not only will have you made a huge step in helping First Nations people and their communities towards a better life; you'll also be saving and changing lives. You will have made a positive change for our nation. This document, our Constitution, is a complicated document. It's taken a long time to get here. Let's make sure that the next time we take it to the Australian people to change this document, the document signed by Queen Victoria back in 1900, that it reflects a modern, inclusive Australia. Vote yes. I recommend the legislation to the chamber.
At the outset, what I'd like to say is the question of whether to support the Voice or not in the upcoming referendum is an issue on which reasonable minds will differ, so I was very disappointed at the exposition that the member for Moreton has just given—a series of character assassinations of people who had a different view to him. If that's not divisive, I don't know what is. I respect the fact that the member for Moreton might have a different view to me, but I'm not going to assassinate his character or anybody else on the other side. So I would just remind those opposite that you are not going to unite Australians by pulling those who have a different view to you under. That is not the way we operate in this country.
What Australians are being asked to vote on at a referendum later this year is very serious. It's a question which goes to the character of our country, the function of our government and the future of Australia in what I think most of us in this place would agree is an unstable world. The Australian Constitution—I agree with the member for Moreton's view on this point—is our most important legal document. It is a fluid document. It is a document that was drafted over a decade or so more than 120 years ago by our constitutional forefathers. It hasn't been changed by a referendum since 1977, nearly 50 years ago. How old does that make you feel, Mr Deputy Speaker Georganas? In one fell swoop, we could potentially see 122 years of continuous democratic tradition permanently altered.
I visited three schools last week, not so much to talk on the Voice, but just to talk about civics. It's something I often do. I love talking to schools. I always remind students at schools that Australia is one of the longest-serving continuous forms of democracy in the world. Most people prick their ears up when I say that because they don't understand it. They think about France, they think about the United States, but very rarely do we, as a country that has only been federated for 122 years, look upon ourselves as one of the longest-serving, continuous forms of democracy. But we are. That is a fact.
The importance of this vote for this referendum and this moment should not be understated. At the beginning of April, in my own electorate, I asked about 30,000 electors in Fisher, subscribers or anybody who has contacted my office, what they thought of the Voice. I have come in for some criticism on this point because some people think that everybody who has contacted my office is a supporter of mine. Anybody who's been an MP would know that many people who contact your office don't ring you up or email you to say you're doing a great job, unless, of course, it's you, Mr Deputy Speaker, because I know all your constituents would love you and think you're doing a wonderful job.
The reality is that many people contact you because they don't like what you're doing or they don't like what your party is doing, so I don't accept that those 30,000 people that I have emails for are necessarily lovers of Andrew Wallace. When I sent those 30,000 emails out about the Voice, in less than 36 hours I got 3,000 responses—a 10 per cent response—and 72 per cent of voters indicated that they intended to vote no later this year. Their feedback overwhelmingly related to the divisive nature of the proposal and the risk that the proposal would hold Australia back, not propel us forward. The No. 1 concern, however, is the lack of information available to the public about the Voice: What is it? Who will it comprise? What will it actually do? It is the vast unknown that is worrying aspirational Australians the country over.
I've made it clear to the people of Fisher that I will be voting no to Canberra's the Voice and yes to a better way forward. I will continue to consult my electorate as to their views because that's what people expect of those that they've elected. Australians expect their representatives to consult, to be representative, and they expect their MPs to have the courage to do what is right, not what activists demand or what is, necessarily, politically correct.
In considering the bill before us today, I share the concerns of my electorate about what the Voice will do and, just as importantly, what it won't do. As I have mentioned, there are serious questions about this great unknown that we cannot leave unanswered. Every word of our Constitution can be and, in fact, is open to interpretation by the High Court. That's one of the reasons that the threshold for changing it is so high. We've only had eight successful referendums out of 44.
Australians are very conservative, in the true sense of the term, when it comes to changing the constitution. Why? Because what you enshrine in the Constitution will become a permanent fixture. It's not just a piece of legislation where, if we try something and we don't like it, we can just legislate to go back to the way it was or amend it to try and improve it. Once we enshrine something in the Constitution, it is there forever and would require another referendum to change it.
The Voice, in my view, will open a legal can of worms, allowing the High Court to affect the function of an elected government without remedy. Legal experts are already at loggerheads about how the Voice will work. Even the government's own constitutional expert group could not reach agreement on what this constitutional change would do. How will it impact parliament? How will it impact the executive?
We may find ourselves in a situation where the Voice reaches into the Reserve Bank, Centrelink, Defence or our schools. It is undeniable that the 'yes' campaign are at loggerheads with each other. The Prime Minister says that this is a modest change that will only impact upon laws affecting Indigenous Australians. Professor Megan Davis, however, says that it will cover the field. There is not one law that passes or is considered by this place that does not impact upon Indigenous Australians. That is a fact. When we pass laws in this place we do not pass laws for Indigenous Australians on the one hand and non-Indigenous Australians on the other. We pass laws for Australians. Every single law that we pass in this place impacts upon all Australians.
An Indigenous representative group with unlimited scope means a bigger government, more bureaucrats and, in my view, worse outcomes. We risk a long-term legal logjam in dysfunction right across the public sector. As Ian Callinan AC KC, a former High Court judge, said:
… I would foresee a decade or more of constitutional and administrative law litigation arising out of the Voice.
Whilst I am certainly not anywhere near Justice Callinan's experience, as a barrister of 22 years I absolutely agree with Justice Callinan's views on this. Canberra doesn't need to get busier, bigger, richer or louder. People want government to step back, shut up and butt out of their lives, not have greater control. They want to get on with building, creating, working, innovating, caring, raising, leading and transforming. They want to be productive. Bureaucracy only slows things down.
Equality of citizenship is at the core of our egalitarian nation. A person's sex, religion, race or political affiliation should not impact on their ability to determine their own future or to vote in accordance with their conscience. By creating a constitutionally enshrined body elected by and for a particular ethnic group, we are permanently dividing our country along racial lines. We are destroying the equality of citizenship in one fell swoop, and it will be everyday Australians of all ethnicities who pay the price.
Australia is contending with the most geopolitically unstable period since the end of World War II. China poses an enormous economic, military and national security threat. Russia backs it. Theocracies, tyrants and terrorists from the Middle East through to South-East Asia want nothing more than to bring down our nation and the West more broadly. In facing these multifaceted challenges, governments and legislators of all shapes and sizes should be bringing Australians together. Now is the time for national unity, not government funded racial division. The Voice will be a permanent publicly funded body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders that has additional rights embedded in our Constitution. Those rights will be procedural rights to make representations to the parliament and the executive government in relation to everything. Those rights will be afforded not because of fairness or equality or justice but because of someone's race. At its core, the Voice is divisive.
The simple proposition of whether we are willing to divide our country along the lines of race is something we should all examine closely. The coalition does not believe that is what Australians want. This top down, elite Canberra voice does nothing to help Indigenous communities on the ground in rural and regional Australia, who want to build better lives for themselves and their families. There would not be a person in this place who does not want better outcomes for our Indigenous Australians. But when it comes to closing the gaps in health case, education, employment and justice, the solution is local development, not more politics.
While the so-called woke elites call for another layer of bureaucracy, Indigenous children face the most inconceivable abuse. How will the Voice keep kids safe? While Canberra talks about bureaucracy, more public spending and duplicated services, Australian families and their businesses are crumpling under the weight of Labor's cost-of-living crisis. How will the Voice help Australians make ends meet? Our nation faces existential threats from those who would do us harm in and beyond the Indo-Pacific. How will the Voice help us secure or borders, boost sovereign defence capability or protect Australians and their interests online? It won't. We don't know what it will do. But we know what it won't do. The Voice won't help Australians. In particular, in my view, it will not help Indigenous Australians living in rural, remote Australia a single bit. It won't help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians a single iota. More bureaucracy in Canberra means less investment in Aboriginal communities. It means more elites at decision-making tables and less decisions being made on the ground.
There is a better way forward. All parties of government recognise the need for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. But instead of constitutional recognition, Labor have chosen to make this referendum an opportunity to radically and irreconcilably damage our democracy. After six years of Labor's platitudes, we delivered nine years of targeted investment into closing the gap, supporting Indigenous communities and creating opportunities for meaningful representation.
We recognise there is a place in this country for bodies to serve as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices, but we don't want to see another Canberra based voice. We need local and regional voices—the same kinds of voices recommended by the co-design process by Professors Tom Calma and Marcia Langton. They are bodies embedded in local communities and regions established at the grassroots level.
Our position is clear. We support the Australian people having their say but we do not support this risky, divisive— (Time expired)
I begin by acknowledging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the traditional custodians of country. I acknowledge and pay respects to the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, on whose ancestral lands we meet. I extend that respect to First Nations people in the chamber watching and listening today. I also acknowledge the traditional owners of my electorate of Corangamite, the Wadawurrung people of the Kulin nation.
The Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023 is a powerful marker in the journey to reconciliation and respect for First Nations people, their culture, customs and elders past, present and emerging. It's a journey that began long ago in this place. As former prime minister Gough Whitlam so eloquently said, 'All of us as Australians are diminished while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are denied their rightful place in this nation.' This bill is about recognition for First Nations people. It's about building a better nation for all Australians.
