Tuesday, 23 May 2023
Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023; Second Reading
Unfortunately, there are those in this parliament who want to deny justice to First Nations peoples. The Leader of the Opposition has taken this opportunity to divide instead of unite, to continue a long tradition of using race to seek to win votes. The Leader of the Opposition is someone who claims there is sexual abuse in Alice Springs but refuses to report it to the police. The Leader of the Opposition opposes lifting the age of criminal responsibility, which currently sees Indigenous children locked up at record rates. He doesn't think that there should be a federal voice to parliament, and he opposes a federal body to listen to, consult with and consider the views of First Nations peoples.
The Uluru statement was presented to the last government when the Leader of the Opposition was in cabinet. He vigorously opposed it then as he vigorously opposes it now, because if there's one thing about the Leader of the Opposition worth noting it's that he doesn't change. Last time he was in opposition, when there was a formal apology made to members of the stolen generation, he turned his back and walked out. He said he couldn't support the apology. He was deaf to the cries of anguish.
He is a man who has built a career on attacking those in a weaker position than himself, on making people seeking asylum 'illegals', on fearmongering about different racial groups, trashing them in the media and in his public comments and seeking to further his lot through the marginalisation of the weakest in our world. It's the sort of approach you would expect from One Nation, but it's coming from someone who wants to lead this country. That is his record on immigration, where he built and ran prison islands which saw human rights abuse on an industrial scale. When women were raped, he accused them of trying it on. When people were left with no other option but to set themselves on fire, he claimed it was hype. And he accused refugee advocates of coaching self-harm. That's the history of this man.
He has both denied the climate crisis, siding with coal barons and gas corporations to continue to pollute, and attacked those who would be the victims of the climate crisis in the Pacific island, with his unforgettable 'water lapping at your door' joke. He thinks the oceans rising and lapping at the doors of the Pacific islands is funny. The Leader of the Opposition falsely claimed that people in my hometown of Melbourne were afraid to go out for dinner because of African gangs, and that unleashed and gave licence to hate—hate on the streets and hate in our communities—and people are still suffering from it. He claimed allowing Lebanese Muslims to immigrate was a mistake. He accused the now Prime Minister of being an agent of the Chinese Communist Party. He was opposed to marriage equality and even attacked 'Same Love', the song choice of a band playing at the rugby league grand final, and demanded that the anti-marriage-equality argument got equal time.
The Leader of the Opposition is scared of a voice to parliament. He's scared to listen to what a voice might have to say. He's scared of the voice of First Nations people while he pushes for them to be silent in prisons. We need a voice to parliament enshrined in the Constitution because of people like the Leader of the Opposition and Senator Hanson. Without a First Nations Voice, they will continue to see the First Nations people of this country as criminals, not as equals. They will ignore how the laws of our parliament have impacted First Nations people. They see the Voice as a threat. Justice, liberty and equality, according to the far-right-wing Liberals and One Nation, is a threat.
But this country is changing. We want a different future. We want to be more than a prison island. We want to come to terms with how we all came to be here. We want to punch up and not down. We want a country which treats everyone fairly. We want to be brave and bold, not weak and cowardly. We want to be proud of our future. So we will back the Voice. But it must be just the beginning. The Greens will fight to make sure the government also implements truth and treaty. We must reckon with the truth of our history and move forward together through treaty. That is the only path.
I repeat: if the Voice referendum goes down, we will be further away from those critical next steps for justice. We can all live on this ancient land. We can replace the centuries of racism and division with a shared understanding and a new political settlement which embraces the millennia of human history. This is in all of our interests. There's a profound beauty in this land. We must understand the connection that First Nations peoples have to it. If we all took a moment to shut up and listen, we might actually learn something and build a country and a nation that we can all be part of; build something far more powerful, honest and just.
It is my privilege to speak on the crucial matter of amending our Constitution to recognise the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This bill, Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023, is required to hold a referendum to amend the Australian Constitution and recognise our First Nations people through an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. This is the first referendum that I'll be old enough to vote in, and I'm looking forward to voting yes.
This bill and this referendum is about recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, who've been here for over 60,000 years, as the First Peoples of Australia. This is about listening to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the practical changes that will have an impact in their communities. This bill is the product of robust and detailed consideration by the Referendum Working Group, by the Constitutional Expert Group and within government. It reflects the working group's advice to the government. A Voice is the form of constitutional recognition called for by over 250 First Nations delegates in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It's a modest request, but the Australian people are issued with a very generous invitation to say yes and to ensure that we can move meaningfully to true reconciliation in this country.
I'm a strong advocate for this constitutional alteration, a change that holds the potential to rectify past injustices and pave the way for a more inclusive and truly equal Australia. I'm not a constitutional lawyer or expert, but I know that those who are, like Professors Anne Twomey and George Williams and former High Court Justice Kenneth Hayne, have cast their find opinions here and found that the proposed amendment is legally sound. It is not just the letter of this law, though, that we should be discussing and that is so significant; it is also the spirit of this law.
I want to acknowledge the rich and ancient cultures that have thrived on this land for tens of thousands of years. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the first nations of Australia, have an intrinsic connection to country that stretches far beyond the establishment of the Commonwealth—the colonies that came together at Federation to comprise Australia. Specifically, I would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri Woiwurrung people and the Bunurong people, who are the traditional owners of the land where my electorate, Chisolm, is located. Their voices have been marginalised for too long, and it's time that we rectified this historical, terrible injustice.
The proposed constitutional alteration aims to address a systemic exclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from the decision-making processes that shape our nation. By providing a constitutionally enshrined voice, we can ensure that their perspectives, knowledge and aspirations are given due consideration in matters that affect them directly. This change is not about symbolism or tokenism. It is about substantive representation and genuine empowerment. It's about recognising that Indigenous Australians have a unique perspective, informed by their cultural heritage and their lived experiences, which can enrich our national discourse and guide us to more equitable and sustainable policies.
