House debates

Tuesday, 23 May 2023


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

12:42 pm

Photo of Mark CoultonMark Coulton (Parkes, Deputy-Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

In continuation: in the few moments I have left I'd like to call out the double standards and hypocrisy we see in this country at the moment. We have the banks that are showing strong support for the Voice at the same time as they're removing their services by shutting down branches that serve Aboriginal communities. We've got the NRL supporting the Voice, but where were they when my wife and I were called upon to fund the guernseys for the Macintyre Warriors and the Toomelah Tigers so they could attend football carnivals? They're quite happy to do that, but where are they in supporting grassroots Aboriginal communities? We've got our friends over here in the corner, the Greens, who have come out today in support of the Voice at the same time as they're looking at closing down the resource sector, which is the major employer of Aboriginal people right across Australia.

We go to the government, now pushing the Voice. But, by changing the distribution priority area for doctors, doctors have been removed from communities that have Aboriginal people in my electorate and moved to outer urban Labor electorates. How is that supporting people? We've seen the changes to pharmacies, where I'm getting letters from all the pharmacists in my electorate—and the minister has these letters—saying they are going to struggle to stay open to provide pharmaceutical services in these communities that have high Aboriginal populations. We've seen the changes to regional programs and talked about pork-barrelling National Party programs, but can someone tell me how the $10 million of federal funding that went towards the small-animal abattoir at Bourke, which provides 120 jobs for Aboriginal people, is pork-barrelling? These programs are now looking at being canned.

We go to Inland Rail. Already hundreds of Aboriginal people have been employed for the construction. Indigenous businesses have done well in supplying these services. That has now come to a halt with the cloud that the minister has put over that. That Inland Rail was going to provide economic certainty, underpinning the economies of communities right through western New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria and providing long-term employment and hope for Aboriginal people.

So what we're seeing in this debate is, I think, white middle-class Australia being given an opportunity to assuage some sort of guilt. We're going to see a small number of Aboriginal people receive high-paid jobs from which they can't be sacked, but I can tell you the good people that I've been representing in this place for 15½ years—the 16½ per cent of the population in my electorate who are Aboriginal—will get nothing from this program. I'm sick of the hypocrisy. We need to be doing more practical things to support our people, not this virtue-signalling we're seeing with this.

12:46 pm

Photo of Luke GoslingLuke Gosling (Solomon, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The American writer William Faulkner famously declared: 'The past is never dead. It's not even past.' What he meant is clarified in the less well-known sentence that followed:

All of us labor in webs spun long before we were born, webs of heredity and environment, of desire and consequence, of history and eternity.

Webs of history and eternity, heredity and environment—how could we not feel the weight of these words in this place today? The weight of heredity, of history, maybe even of eternity—we all feel it.

We meet here to discuss a proposed amendment to enshrine an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice in our Constitution, a proposal that has dominated column inches, airtime in the media and political debate in our national life in recent times, and rightly so. It is a proposal that not we the legislators but we the people will be called upon to vote on in a referendum this year—a proposal whose meaning is impossible to grasp without feeling for oneself the fine webs of history it is spun from.

Like the majority of members and senators in this parliament, I was not yet born when modern Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land rights began, but I know that the kind of Australia that I was privileged to grow up in was profoundly altered, and always for the better, by each of the many struggles and successes of First Nations people in our nation. Take the Yirrkala bark petitions, the beginning of land rights in 1963, when the Yolngu people from Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land protested the loss of their land to a mining lease. This petition from the Yolngu was addressed to this very parliament, to this very House—down the hill from here, but you know what I mean, Deputy Speaker. And what was the object of this protest? That the federal government had decided, unilaterally and without consultation, that part of the Yolngu people's homeland would be excised for a bauxite mine—unilaterally and without consultation. When that protest, that clear Aboriginal voice, was heard by the federal government at the time, it was dismissed. The mine was opened and the voice ignored. We would see a repeat of this pattern in the Yolngu people's 1971 Gove land rights case, in which the NT Supreme Court rejected their claim because it didn't conform to the European notion of property, so the case was thrown out.