We know that for too long First Nations people have suffered from inequity. For too long First Nations people have listened to parliament speak about them rather than with them. And for too long First Nations people have experienced high levels of incarceration, poor educational outcomes and low life expectancy. No Australian should be proud of this. It's time for change. We must try a different path. This bill represents that different path.
The bill presents a form of recognition that is practical and enduring. It begins to repair injustices past and enable us to work together to find meaningful, workable outcomes to entrenched challenges. And it will be our First Nations people who guide us because this is not about politicians; this is about all Australians. It is about justice, compassion and reconciliation. In the words of the Uluru statement:
We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.
These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness.
This bill provides recognition through a new chapter in our Constitution. It will establish a First Nations advisory body to make representations to parliament and the executive government. It will be a new chapter not just in our Constitution but in our nation's history, one built on extensive consultation with our First Nations peoples.
As the Minister for Indigenous Australians stated in this place earlier today, just over six years ago the spirit of this bill was supported by an overwhelming majority of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates who gathered from all points under the southern sky to endorse the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Throughout that process, and those that followed, the constitutional amendment provided through this bill will rectify over 120 years of explicit exclusion from Australia's founding legal document for our First Nations people. The Voice and constitutional recognition provide an opportunity to acknowledge our history and come together for a more reconciled future—a future where our founding document recognises that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have occupied this country for more than 60,000 years and represent the oldest continuous culture in human history, a future where our founding document recognises that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have maintained a relationship with land, waters and sky since time immemorial. This bill for a referendum is an acknowledgement of that history, and, if successful, the Voice to Parliament will provide an enduring platform from which First Nations people can make representation to the parliament on matters that affect them. It makes absolute sense.
I have met with First Nations representatives in my region from the Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative and the Wathaurong. They are united in their support for the Voice. And I stand side by side with them and thank them for the many conversations we have had. Later this year we will hold a referendum where we will ask the people of Australia to vote on a voice to parliament. This will be an historic moment. We must embrace it. I look forward to the many robust and constructive conversations that I will have in the lead-up to this vote. Now is the time to take the next step and seize the day. In the words of my colleague Senator Patrick Dodson when asked about the timing of this referendum, he said, 'If not now, when? We have been talking about recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in our founding document for decades. Now we have the chance to do it. Let's seize the moment; let's take Australia forward, for everyone.' This bill will enable us to do that.
The Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023 proposes to insert a new chapter 9, entitled 'Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples'. The introductory words recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first peoples of Australia. The words reflect the fact that establishing the Voice is an act of recognition in the manner the delegates at Uluru sought in 2017. Subsection 129(i) provides for the establishment of the Voice. This provision will ensure the Voice is an enduring institution, allowing it to be independent from government and effectively represent views of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at the national level. The Voice will be an independent representative body. The intention is that its members will be selected by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people based on the wishes of local communities.
Subsection 129(ii) sets out the primary function of the Voice: making representations to the parliament and the executive government about matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples could include matters specific to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; and matters relevant to the Australian community, including general laws or measures, but which affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples differently to other members of the Australian community. The Voice will not be required to make a representation on every law, policy or program. The Voice will determine when to make representations by managing its own priorities and allocating its resources in accordance with the priorities of First Nations people. Critically, the Voice will be proactive. It will not have to wait for the parliament or the executive to seek its views before it can provide them, nor will the constitutional amendment oblige the parliament nor the executive government to consult the Voice before taking action.
The Voice will provide a path for the executive government and the parliament to consult with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Voice will create a critical link between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, the parliament and the executive government. Nothing in the provision will hinder the ordinary functioning of the democratic system. While the constitutional nature of the body and its expertise in matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples would give weight to the representations of the Voice, those representations would be advisory in nature. It will be a matter for the parliament to determine whether the executive government is under any obligation in relation to representations made by the Voice. There will be no requirement for the parliament or the executive government to follow the Voice's representations. The constitutional amendment confers no power on the Voice to prevent, delay or veto decisions of the parliament or the executive government. The parliament and the executive government will retain final decision-making powers over all laws and policies.
The Voice will enhance our democracy and our democratic institutions. Its representations will ensure the laws, policies and programs from the parliament and the executive are better targeted and more successful. Subsection (iii) provides the parliament with broader power to make laws about matters relating to the Voice. This provision will ensure the Voice can evolve to meet the future needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and Australia as a whole. The matters on which the parliament will have power to make laws include processes to select Voice members, the way the Voice performs, its representation-making functions, its potential future functions, the power it needs to carry out those functions; and its procedures, including the mechanics of its relationship with the parliament and the executive government, such as how the parliament and the executive government would receive representations from the Voice. After the referendum, the final details of how the Voice will operate will be settled and legislation will be debated in this parliament.
I am confident the majority of Australians, just like me, want the legitimate voice of First Nations people acknowledged in the Constitution and heard by our nation's parliament and executive government. In closing, Uluru Statement from the Heart asks Australians to walk together to build a better future by establishing a First Nations Voice to Parliament. This bill presents an opportunity to uplift our entire nation, to repair the injustices of the past and to provide a better way forward to close the gap. We must seize this opportunity with both hands. As said in the Uluru Statement from the Heart:
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.
It is now 2023. It is time to accept this generous invitation in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It is time to listen. It is time to act. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain by voting yes for a better future for all Australians.
I acknowledge and pay my respects to the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, on whose ancestral lands we meet. I also acknowledge the Bunurong and Boonwurrung people of the Kulin nation, the traditional custodians of the land on which my electorate of Goldstein sits, on the shores of Naarm, the bay. The Boonwurrung dreaming is told through Bunjil the eagle as the creator of the Kulin people. I pay my respects to their elders past and present, and I extend my respects to any First Nations people in the chamber and watching today.
Across Goldstein there are signs of the thousands of years of Indigenous history, with shell middens, for example, spreading along the coast in all directions from Dendy Street through Sandringham to Ricketts Point and beyond. Confrontingly, this history also reflects the fact that the Boonwurrung were all but wiped out by European settlement. Conflict with sealers, as well as the diseases they brought to our shores, devastated these First Nations coastal communities to the extent that there may be less than 100 Boonwurrung people left by the 1840s. I thank the descendants of these people for their interactions with me and their support for the Voice.
For 60,000 years at least, the original inhabitants of this continent had stewardship of the land, the air above, what lay beneath their feet and the seas that surrounded what is now Australia. In 1788, we didn't seek their permission to take custody; in fact, we denied their millennia of ownership. That is the fundamental reason we're here today—to help right a wrong. When the Mabo legislation passed this parliament in the hours before Christmas in 1993, then opposition leader John Hewson declared it a day of shame—words I'm sure he regrets today. Mabo did not lead to the end of the world as we know it, and nor will this, but here we are again, so let's have the conversation.
I've consulted widely in the lead-up to this debate, and not just with the usual suspects. For example, I reached out to Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price to understand her concerns about what the Voice will mean. I listened and particularly heard her concerns that diverse voices of local, regional and remote communities must be heard, particularly women in those communities. So I'm pleased that the Minister for Indigenous Australians has now made it explicit that local and regional voices will be integral to the eventual structure of the Voice.
I've also listened intently and observed the comments of the member for Berowra, who says he'll vote yes even, as he argues, that the reference to executive government should be dropped in this constitutional amendment. The member is saying that removing the term 'executive government' from the legislation will improve the referendum's prospects of success. I fear it will do the reverse. I understand the member for Berowra's good-faith intention to alleviate the concerns of some, but I fear that such a change will undermine confidence in the point of all of this, among all Australians but particularly First Nations Australians, who rightly desire something more than symbolism. And there is no sign from the Leader of the Opposition, certainly not in his speech today, that such a change would mean he would get wholeheartedly behind the referendum.
This constitutional change is the result of years of work by Indigenous communities and leaders, parliamentarians and constitutional lawyers. As respected lawyer Anne Twomey has said more than once, this time in a submission to the joint select committee reviewing this legislation, there is no obligation upon parliament or the executive government to respond to the representations or give effect to them. There is no obligation of prior consultation. There is no requirement to wait to receive a representation before the executive government of parliament can act.
The Voice is a simple proposition, a simple and generous invitation that's being turned into a complicated question, at least partly, for political reasons. If we do not accept it now, then when? The forthcoming referendum will allow us to recognise First Nations people in our Constitution and, then, to give First Nations people a say in the formulation of the policies and laws that affect them. It's as simple as that. There will be hurdles.
Already, we've seen information manipulated and deliberate omission of information during the political discourse. This is something that as a journalist and foreign correspondent I saw time and time again. In many ways, together with climate change, I see it as an existential threat. Democratic processes should be free, fair and trusted, and conversations should be reasoned and void of scare campaigns. This conversation is about a simple truth: acknowledging that First Nations people were the original custodians of this continent. It begins a process that will allow us to recognise First Nations people in our Constitution. If we don't do it now, I firmly believe it will be decades before we get the opportunity again.
This once-in-a-generation referendum rests on the framework of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and its three pillars: voice, treaty, truth. In short, from where I stand, the referendum is about three principles: respect, recognition, results—practical, tangible results to close the gap for First Nations communities. This is a gap that, by listening and hearing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, I do believe we can begin to bridge, through firsthand advice to parliament from First Nations people, through the Voice. It should be built from the ground up rather than from the top down, as the most prominent advocates have noted. That's been one of the biggest problems in the policies and programs for First Nations peoples to date.