To those who argue against this constitutional alteration: let me remind you that we are not creating a separate or divisive power structure; rather, we're acknowledging the rightful place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our national governance, alongside the elected representatives of all Australians. This recognition is essential to creating a more inclusive society where the voices of all citizens are heard, respected and valued. This enhances our democracy.
It is essential to dispel the misconception that this constitutional amendment would undermine the sovereignty of our parliamentary system. On the contrary, as I have mentioned, it will strengthen our democracy by ensuring that decisions made in this place reflect the diverse needs and aspirations of our entire population. This will foster dialogue, reconciliation and genuine partnerships, moving us closer to the ideals of equality and social justice that lie at the core of our national identity, and that much-cited value of a fair go.
The process of constitutional change can be complex and challenging, but it's not insurmountable. We've done this before. In 1967 we changed the Constitution to include all Australians in lawmaking, and, as part of our population, specifically Aboriginal Australians. These changes have enriched our nation and enhanced our democratic fabric. Back then, though, it was the case that both major parties of government endorsed the referendum. Unfortunately, today we are in a parliament where not everybody embraces equality as they did in 1967, and that is a great shame. We have an opportunity here to take the next step in our national story, to build upon those foundations laid in 1967 and to forge a more inclusive future in our Constitution for all Australians. This is a remarkable opportunity before us.
Imagine this. In our ordinary lives, we often encounter situations where a simple act on our part may seem inconsequential, but we know deep down that it has the potential to bring about immense positive consequences for others. This is about empathy. It's about what our moral obligations to one another are. That's why I'll be voting yes, and I'm really pleased to be part of a government that recognises the moral obligation to and the empathy that we must hold for all people in this country.
This is a simple question that Australians are being asked. By supporting the Voice and amending the Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices, we are changing what is possible for us in the future. This referendum presents us with a chance to rectify historical wrongs and dismantle the barriers that have silenced Indigenous voices for too long. This referendum is a chance for us to forge a future where every Australian, regardless of their background, is granted the dignity, respect and equal opportunities they deserve. By voting in favour of the Voice we declare our commitment to justice, reconciliation and a truly inclusive and equal society.
We have the power, in this referendum, to reshape the narrative of our nation, to rewrite the story of our shared identity and to say what kind of a country we want Australia to be. Through the Uluru Statement from the Heart, Australian people have been given an incredibly generous, gracious invitation. Let us accept that and say yes. By voting yes in support of the Voice, we send a powerful message, an unequivocal declaration that we stand with our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters, that we refuse to perpetuate a status quo that marginalises and overlooks their voices. By voting yes, we demonstrate our embrace of a future where the wisdom, perspective and aspirations of First Nations Australians guide us towards a better Australia.
This is our chance—the chance of everyone in this parliament, of everyone in this nation—to stand on the right side of history, to be remembered as part of the generation that took the bold, decisive and moral action. The consequences of our choice will extend far beyond the vote. They will determine the trajectory of our nation for generations to come. Let's not squander our opportunity for meaningful, positive change for all Australians. I don't want to be part of a generation that hesitates and shies away from progress.
We need to be the generation that embraces the collective power and rises above the complacency we sometimes encounter and that rises above the divisiveness and negativity that, unfortunately, have been too often heard in this place, and outside this place, when it comes to talking about the lives of our First Nations people. That lacks the empathy and respect that discussions about our First Nations people deserve. Here are some reasons as to why I believe this constitutional alteration is essential, beyond the moral imperative.
We need to recognise their rights and empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to acknowledge their unique cultural heritage, the historical significance of their presence on these lands and their rightful place as the First Nations people of Australia. We need to vote yes for meaningful representation so that there is a constitutionally enshrined platform for First Nations voices to be heard, ensuring that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives, knowledge and experience are considered, deeply, in decision-making processes that directly impact lives and communities.
We need to alter the Constitution so that we can get closer to closing the gap. There are far too many disparities faced by First Nations people compared to the general population of Australia. We must do more to close this gap, and what we've been doing has not worked. Let us try listening to communities. Let us try to work together to bring about the change that we must have.
We must get closer to reconciliation and healing in this country. And when the Australian people are offered such a generous opportunity by those who participated in and wrote the Uluru Statement from the Heart, we cannot turn our backs to that. We must listen. We must take that step, that very important step, and vote yes so that we can truly have reconciliation and healing in this country.
We must see this as an opportunity for this country to create a new narrative and for the people able to participate in this vote to leave a legacy of justice, equality and unity. This is an incredibly important piece of legislation before us today. Let us embrace this moment with courage, with empathy and with a shared commitment to justice. As a nation, I hope we seize this chance to create a nation where every Australian, regardless of their background, has a true and equal voice in shaping our collective destiny and that we are able to continue the work of putting some of the wrongs to rest and create a more positive story for this nation. This is an important step towards a more just and harmonious Australia, and I'm very pleased to support this bill today.
Unfortunately, I will not be able to support this bill before the House, the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023, in its current form. With the time afforded to me, I'd like to touch on three particular points. I want to share how my family is intertwined with our First Nations people; I want to share correspondence and feedback that my office has received on what the people of my electorate of Wright have been saying—and I mentioned those people in my maiden speech and labelled them 'the silent majority'—and I want to share some data from previous referendums, of which only eight of 44 proposals with constitutional change have been approved, and, moreover, how the eight that were successful navigated their path to success.
We all seek a respectful and caring debate. It has saddened me. Professionally, I compliment all of those in this place that have lent into that space, but there have been others that have chosen a different pathway, and that has saddened me. With reference to the data collected from my office, being for those for the vote that have either contacted our office by email or telephone, we have recorded as best we could so that the data is accurate 'for', 'against', 'undecided' and 'alternative wording suggestions'. In a nutshell, 72 per cent of those people that have contacted my office are not in support and 28 per cent are in support. Telephone traffic from across the electorate, in the main, has been asking for more detail. Telephone traffic says they do not want another giant bureaucracy set up in Canberra, and they don't want boots on the ground. They want more boots on the ground where they see issues unfolding, such as Alice Springs, Logan and Townsville.