We see the glimmers of a new approach in the 1966 Wave Hill walk-off, when Gurindji man Vincent Lingiari led a strike for better working conditions at a cattle station in the Northern Territory. Vincent Lingiari also demanded the return of his traditional lands, which Prime Minister Gough Whitlam returned in 1975. On this occasion, the Voice was just as clear and strong as in the Yirrkala bark petition. Indeed, in 1972, in my electorate, the Larrakia people had petitioned for their land.

When it comes to Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, that simple act of listening to and acting on First Nations people's concerns, where laws and policies affect them, an act which can hardly be called radical and should just be good manners, did reshape Australia into a fairer land. The whole country learned to listen, in the 1967 referendum, when 90 per cent of voters agreed to remove race based clauses from our Constitution and to treat Aboriginal people like full citizens by counting them at the census.

Progress on restoring the land rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was slow and hard going in Australia, but breakthroughs only came when they were listened to. The solutions we take for granted as great milestones today didn't come from non-Indigenous Australians and they didn't come from public servants here in Canberra. They came from First Nations people themselves, from local communities advocating to government, and we should always remember that fact.

We saw this in 1976 when land rights legislation passed that would eventually allow Aboriginal people to have almost 50 per cent of the Northern Territory returned to them. We saw it in the landmark Mabo case in 1982 that threw out the concept of terra nullius, that old lie that the land belonged to no-one prior to colonisation. We saw it again in the far-reaching consequences of Mabo, which led this place to legislate the Native Title Act in 1993, through which 32 per cent of the Australian continent has now been recognised under native title. None of this is ancient history. It's recent history: 1993. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people weren't even given full voting rights, federally, by being required to register on the electoral roll like all other Australians until as late as 1984. But even the past is not yet passed. History is unfinished business in Australia.

I learned this in 2004 when I joined the activist and legendary Essendon football player Michael Long's long walk to Canberra. What he wanted to do was to seek a meeting with the then Prime Minister John Howard, to talk about the abysmal state of First Nations affairs in our nation. I decided to go up the Hume Highway and support Michael. I got a lift up the highway with my brother, looking for Longy and the other walkers. I couldn't find him because they had been kicked off the Hume Highway onto the Old Hume Highway.

It was a great experience to walk through country Victoria and then country New South Wales, to see people come out of their properties and say, 'Good on you, Longy,' and to give him a sausage in bread, or passers-by who stopped to walk with us for kilometres then went back to their cars and kept driving. They wanted to be part of what they saw as a massive deficiency in our nation. That was 19 years ago. Things haven't improved a great deal. For me, it was a great privilege to walk alongside Aboriginal elders. When you walk, there's lots of time for talking, and I was able to gain more understanding. I got more understanding, again, from spending time on country with Aboriginal soldiers, with NORFORCE, and with Aboriginal health professionals prior to coming to this place.

Eventually, John Howard said that he would meet with Michael Long. But what he decided would be a solution was another imposition—the intervention, without consultation. So there is, I think, evidence in the Northern Territory that action taken to other people—in this case, First Nations People—without involving them does not get the outcomes we need. What it also showed me—spending that time walking with the Long Walk 19 years ago and reinforced last weekend with Michael and thousands of Australians as he announced he will walk again in September—was the intergenerational trauma and that original dispossession the Aboriginal people experienced of the land they are so closely connected to. The ramifications of that echo today.

The guiding thread in the history of reconciliation in our country is: when non-Indigenous people have listened to First Nations peoples' desires on policy, on land rights, on culture and on their experiences as First Nations people over millennia, we have moved forward on the long and twisting back roads of reconciliation. But when we have ignored First Nations people and ridden roughshod over their concerns and requests, and when we have damaged their sacred sites or their rights, the good name of all Australians has been diminished.