This referendum is the culmination of 20 years of patient effort by our First Nations citizens in the face of great challenges. I note, in this context, the very current experience of my former colleague Stan Grant, who will step down from his role hosting Q&A, having spoken his truth, as he says hard truths not told with hate, and being judged for it and not supported through it.
I was struck when reading an article about various efforts to give Indigenous Australians representation that the first Indigenous advisory body, the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee, was announced by the Whitlam government in the year of my birth, 1972. That's more than 50 years ago. To get to this point has been a long and winding road. Indigenous peoples have been seeking constitutional recognition since the 1920s. The 1999 referendum, the last to be presented to the Australian people, rejected a preamble proposed by John Howard. In 2000, the final report of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation recommended a constitutional amendment to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first peoples of Australia. In 2012, the expert panel proposed recognition. Likewise, in 2015, the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples did the same, without dissent. In 2015, the then Prime Minister established the Referendum Council, which, among other things, engaged with 13 regional dialogues. Their one unanimous finding: that Indigenous people sought a constitutionally protected voice to parliament. In 2017, Uluru Statement from the Heart could hardly have been clearer, with an overwhelming majority of participants calling for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution. This legislation honours that appeal.
The opposition is critical of the notion that the Voice should have access to executive government—specifically, section 129(ii):
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.
But, according to the Indigenous and legal experts I've consulted, as well as Indigenous members of the community, that is precisely the point. Too often, Indigenous representatives say, representative bodies have been created and abolished at the stroke of a pen—four of them since 1973: Whitlam's National Aboriginal Consultative Committee, Fraser's National Aboriginal Conference, Hawke's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, and, finally, the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples. All came; all gone. A key aim of this referendum is to enshrine the Voice in the Constitution so it's not subject to the ebbs and flows of party politics.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart was first read out in 2017. That's six years ago that an invitation was issued. And what have we got so far? Eleven of the 15 Closing the Gap targets are still not on track. And one of the reasons, according to First Nations leaders, has been the lack of access to the executive—that too many of the approaches to government have got lost or withered within the bureaucracy.
The opposition leader is particularly troubled that the Voice will have access to the executive, arguing that it'll be able to make representations on any matter—that there is an obligation on the government: to advise the Voice in advance before making any law or policy relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, not to make any law before receiving a representation, to consider any representation and to give effect to representations when making any law or policy. Constitutional expert Anne Twomey says this is just not true. In her submission to the joint select committee set up to report on this legislation, she says:
1. No such obligation is contained or can find its source in the text of the amendment.
2. The intent of the amendment, as expressed in official documents, does not support any such obligation.
3. The history of the development of the amendment does not support any such obligation.
4. It is impracticable to draw such implications from a provision of such breadth.
In this regard, she points to the careful use of the word 'may' in section 129(ii), as well as words that are absent:
For example, the word 'consultation' was not used, as it might convey an obligation on the part of the Executive Government or Parliament to consult the Voice prior to making decisions. The word 'advice' was also rejected, lest it be interpreted as binding …
The word 'may', says Twomey, means that:
There is no obligation upon Parliament or the Executive Government to respond to the representations or give effect to them. There is no obligation of prior consultation. There is no requirement to wait to receive a representation before the Executive Government of Parliament can act. Indeed, there is no obligation imposed upon the Voice, Parliament or the Executive Government of any kind … Sub-section 129(ii) … merely … permits the Voice to make these representations.
My colleagues to my right have argued today that the Constitution is a plain document and that that is one of its strengths—that it's a practical tool that has served our nation well. I don't disagree. The problem is that the soaring history of our First Nations people is not in it. The very Dreaming of Bundjil the eagle, which created the Kulin nation of Goldstein, and all the Dreamings that underpin thousands of years of our history are not present.
In the words of Thomas Mayo, a Kaurareg/Kalkalgal/Erubamle Torres Strait Islander born on Larrakia land in Darwin:
It is true that Australians believe in fairness. But the final stretch of this uphill battle will be steeper than ever, and those devils on the shoulder whisper confusion as we toil.
How can we quit now after decades of advocacy before Uluru … aimed at moulding this constitutional proposition into one both safe and powerful, symbolic and practical—true to its intent to just give Indigenous peoples the decency of a say.
When we reach the peak of the mountain, we will see the full vista of who we can be. It will no longer be an obscured view of our country …
I will support this bill.
Some years ago, the High Court of this country destroyed the legal fiction of terra nullius, in a decision called Mabo. Human habitation on this continent we call Australia didn't happen when Captain Cook showed a bit of interest in the place on the east coast in 1770, nor when Captain Phillip decided to take a bit of interest and establish a convict settlement around the Sydney area in 1788. Nor did it happen when Australia was federated, and the likes of Edmund Barton and Alfred Deakin and company drafted a constitution and convinced the government of the United Kingdom that we should federate as six states in 1901.
Although in many ways it has served us well, the tragedy of our Constitution is that there were no women present during the conferences and conventions that led to the Constitution. There were hardly any Labor people present, I might add, nor any trade unionists. And there were certainly no First Nations people present. Indeed, the Constitution is reflective of the view of many in the late 19th century that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were a dying race. They had been disadvantaged, dispossessed and discriminated against. They were the subject of the Frontier Wars and slaughtered in places around the country. These are things that were not unknown at the time. There were newspaper reports and governmental reports about them.
In 1901 we federated, and we didn't contemplate or recognise First Nations habitation and the cultures and the 250 languages that were spoken at the time of Federation. Indeed, the Constitution has racist provisions in it. Section 25 contemplates that the states can pass laws to prevent any races from voting, and persons excluded by that would not be counted for the purpose of representation in the House of Representatives. Section 51(xxvi) has been used on numerous occasions—in fact, almost every occasion—to discriminate against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We have seen that again and again. We have very few protections. I have always been a big believer in a bill of rights. I have always been a believer in a charter of rights, if not a bill of rights, and our Constitution has very few of those.
I have a bit of history in this space. I was the Chair of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs in the House of Representatives. I was also the shadow minister for Indigenous affairs. I was a member of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, chaired by the Hon. Ken Wyatt, which came up with many good recommendations and which backed in the expert panel that had been appointed by Julia Gillard and had such eminent persons on it as now senator Patrick Dodson and others. We had, of course, another joint select committee established. I'm a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, which has looked at the legislation to deal with this referendum proposal. I have recently been with the member for Dunkley and others on the Joint Select Committee on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice Referendum. I've heard the legal experts—Anne Twomey, George Williams, former chief justice Robert French and others—and people who have some concerns, like Greg Craven, Frank Brennan and others, but this referendum is gracious, simple and profound, as Shireen Morris and Noel Pearson said in their submission to that joint select committee on the voice.
Constitutional change is hard. In this country we've engaged in cooperative federalism or judicial activism of the High Court, which has original jurisdiction in a whole range of areas. So the notion that somehow the High Court can't interpret issues in relation to the Constitution and issues of justiciability is a fiction and a nonsense. There are those who would perpetuate and perpetrate that nonsense.
But we have some challenges in getting constitutional change. Section 128 requires a double majority—a majority of votes in a majority of states. We need that to get this referendum up. It's very important that we look at the history of this. This is not a new thing. We had in 2017 over 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders gather at Uluru for a national constitutional convention. There have been literally hundreds of First Nations regional dialogues. The dialogues engaged 1,200 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates from traditional owner groups and community organisations and key individuals.
This idea that somehow the referendum comes from nothing is rubbish. It does mimic in many ways the many constitutional conventions that led up to Federation in 1901. We've had interim reports and final reports on a whole range of issues dealing with constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
There will be a new section 129. The wording for new subsections (i), (ii) and (iii) is gracious, simple and easy to understand. 'In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia' is simply a statement of the obvious, but it's important because the Constitution doesn't have that. The only time a symbolic attempt was made in a referendum in John Howard's tenure as Prime Minister it didn't have substantial change and the people of Australia voted it down. We need some form of symbolic recognition, but a change that will be substantive, real, practical and pragmatic.
Subsection (ii) says the Voice, the body, 'may make representations'. It's an advisory type capacity. There is no compulsion on the parliament or the executive government to adhere to that voice. In fact, that idea of a duty of the parliament and the executive government to adhere to or follow that representation was discounted by legal expert after legal expert from the Law Council to Professor Anne Twomey and Professor George Williams. Bret Walker SC said that the idea that somehow this would hold up or delay legislation and that the courts would be clogged was 'too silly for words'.
Subsection (iii) of the change gives this pre-eminent power to the parliament and says:
… the Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.
So the parliament is pre-eminent under the Constitution. This is not a deliberative or a legislative body. It's really a body that makes representations. It's not an Indigenous house of lords, as some have said.
When you look at the proposal you see that it is simple, easy and concise, but it has practical implications. The Voice will be replicated in terms of input from regional areas. We know that when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a say and input—for example, when they have a community controlled health service like IUIH in Queensland, my home state—that's when we have better practical outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We've seen it again and again.