Following are some extracts of correspondence that have been received, for example, from Randall and Pam: 'There are already too many representative bodies milking the system, not to mention the National Indigenous Australian Agency of $3.4 billion. All the rest of us are worthy.' The sentiment they were offering was that this was divisive. David from Harrisville wrote: 'I'm very worried about Labor's proposal. If it's passed, it'll wreck our parliamentary system.' Mark sent an email: 'I'm not in favour of changes to the Constitution that give advantage to one part of the community over another. I am in favour of appropriate changes to the Constitution, and I'm disappointed at the lack of proper discussion.' Otto from Laidley believes the Voice will divide Australia and that the process is divisive. Paulo and Anna wrote: 'The Westminster system has served democracies around the world for hundreds of years. We have an Indigenous population of three per cent and five per cent of Indigenous democratically elected sit in the parliament. How is the current system of an equal voice of representation broken?'
One of those democratically elected senators is Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price. She said:
I don't want to see my family divided along the lines of race because we are a family of human beings and that's the bottom line.
She also went on to say:
I'll be voting 'no' because this will not unite us, this will divide us.
Finally, I'll read from a press article titled 'Why acclaimed Aboriginal activist Richard Bell won't vote Yes'. When asked the question, he says no:
No … way. It's just going to be a layer of bureaucracy filled by all these … people pushing it.
It will probably cost a billion dollars to administer it. Why don't [we] build houses for black fellas with that? Why don't we try to help raise the standard of living? We have the lowest state of living in the whole country—why … aren't they doing something about that?
And I've toned down his colourful language in that correspondence, but it is on the public record.
It did sadden me this week, or last week, when we saw senior proponents from the Indigenous community in the 'yes' campaign using slanderous, intimidatory narratives, berating Indigenous leaders, belittling them, bullying them. The parliament is probably well aware of Noel Pearson's comments, when he took on another prominent Indigenous Australian. I found that to be unacceptable in a debate, and I'm calling for a respectful engagement by all of those in the debate. Where you have a difference of opinion, those opinions should be respected, on both sides of the debate. No-one has a licence to berate, to belittle or to bully.
Mick Gooda, in response, said that he would not be bullied into conforming with Pearson's position and the Australian public will not be bullied into voting 'yes' for this referendum. And I suggest that he is right. I suggest that he is spot on.
Warren Mundine said:
I see the Voice as effectively reversing the 1967 Referendum, entrenching race and segregation in the constitution and bringing it back.
He went on to say:
It will enshrine a monolithic bureaucracy to end all bureaucracies in the constitution and a permanent and enduring part of Aboriginal lives. Like a great, big new protection board.
There have been those that have voiced their objection, as I have, and it also saddens me that they have been tarnished loosely with the assumption of being racist. That is appalling—absolutely appalling—and no-one should be subjected to that, whether the comments come from this place, from the fourth estate or wherever.
I remind those who wish to comment to hearken back to the US Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, when she, speaking in New York in 2016, labelled Americans who supported her opponents a 'basket of deplorables'. Nothing will send this debate south quicker than dividing our nation.
In my last point, I'll refer to previous referendums. Since Federation, only eight of the 44 proposals for constitutional change have been approved. The most recent successful referendum was back in 1977. To put that in context, I was nine years old, so it was some time ago. Of the eight, six passed with over 70 per cent support. And I would hope that one day, through this process, we end up with some wording that passes with over 80 per cent, because I think that, if we put to the Australian public 'that the Indigenous community be enshrined in our Constitution', full stop, there would be an overwhelming majority, and that this bill, if amended, would join those outcomes and the privileges that we enjoy in Australia today. The highest percentage 'yes' vote of any referendum was in 1967, as to an act to alter the Constitution to omit certain words relating to the people of Aboriginal race in any state so that Aboriginals were to be counted and reckoned in the population—a 'yes' vote of 90.77 per cent. So Australians have an appetite for the Indigenous community to be recognised.
University of New South Wales Pro Vice-Chancellor and Uluru Statement from the Heart co-chair Megan Davis said last year that, whilst she understood the attention paid to bipartisan support, in this particular case it may not be as important as it used to be. I beg to differ. I would have liked to have seen the parliament land on wording that had bipartisan support to give this referendum the best chance of passing. Of the 44 referendum questions since 1901 to change elements of the Constitution only eight have been successful, and they had bipartisan support. That's the very point I'm making. There is a pathway for us to ensure that we get a high outcome on this.
Unfortunately, in March this year the Prime Minister said, 'It would take a lot of convincing before I'd support any amendments.' He has been true to his word. There have been no amendments. There has been no compromise. There has been no consideration of the voices of the democratically elected in this House. It has put fear into those who have told voters, 'Yes, but we'll sort that out afterwards.'
In the couple of minutes afforded to me that I have left I want to share with the House a yarn that President Reagan offered. This metaphor I think is very poignant to this debate. A set of parents had two children who were twins. One was an extreme optimist and the other one was an eternal pessimist. They took counselling. The counsellor said: 'I'll rectify the behaviour patterns. We'll put the pessimist in a room with a heap of the newest, shiniest toys we can find. From the stables at home I'll bring in wheelbarrows of manure, which we'll put in a room. We will put the optimist in there.' The parents agreed to the experiment and the children were put into the rooms.
The pessimist cried tears. The counsellor asked, 'Why are you crying?' He said, 'Because these are the best toys I've ever seen and I know that someone is going to take them off me one day.' The optimist was throwing manure over his shoulders and having a wonderful time. He had a smile on his face. The counsellor said to him, 'Why are you so happy?' He said, 'Because I know in here there's a pony somewhere.' My point is that I think that when we scratch the surface and move beyond this there'll be a pony in here somewhere.