Martin Luther King Jr, that powerful voice of racial equality and a great conscience of all humanity, talked about the moral arc of the universe being long but bending towards justice, and I think our history bears out that prediction. Reconciliation is a gruelling walk for all involved, but every step brings us nearer to the promised land for our nation, which we all seek.

The next milestone on that walk is clearly the Voice, and that's what this bill is all about. This bill is required to hold a referendum to amend the Australian Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution through a Voice, in order to get better outcomes, in order to progress reconciliation in our nation, and so that there is a process by which we here, lawmakers, can listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the practical changes that will have an impact in their communities to address intergenerational issues.

A Voice is a form of constitutional recognition called for by over 250 First Nations delegates from around our nation in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It is a modest request: that the Voice be established to make representations to the Australian parliament and to government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It will amplify the voices of those First Nations people that have the solutions. Now, listening to that Voice when we make and change laws and policies will improve the lives of First Nations people, I have no doubt. It will also help us to close the gap. We will get better outcomes when we work in genuine partnership with First Nations communities.

Importantly, the parliament and executive government will also not need to wait for representations from the Voice before making laws or decisions. So the Voice's representations are advisory. It will complement the existing structures of Australia's democratic system. Every Australian voter will have the opportunity to vote on this important change. And I call on every Australian who can do so to vote.

I began by speaking of history, whose weight every member in this chamber must feel on this day. As we consider this proposed Voice, the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' struggles for rights and for reconciliation are alive in our minds and in our hearts. Like many here, I have enjoyed the fruits of these struggles growing up—those of a fairer and more enlightened society today. That's the Australia I want my children to grow up in—an Australia where we listen to First Nations people and it's a natural instinct and a cherished part of our democracy; an Australia where First Nations peoples and their concerns are raised to the highest levels, not kicked down to the lowest levels and ignored; an Australia where the yawning gap between First Nations and non-Indigenous people is not only closed but where that gap is history. When Australian children ask their history teachers, 'Why did such inequalities persist for so long?' we want that conversation and those questions from Australian kids around our nation to be in the past tense: 'Why did it take so long?' Hopefully, we'll be able to say proudly that that is in the past. The past is what calls us—each of us in this place; each of us around the nation. It calls each of us by name, every Australian, and I hope the Australian people take the opportunity to support the Voice.

1:00 pm

Photo of Garth HamiltonGarth Hamilton (Groom, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Just outside the little town of Delungra in northern New South Wales, as you head out towards Warialda, you'll find a turn-off on the left that takes you to the old cemetery. Go through the wrought iron gates and down along a dirt path lined with gum trees and you'll find yourself in another world, disturbed only by the usual bush noises and the occasional crack from the local pistol club. It's a place I sometimes go to, not just when I'm down visiting my relations in the area. I pay respect to the generations of Hamiltons and Kents who are buried there, but I also reflect on the country that was and will be. The last time I went there I took my daughter, Adeline, with me. As we were standing there she asked the obvious question: 'Dad, why is the cemetery split down the middle?' It's an innocent enough question, the sort of thing kids ask, and it makes you more and more curious as you stand there and observe the different family groupings on each side. On one side you've got the clearly identifiable Irish Catholics—the Mc's and the O's. On the other side you see a spattering of the squares and compasses of the freemasons among the Protestants.

It's really difficult to explain to our children the divisions of the past, why our divisions mattered so much to us that we even separated ourselves in death. It's difficult, but it's important to do. It's not accidental that the old cemeteries around the nation are divided like that. The living nation of the time was divided. We were 'us and them'. As time has gone on, that 'us' has grown bigger and more inclusive. It means more. And whilst that big scar that split Protestant from Catholic Australians is still visible, there's a divide standing there that we don't see. What becomes apparent as you stand in that old cemetery in Delungra is that there are no Aboriginal Australians buried there. We were divided in ways we didn't even want to acknowledge back then. I'm very proud to say that that's not the nation we are today. That's not the nation my daughter was born into, and I'm very proud of that.