The idea that the Voice can just make representations to, say, a minister of state without dealing with senior public servants who have executive responsibility in programs, policies and outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is a nonsense. It's not good enough. The idea that somehow this Voice will be dealing with all manner of aspects of executive government is limited by the fact that it's concerning matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
I think there are many, many good things that are in this constitutional proposal. I want to praise Professor Tom Calma AO and Professor Marcia Langton AO for the co-design process and the leadership they show in this space. They've done a very, very good job. I also want to thank the Law Council of Australia, who have done a mighty job in their submission. I encourage anyone who may be listening to this debate to have a look at their submission and the submission made by Noel Pearson and Shireen Morris to the joint select committee looking at the Voice. The core function of the Voice is to make those representations on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The proposed constitutional change performs an important role in identifying and therefore providing that constitutional guarantee for a core function of the Voice.
I want to deal with the issue of justiciability. This idea that somehow there would be no judicial determinations, this principle of justiciability, is not an issue that's foreign to the High Court. Since 1901, the High Court has had original jurisdiction in all matters arising out of the Constitution and involving its interpretation. Judicial review is not done for every single element of government decision-making or error in government. There are many issues which the High Court will not evaluate. There are many issues where the High Court will identify whether a question is considered appropriate or fit for judicial determination. This is not a new concept. But, if you listen to those opposite and some of the naysayers in this debate, you would think that that's really doomsday stuff. The jeremiads coming from those opposite and some other people in relation to this issue deny the historical reality and the function of the High Court of Australia and what it's done. This is a longstanding legal and constitutional responsibility of the High Court of Australia. We should trust the High Court, as we've done for a century and 20-odd years, to make decisions in the best interests and to perform its function in all matters of constitutional law.
As the Law Council have said:
The actions of Parliament concerning its relationship with the Voice would, in the above context, be considered non-justiciable … it does not create an explicit, nor an implied, obligation on Parliament to consider or respond to those representations … the High Court has held that the exercise by Parliament of its own law-making procedures is non-justiciable.
That's really critical in case after case after case. So this nonsense that somehow the High Court and the legal system would be blocked and somehow the Voice would have a veto over the operation of the parliament and the executive government doesn't bear reality given the actual constitutional proposals being put. This is an advisory body that makes representations and provides views to parliament in relation to proposed or existing laws or policies relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. That's the context.
It is an amendment to our Constitution which is legally sound and balanced, according to Noel Pearson and Shireen Morris, and it has benefited from nine years of refinement, streamlining and simplification of the provisions. It is not a radical change, but it is a substantive change to our Constitution that is about consultation and recognition of the people of this continent who have been forgotten, disadvantaged, discriminated against and subject to violence and expulsion from their land and the destruction of their language and their culture.
The constitutional opportunity we have cannot and must not be abandoned. We have a great opportunity in this country to do the right thing. I cannot conceive how we would feel as a country, how it would set back closing the gap, how it would set back the cause of reconciliation and unity as a people, if, on the Sunday after this vote, we're in a position where we have voted no as a country. How will we be considered internationally? How will Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who've been on this continent feel if their fellow Australians vote no?
I would encourage all my constituents in Blair and everyone around the country to do the right thing. Consult with each other; consult with First Nations people; recognise them in the Constitution.
HAN () (): I have probably had more chances than most to speak on the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023. Being the deputy chair of the Joint Select Committee on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice Referendum, I had the chance to speak earlier today. I stand conscious of that and am keen to hear from my colleagues on both sides of the House, who should be heard on this really important issue. I acknowledge the member for Blair, who's just left; the member for Dunkley; and, previously, the member for Cowper. All three were on the committee with me.
There were 13 members on the committee, from both parties—in fact, three parties and a crossbench member. We may come to different conclusions at the end of this process, and they're reflected in various reports, but I think the member for Dunkley will agree we treated each other with respect and dignity and heard each other out. My plea, as this decision leaves this place, goes to the Senate and then ultimately goes out to the Australian people, is that the Australian people treat each other with dignity and respect in the same way. In addition to how we may feel the day after the referendum, how we treat each other in this process is important. The day after the referendum, whatever the result, the Australian people will have got it right. That's what we accept in a democracy. That's what happens in every election. We lost the Federal election last year; the Australian people got it right. We must accept that. That may seem like an obvious statement, but there are examples around other democracies where that's not obvious. People need to be reminded. I'm worried, when I see some of the commentary in this debate from both sides, that there needs to be some heat taken out. There are some very good people on both sides who have had their motives and even their own personality and history questioned for taking a view that others disagree with—again, on both sides.
Earlier, when I spoke about the report, I mentioned an example where my party had its rural state conference at Bendigo on the weekend, and it is fair to say that most members of the party are against the proposal as put, but not all. A young man got up and, in a forum, put his case for why we should support the Voice. I was on the panel, and I was struck by his courage and his conviction that, in a room where he knew that most people would not agree with him, he felt he had to stand up for what he believed in. The room applauded him. I think that was a sign of the Liberal Party at its best.
On this side, my friend sitting next to me, the member for Bass; my other friend the member for Berowra; and senators that might have views in the other place have different views. I respect and honour them for their courage and their conviction because they are an example of how we can have a deeply held, passionate view yet still ultimately disagree. Like most issues, these things aren't black and white. There are shades of grey. In fact, most reasonable people will acknowledge the great honour that we have of our Indigenous heritage, the significant injustices and disadvantages, historically and present day, that Indigenous Australians suffer. Just about all reasonable Australians agree with that. But what we're looking at here, in these words and in this proposal, is whether and how we amend our Constitution.
I understand the argument that this is the offer that we have before us. I understand that. I also understand the argument that a lot of things haven't worked before, so let's try something new. I understand that too. But that doesn't mean we should not seriously and properly assess the potential of unintended consequences for amending our Constitution. Because we are one of the most stable and successful democracies on Earth. We're not perfect. No-one pretends we're perfect.
When many speak of some of the principles and ideas that are guiding their vote, including equality of citizenship—I say the aspiration of 'equality of citizenship' because I also acknowledge that in our Constitution are some odious provisions, like section 25, which belong in another century and another time. They should be removed. There's bipartisan support for that. But what section 25 shows us is that our Constitution is permanent in effect. It's very hard to change it. If we want to try something different and something new, for all the good intentions that come with that, if there are unintended consequences it is very hard to undo.
For many of the aspirations and goals that I've heard in speeches from the other side, and from my friends here, there are ways to achieve those without the constitutional risk—that is, through legislation and other means. And that includes the Voice to the executive. I understand why a Voice would want to make representations to the executive. I understand that. But there are ways to do that through legislation. There are ways to do that in many other respects that reasonable people in this place could agree on.
The key ingredient for our stable and successful democracy is our Constitution. The member for Blair referred to his aspiration for a bill of rights. That is a debate for another time, but one of the issues with a bill of rights isn't really the contents of the rights, which we can all aspire to, it's about who decides. Because when something is added to our Constitution, ultimately it is for the High Court to decide, not this place. So, bit by bit, whether it's a bill of rights or other amendments, there is, in effect, a transfer of power from this place—the people's house, the heart of our democracy—up the road to the High Court.
The High Court is an important branch of government, but unlike the United States, which has a bill of rights—the consequences of that sees people and protesters march up the National Mall, past the Congress and around the back to the Supreme Court. That's where they seek to have their opinions heard. Many have often reflected that for political decisions, for moral decisions, it should be the people's house—and in that place it's the Congress where those decisions are heard. I think one of our strengths is that we don't have a bill of rights in our Constitution, and I say that in response to the member for Blair's submission.
Section 75(v) of our Constitution entrenches the High Court's jurisdiction to conduct judicial review of executive action undertaken by officers of the Commonwealth. The primary issue that the joint committee had to deal with was whether the government's proposed amendment to the Constitution will generate grounds for judicial review of executive action under section 75(v). In short, the question is this: could the High Court interpret the proposed new chapter of the Constitution in a way that imposes duties on the executive? None of us—no professor, no constitutional silk, no former judge—can answer that question conclusively. They are all giving their best guess. They do so in good faith with opinions that are sincerely held, but none of them will truly know.
There are many examples through our constitutional history where the High Court took a turn that no-one in this place or in academia or those who made the submissions or others who were on the court would have guessed. We have seen many in my lifetime as a lawyer—I still consider myself a baby lawyer. Just a few examples were: the decisions of Kable and DPP, where the High Court struck down legislation that attempted to vest state courts with functions incompatible with chapter III; Langley and the Commonwealth, where the High Court held that the Constitution contains an implicit protection of freedom of communication between the people concerning political and government matters; the cases of Roach, Lane and Morrison; and the more recent one of Love and the Commonwealth, where a majority of the High Court, quite unexpectedly, and to the surprise of the Solicitor-General at the time—this is in 2020—held that a man born in New Zealand and a citizen of that country could not be deported as an alien within the meaning of section 51(xix) of the Constitution, because he descended from an identified person of Aboriginal descent. The majority reached this conclusion because of an assessed special cultural, historical and spiritual connection with the territory of Australia. No-one can deny those words that were mentioned in the majority, but they don't appear in the text of our Constitution.