I'm very proud to be a member of the government that has brought the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023 and, ultimately, the referendum to the people of Australia. We're a country with a very rich and varied story. Every one of us has a story to tell. We have many institutions that are based on community values and ideals. We have vibrant multicultural communities made up of people who have come here from across the globe and have brought their languages, their food, their songs and their cultures to us, to our great benefit, and yet our national document, our national Constitution, and the parliament have failed to make room for the First Peoples of this land. That is why I think this legislation is so important. It will set in motion a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to appropriately recognise in our Constitution the Indigenous people of our country and provide them, as has been said, with a voice to our parliament and to our decision-makers.
I'm old enough to well remember the 1967 referendum. I can remember, at that time, the opposition to that referendum. My father was a dentist in quite a disadvantaged community in the south-west of Sydney, in Punchbowl. There was a large housing commission area that had lots of Aboriginal families. My father had been quite a good sportsman in his youth and had quite a number of Indigenous friends. I can remember speaking to him about the 1967 referendum and his views. He felt very strongly that it was well over time that our Indigenous people should be heard and should be part of our community. I think this referendum will very much set that in stone, if it's recognised in our Constitution, and I fully support it.
I understand there are different views, and I understand people have, in those views, many variations of those views. I think we have to be very respectful about this discussion. I think this legislation is extremely important. I feel it will succeed. I speak to a number of people in my community, some of whom are Aboriginal, some of whom are not, and I think they all agree this debate needs to be held in a respectful manner and we need to be very careful about divisive language and divisive methods of putting across a point of view.
I thank very much my colleagues in the Indigenous caucus, in particular the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Linda Burney, who has done a wonderful job—as have Senator Malarndirri McCarthy and the great Pat Dodson, who, unfortunately, is not well but is a big part of the Voice. When it is part of our Constitution he will be remembered very strongly for his role. I wish him well and I hope that his recovery is swift. I think we have many other members across the parliament, on both sides of the parliament, who strongly support this legislation—not least of which is the member for Berowra. I commend him for his bravery and for his role in what has been quite a long debate.
Like most Australians, I don't want this to be a dividing issue. I don't want it to be a nasty debate. I call on all of us and those in our communities to conduct this debate in a respectful manner. I thank the member for Dunkley, who has done incredible work on the referendum joint select committee and has conducted that in a most respectful manner. Her unwavering support for our First Nations people has been fantastic.
At the heart of the Voice to Parliament are two key principles: to recognise, and to listen. They say that all politics is local. It is, and I have a wonderful example in my electorate of the Tharawal Aboriginal Corporation and the Tharawal health service, which is run by CEO Darryl Wright and his committee. I have the utmost respect for Darryl and his team, and I've had a close association with the corporation since it opened over 32 years ago. What they have done in Indigenous health has been absolutely remarkable in improving the health of Macarthur's Indigenous community, which is quite large—and not just their health but their education and their care for their community and their old people. We now have a Tharawal housing corporation that is helping provide housing support for a whole range of Indigenous members of our community, including older members. This community run health service has been able to influence the way our health service deals not just with Indigenous people but with many other people of disadvantage, including refugees, people who have struggled to get housing and people who have a non-English speaking background. It has influenced the whole way our health service deals with the broader communities that are flocking to Macarthur, with its rapid growth. I can see how at a local level hearing Indigenous voices say what they want and how they think their community should be treated and how their community should deal with issues—like housing and social welfare, drug and alcohol problems, education, early childhood education—we now have quite a large preschool at Tharawal—have made our community better. They're in control and they're talking to us about what they need.
We have services at Tharawal that include things like Centrelink, a legal service, a women's health service, specialist services in cardiology and neurology, and a diabetes team. We've actually been able to dramatically improve the health and wellbeing and social engagement of the whole community because of the work that Darryl and his team at Tharawal have done, so I can see how local involvement has actually made a huge difference. Being able to communicate to our politicians, our health bureaucrats, our senior health management people and our criminal justice system has made a huge difference in my own community of Macarthur, so I am a strong believer in the Voice. I really am strongly of the view that my community will fully support the Voice to Parliament.
I have met with Tharawal's people, and I am very keen to get the minister to come out and conduct a roundtable for us. I believe this will happen in the not-too-distant future. I would like to thank Tharawal and my Indigenous community for being so supportive of a respectful discussion about this legislation. This will only improve our society in general, if we can get a Voice to Parliament for our Indigenous people.
I'd like to echo the words of Aunty Pat Anderson, who told the committee that our First Nations people are not asking for a Canberra voice, they're asking for a voice to Canberra. It's important that we get this distinction right. This is not a political exercise. This is an exercise in giving our First Nations people the ability to talk about how they think we should manage their issues. It's not coming from Canberra to them. It's really important that community will only be made better for this voice to Canberra. And I commend Pat Anderson, who is known by all of us for her many years working as a really important part of improving the health not just of Indigenous people, but of disadvantaged people around Australia over a very long period of time.
It's important that we address these critical issues by listening to what our First Nations people want. We have focused a lot on the Closing the Gap targets. One of the problems with the Closing the Gap targets is they focus too much on short-term fixes, which don't exist in this situation. Any changes we have in Indigenous health, Indigenous education, Indigenous social interaction and Indigenous engagement in work and business are long-term solutions. That's why focusing on the Closing the Gap targets has, in many ways, not been helpful. Certainly, in some of the issues regarding birth weight and growth and nutrition—the principles that I am heavily engaged with in the first thousand days health policies—need long-term solutions. We need to look for those, and things will only improve when we listen to and connect with Indigenous communities. This is not something that we can send from Canberra. We have to get it from our Indigenous communities. I strongly, strongly believe that. I cannot emphasise that enough. I think this referendum will change Australia and it will change Australia for the better, and I fully support it.
It doesn't mean that we don't have to do things in acute health. We must act on things like fetal alcohol syndrome, Indigenous incarceration and Indigenous children's involvement with the criminal justice system. We know that. But the solutions must come from the communities. We will support them, and it is very important that we do so, but those solutions are long-term solutions. I know that. We're talking generational solutions. There is no short-term answer.