At every step along the national journey we've taken, we have not just politely but vigorously ignored our differences. Instead of focusing on that which could divide us, the national will has been to seek strength in that which unifies us. At every opportunity, we have sought to create an egalitarian society where all are equal before the law, where all have the same liberties. It has not always been easy going, but we have pushed on together. As I stand here today, what I'm most proud of when I think of Australia's national journey is that I come to this place and I can stand side to side with 11 senators and members of Aboriginal heritage, and I am their equal. Our vote in this place or the other carries the same weight. While outside this place there is much to do to ensure equality of opportunity is spread evenly across our continent, and I remain as committed as ever to that endeavour, here in our parliament we allow no imperfections in our equality. Thankfully, we are beyond that.

Australia's past holds our divisions. Australia's future must be a place where the bonds that unite us are made even tighter. I do not support the proposed Aboriginal Voice to Parliament on principle. I am fundamentally opposed to any move that seeks to distribute different rights and responsibilities through our Australian citizenship on the basis of race and, worse, that such division might be placed in our most important document, the Constitution.

Beyond my position on the substantive question of this debate, I'm dissatisfied with the government's conduct in bringing it about. I do not believe that this referendum is being brought upon us by the government in good faith. The issue of changing the Constitution is one that Australians have never entertained lightly, with only eight of 44 referenda passing in our 122-year history. The nation has expectations of a government that seeks the people's support for a change to the Constitution, and they are not being met. I find it extraordinary that this proposal can be put without the usual process of a constitutional convention where proper and fulsome debate can be had, and it leaves me questioning the motives of the government as to why they would deliberately deny the proposal the national scrutiny it deserves. I don't doubt for a second that there are many who have formed their position of support with good intentions, but as legislators we are not in the business of intentions. Rather, it is consequences that must guide our decision-making. The purpose of the constitutional convention is to flesh out those consequences, and this debate on an amendment to the Constitution is poorer for its absence.

How can this government advocate for an Aboriginal voice to parliament yet deny their voices the opportunity to debate it in a constitutional convention? Imagine if that right had been stripped from Neville Bonner in the 1998 convention on the republic, when his powerful speech condemning those who sought to speak on behalf of Aboriginal Australians carried the day. Under this Prime Minister, Bonner's voice would never have been heard on that day. But Bonner's voice was heard, and it echoes through today:

… my heart is heavy. I worry for my children and my grandchildren. I worry that what has proven to be a stable society, which now recognises my people as equals, is about to be replaced.

How dare you? I repeat: how dare you? You told my people that your system was best. We have come to accept that. We've come to believe that. The dispossessed, despised adapted to your system. Now you say that you were wrong and we were wrong to believe you.

I'm not going to pretend to conflate this: Bonner was speaking of the republic, not of the Voice to Parliament, but he spoke powerfully and independently. Under this Prime Minister that voice wouldn't have been heard, because this Prime Minister denied Australia a constitutional convention.

It's equally wrong of this government and this Prime Minister to advance the debate this far in the absence of details—to deliberately keep from the Australian people what they need to know. Once again, I find myself questioning the motives of this government when they seek to constitutionally enshrine a new body with, to quote the Referendum Working Group's Megan Davis, a 'self-determined scope'. In denying debate and denying the details required to have the debate, it is my belief that it is this government's desire to conflate Australia's genuine desire for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal Australians with a voice to parliament and hope that Australia doesn't notice. I repeat the previous observation of the Leader of the Opposition: it's extraordinary that the first television ad of the 'yes' campaign spoke of constitutional recognition whilst failing to mention the Voice. I don't think history will look too kindly on such underhandedness. I trust Australians. I trust their judgement. The government clearly does not. If they did, they would have given Australians the details and the proper forum to debate them.

There is no problem for which more government is the answer. On this we can be clear: the Voice is more government. The clear consequence of a constitutionally enshrined voice is that no issue would be beyond its scope and no unwelcome decision beyond an appeal to the courts. That is not democracy. That is antidemocracy. This creates an Australia split between those who are equal and those who are more equal. Sadly, it creates an Australia where we are once again split down the middle, with one class of Australians on this side and another class on that side.