When we look at the three parts that are proposed, it is part II that has drawn the most concern from this side and from many of those who made submissions to the committee. I would not and will never pretend that that risk is a veto. That is an erroneous submission and claim for anyone to make. The two duties are as follows: there is the potential for the High Court to find either a duty to consult in advance of decisions that are pending or a duty to consider the representations that are being made by the Voice. These twin duties aren't pulled out of thin air; they're quite common in the area of administrative law. They guide many of the areas that nonlawyers are familiar with, including the area of migration, where decisions made by the minister are reviewable not because there is a veto on the decision of the minister but that the minister hasn't properly considered all of the materials for that.
You may ask, 'What's the big deal, if the executive still gets to make the decision after it's forced to hear a representation?' The big deal is that it's a huge administrative burden. When you read the explanatory memorandum and the Attorney-General's second reading speech, he makes it very clear that that's not the intent of the government. It's not your intent. So what we're talking about is whether the words reflect the intent of the government. In the dissenting report, there are four options put forward where we submit, based on expert evidence, that you could better reflect that intent.
Many have stood up here and said, 'Don't worry, part III'—which gives power to this place, talking about the powers, functions and procedures of the Voice—'is what checks this potential risk you're talking about in part II.' There's a problem with that. The problem is part III says 'subject to this Constitution'. So if the High Court finds one of those two duties, to consult or consider in part II—and they can find it in one of two ways, on an express reading of the words or by implication—then there's no law that we can pass in this place that can fix that. We can't, because it's subject to this Constitution.
Even if the submission is right, that part III has that power, when I ask this question, 'What is it in part II that you are defending so strongly?' why are you fighting so hard to defend it? Why is it there? If part III gives this place absolute power over whether those obligations may arise, then it doesn't do anything, and you could very well legislate a voice to the executive through part III. My good friend the member for Berowra has been a long, passionate advocate for reconciliation, and that's the point he made in his Press Club speech. It's a valid question that has not been answered.
I said I would defer and yield my time to others because I have had a lot already. This is a decision that the Australian people will make. Whether their vote is yes, no or unsure, I commit to honouring that. I commit to respecting the views of those who disagree with me. I encourage all of us in this place, in the media, in social media, that wherever we see insults, wherever we see invective, wherever we see people revert to attacking the person and not the ideas, we should all step in and stop them, like that young man at the state council who took a risk to stand up. I say to those in corporate Australia, to our sporting codes, to families, to people at dinner parties: let's respect each other as Australians and get through this. At the other end, we know, the Australian people will have made the right decision.
I begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land we are gathered on today, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples. I acknowledge traditional custodians of the lands across Australia, particularly the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, whose lands include Jagajaga.
The Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) Bill 2023 is an opportunity for our country. It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make Australia a better place by delivering constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through the Voice to Parliament. It comes after decades of work from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and also from others who have worked alongside them advocating for constitutional change.
Of course we know that constitutional change in our country isn't easy. This will be our first referendum in 24 years, and it does seem a little daunting. But when we see past the fear of doing something differently we can see the opportunity that is there. I can see our country on the other side of this referendum, where we wake up, having successfully taken up the invitation that is in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. That statement was the work of First Nations people holding dialogues across the country culminating in a summit at Uluru on the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum. It called for the establishment of a First Nations voice to parliament and concludes with the invitation:
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.
At its core, constitutional recognition through the Voice is about two key things: recognition and listening. It's a recognition that after all this time Australia's First Peoples should have a significant place in our 122-year-old Constitution. As Professor Megan Davis has said:
It's a recognition of First Nations voices as being important to the nation. It's recognition that the descendants of the ancient peoples who arrived here 60,000 to 70,000 years ago are still here, have survived and [are] speaking with their voice.
The concept of First Nations people having a place in the Constitution is not a new one. From the petitions of William Cooper to the Yirrkala bark petitions, the Barunga Statement and much more, First Nations people have long called for a greater say over their own lives. I was struck recently when I was reading Shireen Morris's observation in Statements from the Soul that in fact the Australian Constitution is all about voices. Shireen writes:
… the federal system provides mechanisms for the historical political communities (the former colonies) to always be heard by the might of the majority.
Whilst the colonies or the states got provisions for their voices to be heard in the original drafting of our Constitution and the make-up of our Senate, First Nations people did not get that position in the original drafting of our Constitution. That's the opportunity that is before us—to have their voice heard in our Constitution.
This is not a radical proposition. It is adding a voice to our Constitution—a voice that could have been included from the start—the inclusion of which now gives us a chance to address the injustices of the past and to create change that will make things better now and into the future. It is our country listening to First Nations people and their calls to have a real say over their own lives.
As I said, the proposal before us not a radical one. The Voice will not have veto power. It will be an advisory body. As the Attorney-General has set out, it creates an independent institution that speaks to the parliament and the executive government but does not replace, direct or impede the actions of either. The Voice will provide a path for the executive government and the parliament to consult with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It will create a link between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, the parliament and the executive government, and its members will be selected by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples based on the wishes of local communities. Putting the Voice in our Constitution ensures that this link I've been talking about is enduring. It ensures it is something that becomes part of the fabric of our country and how we do business going forward.
We need that because, despite the efforts of successive governments, our efforts to close the gap have not been successful: 11 of the 15 Closing the Gap targets are not on track. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are still locked up at a rate that makes them proportionally the most incarcerated people on the planet, and I note we had the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the report of which was released in 1991. It's a long time ago. But many of its recommendations still haven't been implemented, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to die in custody at unacceptable rates.
So when the Leader of the Opposition frames part of his opposition to the Voice around saying that he would rather have a royal commission, I have to ask: what does he think would be different about that process? When we have the example of the seminal royal commission that has still failed to change outcomes for people's lives, when we have decades of failed approaches behind us, why would we keep using the same failed approaches over and over again? The proposal before us has the backing of some of the most senior constitutional experts in our country. It is consistent with the advice of the Solicitor-General. It is time for us to take a new approach.
We do have evidence that, when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people do have a say over their own lives and futures, when they're involved in the design and implementation of policy and legislation that affect them, we get better outcomes. We see the results that come from things like Aboriginal community-controlled health services, which put Aboriginal health in Aboriginal hands. These are trusted services which are run with a real understanding of their communities. We see the Indigenous rangers programs, which not only protect country but also provide role models for people in their communities. They promote improved mental and physical health. They strengthen and enhance culture. They encourage more women into work. The Voice works on a similar principle—that, by giving people a direct say over their own lives, by giving people a direct say over how government works in their lives, we can improve their lives and those of the community they represent.
In my home state of Victoria we are already seeing some of this approach in important work initiated by the Andrews government, the First Peoples' Assembly of Victoria. This is an independent body made up of traditional owners from across Victoria chosen by their communities to advance preparations for negotiations for treaties in Victoria. The assembly is advocating for a statewide treaty while also supporting and empowering traditional owner groups right across Victoria to negotiate specific treaties reflecting their priorities and wishes. Through a willingness to work together and to listen and engage in respectful discussion, the assembly has taken important steps forward. I look forward to the continued work of the First Peoples' Assembly and their progress towards treaties. There are important lessons for us at a federal level from this. It's an example of what we can achieve when we work together.
I began this speech with an acknowledgement of country. For me and those in my generation and older this is a practice that has only become widespread during our adult lifetimes, but for my five-year-old daughter it's something she started doing at kindergarten. She already knows about the Wurundjeri people and their connection to this country. The members of her generation are already trying to take up the opportunity the Uluru Statement from the Heart offers us to walk together for a better future. They can't vote yet, so they're relying on those of us who can to seize the opportunity to say yes to constitutional recognition that makes a real difference and improves lives, to say yes to recognising the amazing 65,000 years of history and continuous connection to this land and to wake up the day after the referendum to an Australia that has said yes to a more reconciled nation that is committed to making sure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are heard so lives will be improved. We're not there yet. We know there is a lot of work to do to get a successful referendum and, in fact, get this bill through the parliament.
I pay tribute to all the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have worked so hard just to get us to this point and who continue to campaign. In particular I note my colleagues in this parliament, including the father of reconciliation, Senator Patrick Dodson; the Minister for Indigenous Australians, the amazing Linda Burney; Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, the Assistant Minister for Indigenous Australians; and the First Nations members of our caucus. It's a privilege to campaign alongside all of you.
I want to give the final word in this speech to one of my local Aboriginal leaders: Uncle Charles Pakana, the chair of the Barrbunin Beek Aboriginal Gathering Place in Heidelberg West, in my community. He's a great guy and I'm very proud to know him and very pleased he has seen fit to share these words with me. I'm very grateful he has allowed me to share in this place why he is voting yes in this important referendum:
A First Nations Voice should not be feared, as some would have us believe.
A First Nations Voice should not be regarded as a mechanism devised to block parliamentary process, as some would have us believe.
A First Nations Voice should not be misrepresented as a racially divisive construct, as some would have us believe.
Rather, a First Nations Voice should be recognised for what it would be—a constitutionally protected means by which culturally and socially informed voices of our People lend their advice and support to government during the critical processes that will impact on the lives, wellbeing and future of all Australian First Nations people.
I urge those who currently advocate against the embedding of a Voice in our Constitution to instead turn their passion and efforts towards the work that will be required to establish the legislative and social foundations upon which the Voice will be built.
I couldn't have said it better myself. I commend this bill to the House.
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.