I see it in my own community. In my electorate we have a very large juvenile justice centre, Reiby Youth Justice Centre, in Airds, near the suburb of Campbelltown. It is absolutely tragic to hear the stories of the children that are in that institution. I know that the solutions to those problems are generational. I've seen it over many generations, working as a paediatrician in Macarthur, in Campbelltown, and I've seen it as I have travelled looking at Indigenous health issues around the country, from Palm Island to Bourke and Brewarrina and Arnhem Land. We must act in the long term and we must act according to the wishes of the communities.
When we read about some of the issues in these communities, it's very sombre reading. I can't emphasise enough that we must have a bipartisan commitment to making change. I think that we have to be very respectful in this debate. I know there's a lot of debate about the wording. I know there is debate about how this has been presented to the community. And I want some of that division to stop. We can argue so much about the detail, but the principles are what is important. There's always going to be a need to discuss these issues. There are always going to be people who will try and create division around this issue, but I'm very hopeful that our debate will continue to be respectful, and I'm very hopeful that a very large proportion of the Australian population will vote for this legislation.
To me, it's really important that we don't forgo this opportunity not just to right the wrongs of the past but to create a better future for all of us. I'd like to see the same result as the 1967 referendum. I would love to see that, and I'm very hopeful something like that will happen. I'm an optimist, and I do really feel that this will happen.
I'd like to thank everyone who has been involved in bringing this legislation to the parliament. I'll be out there urging a 'yes' vote for this referendum. I hope I'm right. I thank the House for listening to my view.
We are one people, we are one country and we are all equal, for we are one and free. I will be voting no to this legislation, the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023; I will be voting no to the proposed changes to the Constitution; and I will be campaigning for the 'no' side of the case. For me, this is a values based decision. I believe all Australians are equal, not that some Australians should have a different level of democracy or a different approach to democracy, not that one group of Australians has different rights to others. It is a fundamental tenet of this country that we are all one people, and those values are what I have used to make a decision in terms of this legislation and the proposal that has been put forward by the Labor Party.
We recently ran a survey in my electorate. We are still accumulating all of the inputs from the many thousands of responses, but, to date, when asked whether they would support this proposition, 62 per cent of respondents said no, 27 per cent said yes and 10 per cent were undecided. I would say to the Prime Minister and the Labor Party: the voters aren't mugs. They are not. They want to see the detail. They understand that this is a significant change to the Australian Constitution. It's not just a piece of legislation, it's not a code of practice and it's not a guidance note. It is a significant change to the most important document in this country, and they genuinely want to know. They want to know what difference it will make. They want to know what it will cost. They want to know how it will work. They are not willing to vote on the vibe, on the feeling, on how it will make them feel on the day that they take the decision. They absolutely want to see the detail. That detail is simply not being provided.
This has been a topic of great interest right across the country. I talk to a lot of people, as do others. I met with a constituent named Peter—I don't want to identify him in total. Peter is an incredibly successful local businessmen and in fact runs multiple businesses in one of my regions. I didn't even know he was an elder of a particular tribe. I simply didn't know. He was just a guy who ran this business who I got on with well. He came in to have a chat about this issue and some others. His advice was really straightforward: we just have to work together. He is opposed to the Voice. He won't be supporting it. It's as simple as that. We have to work together because we are one people. How on earth can you not create division, which is exactly what is happening right now?
A lot of speakers already have spoken about the 1967 referendum. That was two years before I was born. I wasn't even a twinkle in the eye at that stage, so I thought I should probably do a little bit of research and see what it was about, and I've done that. In my view, there are some incredibly powerful images associated with the 1967 referendum. In some of them they were holding signs like this: 'Count us together. Make us one people.' 'Give us equal rights throughout Australia.' Those signs are held by young individuals. How is it possible that there is now a proposal to divide the nation, to make one group of Australians different to others? I find it unacceptable that the Australian people will make that decision. I want them to be informed. I want it to be an informed decision. It is up to them. Like everyone in this place, I am just one vote, but this is an incredibly important decision.
As I've said, we continue to see division, and it is growing division. I refer to a report in the Australian, an op-ed by Noel Pearson on the weekend, on 20 May. I want to quote a couple of lines from that op-ed:
The boomer readership of this paper is of course antipathetic to recognition. They are mostly obscurant and borderline casual racists in their views.
Seriously! It continues:
The change that is needed to secure recognition of Australia's First Peoples is happening beyond that group of boomers who want this to be about the culture wars. The problem is that too many party activists and parliamentary candidates and members of the Liberal and National parties want to recreate America in Australia.
Nothing is further from the views of the Australians I know. They are incredibly proud of our country. They're proud of our history, they're proud of our culture, they're proud of where they came from and proud of how they arrived here. So, no matter what your connection is to this country, whether it's a cultural connection, whether you have relatives on the First Fleet, whether you were born here, whether you arrived last week or whether you took the oath of citizenship yesterday, we are all Australians and we are all equal.
The idea that we have sporting bodies, for example, telling Australians how to vote—I don't think they'll wear that. They know this is important. We have Marcia Langton saying that if you don't vote yes there'll be no more welcome to countrys. I'm not being facetious—I have no particular view—but I saw an inrush of calls and correspondence saying that's fantastic, because they are over it. The mob are over it. They are quite happy for, where there is a culturally significant event, these to occur, but the idea that it's at every P&C, every meeting and everything else—it's just too much for them. They actually warmly welcomed that, which was quite surprising even to me.
If we look at the legal opinions—I'm not a lawyer, but many of us in this place have dealt with legal opinions over a long period of time—they are costly, generally they are different, and quite often they're not right. There is a broad range of views on what the proposed changes to the Constitution will do and how they will change the way our nation operates and the government of Australia manages this country. I am particularly concerned about the proposed changes that include the executive. Having been a member of the executive and seen what happens when activists—how people utilise the legal system to shut down important projects in this country, I am very worried. As many of us know and has been outlined by any number of well-recognised specialists, that won't be determined until there is 10, 12, 15 years worth of case law. In the meantime, the country will be absolutely held up, held back at a time when we need to be strong and we need to move forward.