With the most recent polling showing Australia split 53-47 and tightening, this shows that this referendum could not be more divisive. As a nation, we are being dragged back in time, back to the place where we've buried those past divisions, back to that old cemetery where Australia lays before us split in two—us and them—once again. This Prime Minister is no unifier. He is splitting the nation in two on the issue of race, his legacy a return to those dark times of us and them—everything we've worked for, the great ideas of liberal democratic nations, surrendered. The vast sweep of Western democracy's arc, which has bent evermore towards freedom, equality and justice, is turned back on itself towards division and the will of the few. What a shameful legacy.

As a young boy, I was fortunate to have two very decent local political role models to look up to in Sir Llew Edwards and Senator Neville Bonner. Sir Llew had that great ease about him, that smile and warmth that I remember well, but it was in Senator Bonner that I found something I could really appreciate: the energy, belief and hardiness of someone who has had to fight for things. There were a lot of people in Ipswich at the time who had to fight for what they wanted—it was a hard town; it still is—but there were few who won as many of their fights as Senator Bonner did. In this way I was attracted to Bonner's story: the guy who was born under a palm tree, raised on the banks of a river, suffered terrible discrimination and yet went on to become Australia's first Aboriginal parliamentarian. Few people in Australia's history have ever risen so far through Australian society, yet he never stopped doing things his way. He never played it safe.

A big part of me—call it boyish romanticism—wanted to align myself with Bonner's story, to imagine myself carrying on in his footsteps, continuing his triumph of will over circumstance, forcing my way through doors which had been barred to me, but I know that's not my role. It's with great happiness that Australia can celebrate that, today, there are 11 members and senators with Aboriginal heritage who get to carry on his legacy in this federal parliament. His story, his struggles and his hopes, in part, live on in them. Bonner's legacy lives on.

But there is a legacy from that story that I get to continue—that is, the legacy of the members of the Liberal Party who on three occasions voted to put Neville Bonner on their Senate ticket, who chose to judge him not on the colour of his skin but rather on his contribution to society, who chose to view him as a equal, and who chose to throw their support behind him and have him as their representative here in parliament. I get to continue that legacy, and it is those beliefs of equality, fellowship and the equalising power of democracy to which I subscribe. I oppose the Voice because it stands against my principles and the principles of the Liberal Party, which I proudly represent.

1:10 pm

Photo of Sam RaeSam Rae (Hawke, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I acknowledge and pay my respects to the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, on whose land we gather here. I extend this acknowledgement to the traditional owners of the Kulin nations, on whose land my electorate of Hawke sits. I also recognise my First Nations colleagues in this parliament, particularly Linda Burney, Senator Pat Dodson, Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, Marion Scrymgour and my very good friends Senator Jana Stewart and Gordon Reid.

I rise in support of the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023. Before us is an opportunity to put a question to the Australian people for the 41st time in our history, and for the first time in nearly 25 years. This bill asks a simple question, to right a wrong that has laid at the heart of our Constitution since Federation:

A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.

Do you approve this proposed alteration?

That's it. It's not some bizarre Orwellian plot, as the Leader of the Opposition so shamefully insisted in this place yesterday; it's about long overdue recognition. It's about furthering the path to reconciliation. And it's about listening to First Nations people when it comes to the laws and the policies that affect them, their families and their communities.

For over 60,000 years, Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people have inhabited our continent. Theirs is the oldest continuing culture in the world, and we have all benefited greatly from their rich heritage, history and contributions. However, our Constitution, drafted only a century ago, fails to acknowledge Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first people of Australia. This omission is a significant and grave oversight that we can no longer ignore. It is an integral part of our history and our national identity. The absence of constitutional recognition denies our First Nations people their rightful place in that history and that identity. Without recognition, we cannot adequately address the historical injustices experienced by Indigenous people or acknowledge their unique role in our Australian story.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart represents the largest consensus among First Nations peoples on a proposal for constitutional recognition in Australian history. It is a beautiful, powerful and clear call to action, founded in the experience of thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders from around our country. After the most proportionately significant consultation process that has ever been undertaken with First Peoples, it humbly offers a path to reconciliation through voice, treaty and truth, in that order. This referendum serves as the first step in responding to that call. By enshrining a voice in our Constitution, it provides Australians with the opportunity to walk alongside First Nations people on the path to reconciliation.