I know there are a lot of people who feel like they need more information about what we're talking about here today. But, in fact, there is a lot of information, and some of it's quite dense, so what I want to try to cover off in the time that I have is some of the key issues that I know are top of mind for people, both supporters and those who are still not sure. The legislation that we're talking about today, Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023, has to be passed so that we can hold the referendum to amend the Constitution in order to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Voice. That's the big picture stuff. Once this bill is passed by an absolute majority of the House of Representatives and an absolute majority of the Senate, a referendum will be held in the second half of the year, sometime, we're expecting, between October and December.
There are really two key things that the referendum is going to seek to do. It's going to enshrine Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples in the Constitution. First, it's about just recognising that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were here when colonial settlers arrived. They were here with their 65,000 years of history, with a continuous connection to the lands on which we now reside. It's recognition. I have to say, I've found very few people who are opposed to that. The majority of people nod and say, 'Well, that's just obvious, isn't it?' The second part is about listening to the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples when it comes to the laws and policies that affect them.
The listening part is really what I want to focus on. Now, we know that listening to communities leads to better laws and policies. In my community within the Blue Mountains World Heritage area, we know that the policies that affect us are much more effective when we're listened to about our local knowledge and understanding of the precious lands that we occupy. So this is about listening to communities and making a practical difference on the ground in areas that are so profound, like health, education and housing. That is what the Voice will help deliver. Why are we so confident about that? Because all of us know that we get a better result when we partner with the community affected, and this is about partnering with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
I've spent 20 years of my working life going to and from the Northern Territory. I was there for about a week every month, working with very well-meaning organisations and government departments. Over the course of that 20 years, I saw the same ideas and programs being put up. There might be five or 10 years between them, but they came back. They often didn't achieve what they were designed to achieve, because they weren't done in partnership with communities, but we got some good results where they were done in partnership with communities. I can think of a few of them. The Indigenous Ranger Program is a really key and transformative program. There are the many Aboriginal community controlled health organisations. They're making a genuine difference in their communities. Justice reinvestment is another one that changes the way we deal with people who are operating outside the law. These all demonstrate strong and improved outcomes when communities are involved in decision-making. And this referendum is the best chance we have to address the injustices of the past and create change that will lead to a better future, and, quite frankly, lead to us in this parliament making better decisions about where taxpayer dollars go to improve the lives of some of the most vulnerable populations.
We'll get to the actual referendum question. Australians are going to be asked a really simple question. The question that will be on the ballot paper is:
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 all people will have to read on the day. That's what will be on the paper where they have to tick yes or no.
Now, what sits behind that are some extra words about the chapter that we'll put in our Constitution. It will be chapter IX and it will be called 'Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples', and it will have subsection 129 'Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice'. It will say:
In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia:
1. There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice;
2. 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;
3. The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.
And that's it; the amendment is that simple.
I want to address the furphy—it's the kindest way to describe it—that there's no detail and that this process has been rushed. It's important because we understand that in people's really busy everyday lives constitutional reform is not always the highest priority. I certainly know that when I was busy raising kids and running a business the last thing I would have had time to really think about was the detail of constitutional reform. But it is hard to find a pre-referendum process since Federation, since we first wrote the Constitution, that can really compare to the lengthy process we've gone through to get to this point.
It's a statement of fact that no referendum has been preceded by more debate, more engagement by parliamentarians, legal experts and community members than this one. There was, for instance, an expert panel on the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution established in 2010—13 years ago. It conducted community consultation and produced a report in 2012. Then there was the 2015 report of the Joint Select Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Now I'm surprised that one didn't become everybody's bedtime reading. Even back then we were going into the detail of it.
There was the First Nations constitutional dialogues conducted by the Referendum Council in 2016 and 2017 to discuss options for constitutional reform led by Aboriginal peoples. And then there was the First Nations National Constitutional Convention at Uluru, held by the Referendum Council in 2017, to ratify the decision-making of the constitutional dialogues. That led to the final report of the Referendum Council in June 2017 endorsing the Uluru Statement from the Heart and calling for Voice, Treaty and Truth. So that's what got us to what people are familiar with, the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Since then, there's been the 2018 report of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition Relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. That recommended the government initiate the process of co-design of the Voice with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Then there was the co-design interim report in 2020 and the final report in 2021, and the Prime Minister announced a draft constitutional amendment in July last year.
Since then, there has been robust scrutiny and testing from various groups around it. Most recently there was another parliamentary inquiry process. We've also had the Joint Select Committee on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice Referendum complete the most recent inquiry on 12 May this year. It made a single recommendation: that this bill be passed without amendment. And that is exactly what this parliament should do.
That's an overview of how we find ourselves here. On top of that there's the Solicitor-General's advice, which was released. The opinion draws a line under some very wrong and baseless arguments that have been put forward, including by the Leader of the Opposition, I'm afraid. The Solicitor-General's opinion is consistent with the overwhelming consensus of opinion from constitutional experts. The view is that not only is this amendment compatible with Australia's system of representative and responsible government but it would enhance that system. The Solicitor-General also confirms that it will be a matter for the parliament and not the High Court to determine when and how the executive government consults the Voice and considers the advice of the Voice. All of that should give Australians confidence that constitutional recognition has been well thought through and that it will work.
I want to touch on the design principles that underpin the Voice, because this is where people haven't necessarily had the opportunity to go through the detail. The detail exists. It's just a matter of finding the time to work your way through it. The design principles that have been co-designed include that the Voice will make representations to the parliament and the executive government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, which means that they can make representations proactively, that they can respond to requests and that the Voice will have its own resources to allow it to research, develop and make representations. The second design principle is that the Voice will be chosen by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people based on the wishes of local communities. This means that members will be selected by their communities, not appointed by the government. Members would serve on the Voice for a fixed period of time so as to ensure regular accountability to their communities. And to ensure cultural legitimacy, the way that members of the Voice are chosen would suit the wishes of the local communities and would be determined through the post-referendum process. I know that people have asked questions about that, including members of my local Dharug, Gundungura and Darkinyung communities.
Design principle 3 is to ensure that the Voice is representative of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, that it is gender balanced and that it includes youth. The fourth principle is that the Voice will be empowering, community led, inclusive, respectful and culturally informed. Principle No. 5, a really key one, is that the Voice will be accountable and transparent. Design principle 6 is that it will work alongside existing organisations and traditional structures so it respects the work of existing organisations. Design principle 7 is that it will not deliver programs. It will make representations about improving programs, but it will not be the deliverer of those programs. The final principle is that it will not have veto power. Under each of those is a whole lot more detail, and I'm really happy to share that with people in my community who may have more questions and now can go: 'Okay, I get that. I want to go a layer deeper.
These sorts of principles were talked about in Springwood at the hub recently, when I brought together around 700 people. Filmmaker and incredible activist Rachel Perkins shared with us her insights, her thoughts and her journey from the Uluru Statement from the Heart through to her support for the referendum. I thank Rachel. We had 400 people in the room and another 300 online who were participating by entering questions and by giving responses. It wasn't an exhaustive discussion. It was an initial discussion. There were a range of views canvassed, including from First Nations people. It was really important to start that conversation in the community on that scale. It can be a daunting prospect, but I encourage all members of parliament to do it. I think we will have many more of those discussions in coming months.
When we think about why this is happening now, our First Nations caucus members—particularly Senator Pat Dodson, the Minister for Indigenous Australians; and Senator Malarndirri McCarthy; but every one of our First Nations caucus members—have worked very hard on this. The message really is that it's time. I will leave with the words of Daniel Morrison, Chief Executive Officer of the Wungening Aboriginal Corporation, who talked about why this matters for future generations. He said: 'The time is now. It's 2023. We deserve change, if not for us for the children who won't have the opportunity to vote in this year's referendum.'
I commend this bill to the House.
At least 50,000 years ago, the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations became the first sovereign nations of this Australian continent and its surrounds. Those nations had their own laws and customs, and their sovereignty was never ceded or extinguished. More than 20 years ago all sides of politics in Australia accepted that this rich fundamental history of Australia should be told and that, central to a long overdue reconciliation process, our First Nations should be recognised in the Constitution.
The demand for recognition became the proposal for a constitutionally enshrined voice to parliament, which would empower our Indigenous people to take their rightful place in what is and always has been their own country. Six years ago, in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, our First Nations people asked us to create for them a voice to parliament. The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a beautiful document. It's an invitation and a gift to our nation from our First Peoples. Most Australians have not yet read it, but I suspect that most people in my community of Kooyong have. I know that not only because the people of Kooyong are, on average, 10 per cent smarter and 20 per cent more attractive than the people of any other electorate in Australia, I know that because my team has managed to deliver the Uluru Statement from the Heart directly to their doors.
In these recent weeks of May 2023, a steady stream of volunteers has come to my electoral office to pick up boxes and boxes of postcard sized statements from the heart. They have now letterboxed them to every home in the electorate. In providing every Kooyong household with a copy of the Statement from the Heart, we have delivered a statement of intent. As Kooyong's Independent I would not stand on the sidelines or, like some in this chamber have, actively campaign against recognising our First Nations Australians in our Constitution. Instead, I will be out in the community with hundreds of volunteers, bringing our community with us as we work towards a historic yes vote in the forthcoming referendum. Just this month alone, more than 140 of our wonderful volunteers have delivered more than 72,000 copies of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. And for that I thank them.