The budget is 346 million over three years. Most of the Australians I know would say, 'Why don't we take that $346 million to Alice Springs and help them with what is happening there, which is absolutely terrible.' It is awful. There is youth crime, lawlessness and unlawful behaviour. They are desperately crying out for help. Instead, $364 million will be spent on a referendum asking the Australian people to do something which splits the nation. It won't unite us; it will divide us. I'm very, very disappointed about that.
I want to acknowledge the work of the member for Cowper; Senator Jacinta Price in the other place; and others who have been working incredibly hard. Like everyone, I recognise that there will be different views. It is the purpose of the referendum. They've been involved in the committees. They've been involved upfront. There will be different groups with different ideas for different outcomes, but ultimately, it's a binary choice. You will vote 'yes' to change the Constitution, and entrench all parts of what's being proposed—not what's been advertised, not what's been seen on TV, but all parts of all words that are in this bill—or you will vote 'no' to remain united, to remain one country, to remain one people. That is why I am so strongly supportive of the no case. I think it is just so critical that we do not divide the nation. If we go back to 1967, that was the ask: count us together; make us one people.
For those of us who live in the regions, Aboriginal people are part of our local community. We don't see them separately. We don't see them as different. We just see them as part of everything that happens every day. While there are significant challenges, particularly in remote communities, that is not all Aboriginal people. Most are incredibly successful. They work hard, they get wages, they pay their taxes, many pay wages and many are in business. They're no different to any other Australian. But I am absolutely opposed to the idea that the nation will be separated because of an outcome of this referendum. But it is up to the individual. It is up to the Australian people. It is up to them.
The voters of Australia are not mugs. They want the detail, and if it's not provided then suspicion will win. They will vote no. They will. The voters of Australia want to see what the change will mean. They want to see what it will cost. They want to see how it will be implemented. They want to see what difference it makes to the nation. The idea that you should vote 'yes' on a feeling is the wrong approach to a referendum, which is why, in my view, it is likely to be defeated.
The Australian people will make this decision. We will all play our parts. We will do so with respect. We will be very, very careful. But I continue to be concerned about the division that this will place on our nation. We see it over and over. I will leave my remarks there, assuming the honourable members are ready. But to all Australians: we are one people, we are one country, we are one and free. Vote 'no' at this referendum.
I rise to make my contribution on the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023. Today this government makes history, because we are also informed by history. In the steps of Whitlam and Lingiari, of Keating and the Redfern address, and of Rudd and the apology, this government seeks to join the ones before it in listening to and being guided by Indigenous voices, their needs and how Indigenous people want their families and themselves to be treated.
I'd like to paraphrase the writings of the late John Clarke, penned over 20 years ago. Australia has a vibrant and resourceful people. We share a freedom born in the abundance of nature, the richness of Earth and the bounty of sea. We are one of the world's biggest islands. We have one of the world's longest coastlines. We have plants and animals that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. We are one of the few countries on earth with our own sky. We have a fabric woven of many colours, and it's this that gives us our strength. We have been here for over 200 years, but before that there were people living here. For thousands of years they lived in perfect balance with the land. There were many nations, just as there were many nations in North America and across Canada and many Maori peoples in New Zealand. The Indigenous people of this land lived in areas as different from one another as Scotland is from Ethiopia. They lived in an area the size of Western Europe. They didn't share a common language. They had their own laws, their own beliefs, their own ways of understanding.
In this legislation we seek to show our own understanding and what we have learned from the generous and gracious Uluru Statement from the Heart. I want to focus on that last part, 'from the heart', because that is what has been profoundly demonstrated: heart—a courageous willingness to believe in the good that can be done by this parliament and this country. I find that belief, that hope that was put in us, to be humbling and inspiring. Here we have a people who've endured through the darkest of times, through a history of stolen land, stolen lives and stolen generations. Yet here they are offering to us an extended hand, an invitation to join together, to recognise one another, to change. We will take this hand. We will join together to recognise the promise of reconciliation, to change for the better the story of Australia. That's what this legislation is about: a story—a long story. It began long before any of us were alive, and it's my hope that it will continue long after we're all gone.
But we most definitely have a part to play in shaping that story and in creating a lasting legacy—a better legacy than the one that has been left so far, because the decisions of the past were not confined to our history books. They ripple and cascade and bleed into the present. They have given a disadvantage to our Indigenous people before they were even born. In Australia today, the Indigenous infant mortality rate is almost double the rate for non-Indigenous infants. I know losing a child is heartbreaking, but for that to be almost twice as likely for our First Nations mothers is unacceptable. Sadly, this disadvantage continues as they grow up. Young Indigenous men are incarcerated at an appalling 10 times the rate of other Australians, and this trend even diminishes their very lives. The gap in life expectancy is a staggering eight years. The fundamental role of government should be to care for its people, improve their lives and provide them with opportunities for success. But these numbers show that people—our people—are being left behind. This country has so often striven for the ideals of egalitarianism and equality. I think it's one of our most noble characteristics. But equality is not simply achieved by a change in behaviour; it is brought about by a change in action. And, until everyone is equal, no-one is equal.
Unfortunately, what's being discussed here isn't new or revolutionary. Indeed, I am certain there are many who have noticed these same problems being talked about again and again, because what has happened in the constant theme of our treatment of our Indigenous people—our central failing—is that we rarely listen. Even when we do, it's only on our terms, not theirs. It started with terra nullius, where Europeans declared the land to be no-one's because it didn't resemble the cultures of their homelands; where land was taken because we thought we had more use for it; where the original ways of caring for land were dismissed because we thought we knew better; where alcohol and disease were introduced because we didn't think about the consequences; and where children were taken from their families for reasons I still can't fathom.
When this nation was officially declared in 1901, we did not want the original inhabitants of the land standing with us. Every effort was made to diminish their very existence. We put it into our Constitution—the foundation of our nation and our emerging democracy. In section 127 it was written:
In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives should not be counted.