The lead-up to this referendum has been marked by an extensive prereferendum process unmatched in our nation's history. Since 2010 there have been comprehensive consultations, parliamentary inquiries, expert working groups, councils, dialogues and reports. Indeed, no referendum has been preceded by more debate and more engagement by parliamentarians, legal experts and community members than this one. The referendum enjoys support from peak bodies representing First Nations people in each state and territory as well as the overwhelming popular support of First Nations people. What is being asked of us is a voice, a voice that we can no longer delay. It is time for this parliament to legislate with First Nations people, not merely for them.

In 1996, Senator Dodson highlighted the need for reconciliation and an early path toward it during his address to the National Press Club. His words remain as relevant today as they were then. He said: 'The track behind us is littered with the remnants of failed policies, programs and projects that wasted taxpayers' money and failed to deliver real outcomes to those who needed them. They failed primarily because Indigenous people were not included in the decision-making process.' Yet for almost 30 years we have failed to heed Senator Dodson's call. Despite good intentions, substantial investments, consultation bodies and minor progress, no enduring, protected national mechanism has been established to enable First Nations people to have a genuine say in the decisions that affect them.

The impact of that is not symbolic; it is real. It is felt in Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander communities around our country. It is seen in the shameful gap in outcomes for First Nations people and their fellow Australians. It is heard in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which says: 'Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are removed from their families at unprecedented rates, and not because we lack love for them. And our youth languish in detention centres in alarming numbers when they should be our hope for the future. These aspects of our crisis reveal the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness.' The weight of these words arises from a painful history of dispossession, marginalisation, loss and immense suffering; from slavery, forced adoption, deaths in custody, high mortality and persistent and pervasive racism. The crisis is indeed structural, but there is hope because in a voice there is power.

This referendum provides us with the best opportunity to address these past injustices and create transformative change for a better future. When we listen to that voice and collaborate with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities we achieve better outcomes. Evidence of this can be seen in Indigenous ranger programs, Aboriginal community controlled health organisations and Koori courts. In my home state of Victoria, the success of the First Peoples' Assembly, led by my brilliant friend Marcus Stewart and Aunty Geraldine Atkinson, showcases the immense power of an enshrined voice. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Victoria possess a democratic voice through the First Peoples' Assembly whose second election is currently underway.

The Yoorrook Justice Commission, an established truth-telling process shaped by the community, holds extensive powers to examine ministers, senior public servants and decision-makers. Its mandate includes recording the impact of colonisation on First Nations people, fostering a shared understanding of this impact and making recommendations for reform and healing, all while the treaty process to properly acknowledge the sovereignty of First Nations people and improve their lives is advancing.

Throughout Victoria's journey towards reconciliation, the First Peoples' Assembly has consistently advocated for further progress, securing better outcomes, and acting as a powerful voice for their community, while partnering with the Victorian government. The success of the assembly underscores the necessity of delivering voice, treaty and truth—in that order—and is precisely why we need a national voice for First Nations people.

One year and two days ago, the Australian people elected this Albanese government with a mandate to fully implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart and present this referendum question. If successful, the Voice to Parliament will become a permanent, independent advisory body representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It will make representations to the Australian parliament and executive government on laws and policies affecting First Nations people.