The goodwill from our community is palpable. On receiving her Statement from the Heart in her letterbox, Joanna from Canterbury called our office. She said that she so appreciated receiving the postcard from her local member that she wanted to become involved as a volunteer immediately. Others, like Eric from Hawthorn, John from Canterbury and Mandy from Hawthorn have also emailed to say that they appreciated the gesture.
I was really pleased to read in the Age last week that the Yes 23 campaign is readying its 7,000-strong volunteer army to flood Australia ahead of the referendum. Dean Parkin, the director of Yes 23, said that there have been over 100 Voice related events nationally in the last week alone, in sporting clubs, religious institutions, workplaces, community halls, offices and schools. This is a decentralised distributed network campaign. Discussions are happening at kitchen tables and around water coolers around the country.
I have every confidence that this plan will work. I know that because I've seen it before—in the campaign that brought me here. To those saying that they don't believe that these grassroot volunteer armies will make a difference in the Voice referendum, let me say this: most felt that volunteer armies wouldn't succeed in Wentworth, Mackellar, North Sydney, Warringah, Curtin and Goldstein. They especially didn't think that the extraordinary groundswell of 2,000 volunteers in my electorate of Kooyong would create the change in our community that it created in 2022. But it did.
With this speech, I wish to inform the House of what on-the-ground voice campaigning looks like in my electorate right now and why it gives me great confidence that the public will accept the gift from our First Nations Australians that we can walk with them in accordance with the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The delivery of 72,000 statements from the heart in Kooyong followed on from our initial Voice information night with Thomas Mayo and Marcus Stuart held in the Hawthorn town hall earlier this year. That community town hall had just under 1,000 attendees. I'm proud to have informed the House that we are not stopping there; we are only just getting started.
In the next few months, our incredible volunteers will knock on every door in Kooyong. They will give every household in Kooyong an opportunity to discuss the forthcoming referendum. Our dedicated team of volunteers numbers more than 100 already, and it is a broad church. There are people doorknocking for the very first time alongside doorknocking professionals. There are card-carrying Liberals, alongside lifelong Labor Party members and Greens voters. We have an amazing Youth4Voice team, with 25 young people in Kooyong, who have written presentations to be given in schools across the electorate to help spread the word. This is not a political movement; this is a grassroots social movement motivated by a desire to support one of the most important questions faced by this country in recent years.
Lastly, and perhaps most excitingly, corflutes are back. During the federal election, the people of Kooyong expressed their desire for change by placing a corflute at the front of their homes. What started with a few dozen signs here and there around the electorate turned into a flood of support. By election day, 3,000 homes in Kooyong had a corflute out the front. I'm proud and excited to tell the people of Kooyong that we have now designed Yes 23 corflutes and will soon be offering them to our community.
The point of all of this is to say: do not underestimate—ever—the power of community. If there is any lesson to be learned from the 2022 federal election, it is that, when an Australian community stands up and demands a change, it can surprise everyone. Kooyong is but one community in a big country, a country now full of communities that have learned the power of collaborative local democracy. I know that many of my fellow Independents represent communities that are also standing up for their values, inclusiveness, collaboration and positivity ahead of the Voice referendum. Almost exactly one year after the community campaign for Kooyong ended, the community campaign to win the Voice referendum is just getting started. It will not be won in this House; it will be won in the houses and homes and around the kitchen tables of kind-hearted Australians across this country.
I will be voting in favour of the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) Bill 2023 because my community overwhelmingly supports recognising First Nations Australians in the Constitution and giving them a voice to parliament. First Nations Australians have been calling for a greater say in the development of Australian public policy for more than a century. With a successful referendum, Australia will finally listen to those calls. This will be a source of pride for the Australian nation. It will be a unifying moment for us all. It is past time for all of us, as the Uluru statement says, to walk together with Indigenous Australians. As we walk together with those born of early settlers and with our more recent immigrants, it is time for us to give our First Nations Australians a voice, and it's time for us to listen to that voice. So I commend this very important and very significant bill to the House.
When it comes to the upcoming debate on the much anticipated national referendum, there are two important words in this debate, 'consultation' and 'recognition'. They're two simple words that mean a lot to people who have been here for many, many thousands of years. The enshrining of a First Nations voice in the Constitution is built on these simple but essential principles. The question that the Australian public will be considering later this year is based on these principles—simple yet very important. It is time we as a nation listen to the voices that spoke at Uluru.
I want to start by acknowledging the traditional owners and custodians of the country of our great McEwen electorate, the people of the Kulin nation—the Dja Dja Wurrung, the Taungurung, the Wurundjeri and the Wurundjeri Woiwurrung peoples—and the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and are standing here today, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples. May I say it's a shame we don't open our parliament acknowledging in First Nations language, something I think we should be doing. We should all continue to acknowledge their continuing connection to land, skies and community. We pay our respects to peoples, cultures and elders past, present and emerging, both in this place and within the vibrant communities that we all represent.
I rise to support this bill, the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023, as we as a nation push towards recognition of our First Nations people, the beginning of healing after generations of advocacy and hard work from our First Nations leaders. This referendum is responding to the honest question put forward by the Statement from the Heart. It was a call to finally recognise the people who for over 65,000 years of continuous culture have walked this land. I'm proud to stand with a government that is ready to listen and answer that call.
The bill enables the beginning of this important process to get constitutional recognition that First Nations people have been fighting for. Our Constitution is the framework that binds and upholds the very laws of our country. The time of federation was momentous. It was the birth of modern Australia as we now know it, laying the foundations to build the country that we all love. When I think of the birth of modern Australia, Tom Roberts's The Big Picture painting is one of the first that comes to mind—a gathering of people from across the country, excited for a new beginning and to build a great country that would be 'renowned of all the lands'. But that room didn't welcome everyone. The custodians of the land, the First Nations people who walked this country, were locked out. Back then, they were not even considered citizens. As Thomas Mayor puts it in his book Finding the Heart of the Nation, the Indigenous populations were 'voiceless', believed to be 'dying out' in the eyes of our founding fathers. While First Nations people have since gained the right to citizenship, in the 1967 referendum—it is still baffling to think they had to go through that—what we haven't rectified is providing a voice to address the matters that affect Indigenous communities.
When we look at the artwork that surrounds the Uluru Statement from the Heart, Thomas Mayor likens those signatures to the southern sky. The lead artist, Rene Kulitja, wrote on it 'Uluru-ku Tjukurpa', which roughly translates to 'the traditional stories of Uluru'. It tells of laws, religion and the moral system through the illustrated story lines around the statement. This piece of art, as Rene emphasises, represents everyone. We're all citizens under the southern sky, and this Statement from the Heart outlines the importance of constitutional recognition and enshrining and protecting a voice. For our nation to continue progressing forward, we need to embrace our history, recognise the culture that has been the building blocks of Australia's foundation and make sure we uphold the simple but important principles of consultation and recognition.
As we step out to be a leader in this ever more globalised world, having this constitutional recognition and Voice that amplifies Indigenous voices will create a unique identity for our nation on a global stage. It will bring about better and more targeted policy that will have a positive impact on the Indigenous communities that it represents. It means that policy will have further reaching effects, going further to tackle the ever-elusive goals of closing the gap. It's not about a bunch of politicians around a table. It's about the coming together of voices from Indigenous communities and tackling issues that these communities see every day. They will have better ideas of how to solve the issues affecting their communities, and we must amplify these voices.
Where does the Voice to Parliament come from? We've heard tonight: 2010 this process was started. In 2017 a momentous convention of leaders and elders took place, in the shadow of Uluru, of 250 delegates that were nominated from their communities in 13 regional dialogues. This was the largest gathering of Indigenous representatives ever held, and what came out of it was a path of hope and empowerment, a way forward to build from the wrongs of the past for a brighter future, to make Australia more united and reinforce the pillars of our democracy. To talk about the Statement from the Heart we must acknowledge some of the dissent that was present during the convention, where a handful of delegates walked out of there, being vocal in their displeasure at the proceedings. It would be amiss to believe all Indigenous people are homogenous in their beliefs and values, and we can see that now in the present-day debate. But the vast majority stayed because for them it was important to have this done, and what came next was a moving and incredibly unified front for the way forward—the decision of enshrining a voice into the Constitution, along with constitutional recognition, being the first step.
This comes off the back of years and years of campaigning and advocacy by Indigenous leaders. This is what the Statement from the Heart put forward to the nation of Australia. June Oscar, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner, said:
The Uluru Statement carves out a path for change and we need that to be embraced by our fellow Australians and our political leaders.
The heart gave Australia a pathway forward where delegates invited Australians to walk with them. Most Australians recognise we need to start walking along this pathway to make our nation fairer and a better place. As Thomas Mayor said, what was a people's movement soon became a constitutional movement. After the heart we have a way forward, and that is what the Albanese Labor government is following. We are listening to the needs expressed, making sure we are consulting with a large majority of Indigenous leaders and elders and respecting their wisdom. This government accepts wholeheartedly the recommendation, which is why we are pushing to hold this referendum, because we are listening and acting on what these communities are saying.