The message we sent was loud and clear: 'We do not count you as one of us.' It was the manifestation of our shameful history: ignore, dismiss, marginalise, silence.
Yet the parliament's ability to legislate, to act on Indigenous issues, was severely curtailed from the start. Section 51(xxvi) says:
The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to:
… … …
(xxvi) The people of any race, other than the aboriginal people in any State, for whom it is necessary to make special laws.
For decades, treating Indigenous people separately was not only legal; it was constitutional. It allowed the gaps between us to grow even deeper, in health, education and income—all the benefits of federal legislation that didn't reach those who needed it most. The damage was generational, and it will take generations to fix. It's why every government since has started on the back foot when it comes to Indigenous issues. But after over 60 years, the Australian people were able to remove these sections from our Constitution. The 1967 referendum was a historic moment in time—a moment that is being compared to the moment that we live in now. And I hope we have the same outcome.
As it said in the Uluru Statement from the Heart: in 1967 they were counted; now they will be heard. It occurs to me that this moment in time may eventually be in the history books as well—that, even generations from now, there will be students learning about this referendum. They will learn what was said and what was done by all of us, and we must make sure not to disappoint them.
And we must remember why we are undertaking this referendum. Put simply, it's to stop the cycle of Indigenous people offering to us their voices, only to be silenced, because this referendum is not about changing the past; it's about stopping the repeat of past mistakes. Every time there has been some form of Indigenous advisory group with Indigenous members, it has been either slowly diminished and then dismissed, or disbanded by a later government. The National Aboriginal Consultative Committee was created by the Whitlam government in 1972. It was then removed by the Fraser government in 1977. It was replaced by the National Aboriginal Conference, but it was continually stripped of funding until it was finally discontinued in 1985 by the Hawke government. We then had the longest-serving group, in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission—started in 1990 under the Hawke government—until it was abolished in 2005 by the Howard government. At around that time, the then Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Dr William Jonas, wrote that this unfortunate decision sought to ensure that government would only have to deal with Indigenous peoples on its own terms and when it chose to and only on issues on which it wished to engage. He described it as revealing a deep antipathy on the part of the government towards engaging with Indigenous peoples and acknowledging the legitimacy of aspirations and goals expressed by them. He surmised that abolishing the commission would simply silence Indigenous people at the national level, while the deeply entrenched crisis in Indigenous communities would continue unabated. These words ring true today, and, sadly, this trend of silencing voices has continued.
We cannot move on if we're taking one step forward and one step back. It would be ludicrous for this parliament to not be consistently advised on issues like health, education and defence. Why then do we always single out Indigenous people? Their wellbeing should not be dependent on changing government priorities. Quality of life is not a political issue; it is a human right. This is about having a guarantee that there will always be a voice for Indigenous people, regardless of who is in government. This is stability, this is consistency and this is what the country wants—what voters decided in the May 2022 election, when the mandate was handed to the Albanese government.
Under previous systems, Indigenous people would only have as much to say as would be allowed, and even this could be taken away on a whim. This legislation seeks to create a bulwark against the default state of inaction. This government seeks to lead the way for future generations, as it was led by those who came before us.
On this day, we look to our forebears. We look to former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, who once held the seat which I am proud to represent. In the lead-up to the 1972 election, he took this cause to voters. He said 'all of us are diminished' while our Indigenous people are 'denied their rightful place in this nation'. He said that Australians 'ought to be angry with an unrelenting anger' that our Indigenous people have the world's highest infant mortality rate. On 16 August 1975, he returned the traditional lands to the Gurindji people in a ceremony held with Vincent Lingiari, another great leader of their time. Whitlam said, 'I want to promise you that this act of restitution which we perform today will not stand alone.' This legislation will continue that promise.
We look to the Redfern address given by then Prime Minister Paul Keating in the wake of the Mabo decision, another important moment that expunged the false narrative of terra nullius. When you read the Redfern address today, it shows it was as clear then as it is now that recognition and raising our Indigenous peoples' standing is just as much about ourselves and our national identity. Keating said:
This is a fundamental test of our social goals and our national will: our ability to say to ourselves and the rest of the world that Australia is a first rate social democracy, that we are what we should be—truly the land of the fair go and the better chance.
He also said something that could well be said about the Voice to Parliament:
… there is nothing to fear or to lose in the recognition of historical truth, or the extension of social justice, or the deepening of Australian social democracy to include indigenous Australians.
There is everything to gain.
That was as true then as it is now. We improve the lives of those around us, we improve ourselves. We fix the wrongs of the past, we fix ourselves. We reach out with compassion and understanding, we stand to benefit our whole entire society.
We look to the apology delivered by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a moment that Indigenous people called for, and the government of the day listened and acted on that. On 13 February 2008, an important day, some of the most important words were uttered in this chamber. It was an emotional day. There was sorrow for the pain that had been caused, but there was also pride for the new relationship that might now be forged. It was there in the apology itself:
We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.
It went on to say:
The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia's history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.
This future is the one that is based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility. This Voice to Parliament is that future that has been long promised, a way to ensure that Indigenous voices are no longer silenced. They will be heard. They will be respected.
I thank all those who have worked so hard for this day and acknowledge the work still to be done. Today is another part of the story of Australia. It's always been enriched by adding more stories to it. Today we ask ourselves: will we remember our story thus far, our history? Will we learn from it? Will we make it better? Will we walk together hand in hand towards a better future for our country? The only answer is yes. I commend the bill to the House.
I'd like to start my response by acknowledging the Minister for Indigenous Australians and the speech that was heard in this place yesterday. The minister made a number of insightful and compelling points in her very impassioned speech. She acknowledged that this is not a decision or a plaything of politicians; it is a decision of the Australian people. She noted that 56 years ago Australians voted in a referendum with a similar goal. It was a major turning point in the Australian story, a unifying moment, one that appealed to Australians' innate sense of fairness. She also noted Indigenous Australians continue to be left behind on many key life indicators. There is almost a nine-year gap in life expectancy, a gap in infant mortality and a disproportionate incarceration rate. She noted that it isn't good enough and that something has to change, and change for the better. She identified that the disadvantages experienced by Indigenous Australians are not the fault of any single individual today, and it is the responsibility of all of us to strive for a reconciled future. On every single one of these points I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, there is much that the Minister for Indigenous Australians and I strongly agree on. I sincerely thank her for her continued dedication to what she believes is right for Indigenous Australians.