The Voice will operate based on eight design principles, endorsed by the Referendum Working Group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders. These principles stipulate that the Voice shall make representations to the parliament and the executive government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; the Voice will be chosen by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples based on the wishes of local communities; the Voice will be representative of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, gender balanced, and include youth; the Voice will be empowering, community led, inclusive, respectful and culturally informed; the Voice will be accountable and transparent; the Voice will work alongside existing organisations and traditional structures; the Voice will not have a program delivery function; and the Voice will not have a veto power. It will not be, as the Leader of the Opposition claims, a voice from Canberra but rather a voice to Canberra. As Aunty Pat Anderson put it, 'It is about amplifying grassroots voices and channelling them into Canberra, representing the views and voices of their communities.'

There are people in our community who still disagree with the idea of a First Nations Voice. There are many more who just don't know what it is about. But the privilege we have been given by our First Nations friends and neighbours is the opportunity to campaign for and pass this referendum. To do it, we will need to organise. We will need to have conversations around kitchen tables and on people's doorsteps, to bring those that don't know along the journey with us and explain the immense symbolic and practical value of this Voice. We stand on the precipice of something extraordinary.

The concluding words of the Uluru Statement from the Heart remind us:

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

In 1967, the referendum passed with an overwhelming majority, serving as a unifying moment when Australia chose to do what was right and what was fair. In 2023, this referendum holds the same potential for national unification. It is an opportunity to show First Nations people that we see and recognise them, acknowledging their rights to have a say in their own affairs. The cost of failure is too great.

When this question is put to the Australian people and the polls close, each one of us who has chosen to join First Nations people on the path to reconciliation must be satisfied that we did everything we could to see this referendum succeed so that we can wake up the next morning and know that Australia has changed for the better, because Australians will vote for it to be so, because Australians will have fixed a wrong, because we will give a voice to our First Nations people and build a better future for all Australians.

1:25 pm

Photo of Adam BandtAdam Bandt (Melbourne, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

This land is an ancient land, home to the longest continuous culture in the history of the world. There were over 250 individual nations at the time of colonisation. There were over 800 dialects. But, without justice, how can they be heard? First Nations people were violently dispossessed of the land and are now, thanks to the legacy of colonisation, locked up and thrown in jail at a higher rate than any other group of people in the world.

First Nations people are more likely to be imprisoned as children. In the Northern Territory, 100 per cent of the youth prison population under the age of 14 is First Nations. First Nations people are more likely to die in prison. Generations of First Nations children have been stolen from their parents, and it continues to this day. First Nations people have shorter lives and less secure homes and are in greater need of healthcare and education. They are inviting us to walk with them in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.

The policies of this nation that have been made by this parliament have failed. Now, around this country, efforts are being made to lift the age at which children can be thrown in prison from as young as 10 to 14. Because First Nations people are too often ignored, governments are not amending our laws to be consistent with those around the world. The Uluru Statement from the Heart was an attempt to reckon with his past and to create a better future. It states:

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.

The statement also says:

These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness.

The ask is simple:

… to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country.

This is because with power, 'our children will flourish.' It is to empower through truth, treaty and voice. If you actually listen, you find it is non-negotiable to give those who have survived the power over their lives so that their children can flourish; for a chance, not a sentence; for a life, not a death behind bars. All of that is clear from the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The statement makes clear that the path forward is progress on all three elements. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, which is the subject of this legislation before the parliament this week, is just one part of this.

Now, the Greens are firm in our view, informed by our strong First Nations network, that there will be no justice in this country without truth or treaty. We must begin to tell the truth about the history of violence and dispossession that lies at the heart of this country called Australia. We must reach a treaty with our First Nations people so that we can move forward together and create a better future together. These are key elements of the statement from the heart, and the Greens had hoped to see progress on these elements first, but the government has chosen to proceed with voice first, and the Greens want to see it succeed not only because it is a key element of the Uluru statement but because failure will take us further away from truth and treaty.

But there are those in this parliament who want to deny justice to First Nations people. The Leader of the Opposition has taken this opportunity to divide instead of unite; to continue a long tradition of seeking to use race to win votes.

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate will be resumed at a later hour. If your speech was interrupted, you will be granted leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.