But what does the Voice actually entail? As we get closer, in the dialogue around the Voice we are experiencing an ever-growing campaign of misinformation and divisive rhetoric from those who seek power through confusion and division, so let's bring it back to the very bare basics. The Voice is about ensuring Indigenous communities from all around Australia are represented at federal level when it comes to policymaking on Indigenous issues. As Aunty Pat Anderson said:
It is about getting grassroots voices amplified and feeding into Canberra, representing the views and voices of their communities.
For instance, the Voice will provide recommendations to government on its Closing the Gap report, aiding and strengthening the decisions made that affect Indigenous health, livelihoods, wellbeing and justice. It does not have overreaching power to change government policy; it is there to provide advice, help create the best policy and get the best outcomes. Further, the Voice is an advisory body, not a third chamber to parliament. The people who peddle these lines are using scaremongering tactics against the goodwill of Australians.
What we as a nation will be given at the end of this year is a simple question: a proposed law to alter the Constitution and recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, creating a new chapter in recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Islander people in the Constitution. These are things that are actually important to the people who they affect. This is a simple change that won't have a noticeable impact on average non-Indigenous Australians. I will say this to people loudly: what changes for you the day after this referendum is successful? When you wake up in the morning, you put milk on your cornflakes, you hop in your car to drive to work or you whip down to watch your team play football, what change does it make? What impact does it have on you as a non-Indigenous Australian? The answer is simply nothing. But it does give you an opportunity to stand up and be part of a nation that actually acknowledges what happened in the past and is doing its bit to rectify problems that have happened and fix the future.
But what does it mean to our Indigenous Australians? It means a hell of a lot: consultation, recognition and a chance for them to be able to build a better future and have their voice heard by us and for us to go out and listen to them. I was listening to Ken Wyatt, the former member for Hasluck, the other day, in one of his interviews, and he said: 'How often do people go out and sit in the red dirt and listen to communities? How often do people go out and do these things?' That was a man who stood by his principles, and he left the Liberal Party because of that, because of their objection to this very simple question that has been put forward.
What those opposite fail to understand is that the establishment of a Voice and enshrining Indigenous rights in the Constitution is not mutually exclusive with achieving the targets we need to achieve. In fact, having a First Nations Voice helping with policy goals and being in a position to hold our government accountable will only strengthen Australian governments. We know there's been a lot of talk and a lot of stuff put forward that is just factually incorrect. As Thomas Mayo puts it, we've got to protect what we can build. That's the importance of the effect this positive change will have on the lives of Indigenous Australians, and we want to make sure it has a lasting impact.
There have been questions about the legal consequences, with the opposition seemingly wanting to make the Australian public believe this body would dictate almost how your kids make sandwiches. We've heard the utter rubbish from the shadow Attorney-General. This is the person that those opposite want to put as the first law officer of the land, talking about the impact of parking tickets. I don't think I've heard a bigger idiotic statement in my entire life. Maybe get back behind the whiteboard, where you seem a lot brighter, because it is absolutely wrong to have this rubbish on Anzac Day, talking about the football and what it means. That is purely the No. 1 tactic of conservatives: divide, conquer and scaremonger. That's all they've got.
If you want to do the right thing—if you want to stand up and say: 'You know what? We can acknowledge this and we're growing up and we're mature enough to be able to have this debate, have this referendum and bring our country forward'—then you've got to vote yes. It addresses so many problems for so many years. It's a simple way for us to be able to do the right thing, but it is a powerful and strong message that we send for Indigenous Australians that we hear them and we understand them and we want to get the best outcomes we can. We've seen that the opposition are going to be sitting on the wrong side of history with this scare campaign. As I said, the Voice not going to hurt non-Indigenous Australians. It's not going to impact them. It's not going to cause problems.
In closing, I'd like to direct everyone back to the Uluru Statement from the Heart—specifically the meaning behind the art surrounding the statement. Having the representation of the southern skies and the stories along the songlines of the Tjukurpa, it welcomes everyone into a better future that we can see. With the Voice, we are one step closer to finding the heart of a great nation, and we hope that the Australian people will accept the invitation and walk together for a better future.
I rise tonight to speak on the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023. I come to this place tonight to speak on this with a feeling that, whichever way this referendum goes, it's not going to be good for our country. I am concerned, and I will point out the reasons why I have concerns about the proposal and I'll talk about the other side of it. But I just want to put on the record that I believe that the Parkes electorate has the second-highest percentage of Aboriginal people of any seat in this room: 16½ per cent of my constituents are Aboriginal people. There are Aboriginal people among the citizens of all the communities in my area. Many of them are in leadership in local towns. Indeed, two of my electorate staff in my office are Aboriginal people. They weren't chosen to work in my office because they were Aboriginal people; they were chosen because they were the best people for the job, and they are doing an excellent job.
At the last election, I believe, I was one of a few people on this side of the House that actually got a swing to them. That was largely because the communities that have high proportions of Aboriginal people supported me. I actually got a 17 per cent swing to me in Brewarrina, and in the election before I got a 34 per cent swing to me in Goodooga. I actually won the seat of the town of Wilcannia, which is the home of the Indigenous-Aboriginal Party of Australia. I'm telling you this because I wear the burden of responsibility of representing these people who have given me their support very, very dearly. For nearly 16 years I have been their voice in this parliament. One of the things that I have been finding upsetting—I'm sure many in my electorate have too—has been some the patronising contributions we have heard from the other side of the chamber from people who clearly are speaking from an intellectual or philosophical level without having an understanding of what they are talking about.
Since this proposal has become a definite that was going to happen, I have been meeting with community leaders right across my electorate—people like Alistair Ferguson, who heads up the Bourke Tribal Council. They were instrumental in setting up the Justice Reinvestment Program, a program that has got national attention for dealing with issues in their local community—a success driven by local leadership. If I go up the river a little to Brewarrina, six of the nine councillors on Brewarrina Shire Council are Aboriginal. The general manager of the council is an Aboriginal man, and they are doing an amazing job in that community. They are paving roads. Eighty per cent of the workforce at Brewarrina Shire Council are Aboriginal people, and they are doing an incredible job of developing that part of the world around Brewarrina, Goodooga and Gongolgon. It's the home of the fish traps, one of the oldest manmade structures on earth; it apparently predates the pyramids. Bradley Hardy does an incredible job of explaining to visitors the history of the traps and the cultural history of the people on the river there—the good and the bad as well; not glossing over history.
What I am finding incredibly disappointing is the speeches from people who don't know who are claiming that nothing has happened. I find that offensive to the people that I represent. I can talk you about young men and women that I met as students in schools in Moree and Brewarrina and other places who now have senior roles in state and federal government, who are practising doctors, who are high authorities in land management with the Rural Fire Service—a whole range of occupations and local leadership. Most of my shire councils have Aboriginal people on them, including someone I have a great admiration for, Vietnam veteran Vic Bartley, who is a long time councillor at Bourke. These are local leaders. To say that Aboriginal people haven't had a voice and a say in their destiny is incredibly offensive.
I can tell you, from speaking to my constituents, they are concerned about a voice that is selected by this parliament. They are concerned that there will be people who may have political allegiances making up the Voice. They are convinced that there will be no-one represents them and their individual circumstances that would get an opportunity to be a part of that voice.
The other issue is: who is an Aboriginal person? I suspect that's why the Voice will be selected and not voted upon. As I said, 16½ per cent of the people in my electorate identify as Aboriginal people. But they are just people. They go to work every day, they've got their kids at school, they probably do better than average in the local sporting teams. If you go to my towns and see the local footy teams, or the golf course, there is no way that people are treated by race. Now we are looking at putting into the Constitution something to identify people by race permanently. I can't possibly see the upside of doing that. By putting it in the Constitution it is there forever, I believe. Some of the older members of my community have memories of ATSIC; they certainly don't have fond memories of that time. They are concerned we will end up with a group of people that's not accountable especially to those people.
I said I have concerns if this goes either way. I am concerned that if it doesn't get up—and I am definitely not voting for it, and I suspect it might not get up—that also is quite negative. I only wish the government had put some more thought into it and put up something that was acceptable to the Australian people. The idea that this could be legislated by parliament is not a strange one. I'm on the record; if you go back to my first speech, I talked about constitutional recognition for Aboriginal people. I'm certainly not opposed to that. What I am opposed to is a body that, once it is in place, is there forever. If it comes to a position where the people I represent feel they aren't being represented by that body, what is the mechanism for them to have some say and get their voices through? We've seen some of the proponents be quite aggressive and disrespectful to people with an alternative point of view in this whole process.
I'm incredibly proud of the efforts of the people I represent. Last year there were over 70 Aboriginal students who did the HSC in Dubbo. That is an incredible result from what it was 10 years ago. We see that the REDI.E corporation are running a supermarket where the people of Wilcannia can get fresh food for the same price as they can at large centres. We've seen a young lad of 18 go to New Zealand and beat the Kiwis at the Golden Shears shearing competition—a real role model to other young people to go into the shearing industry, which is a well-respected and time-honoured tradition for young people getting a start in life. Many people I know start off shearing and move onto other things.
I've listened to the contributions in this House. I find that they're patronising. I find they're really not speaking on behalf of real people. I am concerned that the people I represent, that have put their faith in me for the last 15½ years, are not going to gain a benefit from this proposal. I am concerned with the way this is going.