The beauty of our democracy is that we are able to respectfully differ in opinion when it comes to the methods in which our shared goals can be achieved. It should be noted that the incredible initiatives that the Minister for Indigenous Affairs acknowledged in her speech, like Indigenous-led health clinics that are improving health outcomes and saving whole families from endless travel; or the Indigenous Rangers program, which has reduced unemployment rates and given young people a sense of purpose, while boosting the protection of our unique natural environment, are already in play. Similarly, practical initiatives can be created and expanded via updates to legislation alone. Enhancements and changes to programs and initiatives can be made swiftly without a referendum on constitutional change that divides the nation along the line of race. Enhancements and changes can be made without the delay that a referendum requires. Enhancements and changes can be made without the cost of a referendum. Positive steps can be taken without unintentionally encouraging Australians to have a conversation that contains the words 'us' and 'them' in place of 'one' and 'all'.
This bill conflates two entirely separate issues: firstly, recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian Constitution, a point upon which we all agree and that does not have unforeseen consequences; and, secondly, support for a constitutionally enshrined Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advisory body, a point that is a cause for concern for many. These two distinct and separate issues may not have been made clear to the Australian public throughout this inquiry and appear to have been designed with that intent. In my view, the suggestion that to vote no on the Voice is to deny historical atrocities is recklessly dismissive and encourages Australians to vote on emotion rather than logic. Constitutional lawyers who oppose the current changes are not denying the plethora of significant mistakes made by governments at all levels since our Federation. They are looking at a legal document and its potential unintended consequences. Acknowledging serious missteps and mistreatment in our past does not necessitate the changes to our Constitution that are being proposed right here.
I'm proud to say that I am born and bred a Kempsey boy, a regional town on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales. Around one in seven residents of Kempsey are Indigenous Australians. I was raised in the household of the local GP. My father physically delivered many of our current community members into this world. He treated the physical and mental health of the members of our community and helped them whilst sometimes at their worst. I was recently in Kempsey attending the 20th anniversary of the circle sentencing program at the Kempsey Local Court. This program provides young Indigenous people an alternative to the judicial system, where they sit with members of the community, sit with the families and sit with the victims and talk about what it meant to the victims and what it meant to the community.
This program has been so successful that some of the young men who went through it 20 years ago are now running it. And to my astonishment and amazement, as I was standing there, Aunty Shirley said, 'I would like to say something,' and she said, 'Dr Conaghan was the first doctor to allow Indigenous people into his clinic.' Whilst I was very proud of that fact, I was equally appalled that it had to be him, in the 1960s, not that long ago. To think that in the 1960s, Indigenous people were being precluded from medical treatment. So I'm extremely proud to be able to tell that story. He welcomed both Indigenous and non-Indigenous into our home at all hours of the night. He turned nobody away.
I saw first-hand the differences in the standards of health amongst the Indigenous community. I saw first-hand the influence that grassroots support can have, not just on an individual but on an entire community, when that support is provided without judgement or division. I started my own career as a police officer in Kempsey and saw first-hand the disparities in the rates of domestic and family violence, the rates of incarceration, with the number of people outside the court mainly being the Indigenous population. I also saw first-hand the distrust for government and authorities. I saw entire families without birth certificates being pulled up for offences like driving without a licence when they were unable to get one because they didn't have a birth certificate. An issue as seemingly as simple as this continues to negatively affect Indigenous people throughout their lives. I continued my career as a police prosecutor and criminal defence lawyer. There I continued to see these same issues play out again and again.
More recently, I took part in the Joint Select Committee on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice Referendum. I heard first-hand the testimonies of those suffering as a result of historical atrocities. I heard of the failings of the past and the gaping holes that exist in our current systems. These were very passionate and moving testimonies, each and every one. What I did not hear is how the Voice specifically will tangibly affect any of these issues. I did not hear how it would deliver outcomes and close the gap. I did not hear how enshrining potential division in our Constitution will encourage Australians to act and move forward as one. Unfortunately, what I did not hear were concrete answers to some important questions. Who will be eligible to serve on the proposed body? What are the prerequisites for nomination? Will the government clarify the definition of Aboriginality to determine who can serve on the body? How will members be elected, chosen or appointed? How much will it cost taxpayers annually? Importantly, what are its functions and powers? Is it purely advisory, or will it have decision-making capabilities? How will the government ensure that the body includes those who still need to get a platform in Australian public life? How will it interact with the Closing the Gap process? And will the government rule out using the Voice to negotiate any national treaty?
As the assistant shadow minister for the prevention of family violence, I recently travelled to Darwin and to Alice Springs for consultations with individuals, community groups and specialist organisations on what is happening on the ground and how they feel governments at all levels can best assist with breaking the cycle of violence. While I was there with a specific focus on the prevention of family violence, I did take the opportunity to ask each group for their opinion on the voice and what it will achieve for them. I was there to listen and learn, not to provide my personal thoughts or views. Interestingly, those who intended to vote yes and those who intended to vote no both acknowledged a lack of detail provided by the government and had questions about how it would affect them personally. Both sides of the argument requested more detail to properly inform themselves and their community.
It was surprising to hear how many hadn't made up their minds. Even the ones who are voting 'yes' were somewhat cynical that it would not make any difference in their life or to their mob, which I found quite disheartening for them. This sentiment was reiterated in a recent survey that I put out in my electorate of Cowper. Over 10 per cent of respondents answered, 'I don't know,' to the question, 'Do you support the Indigenous Voice to Parliament?'
What all individuals I have spoken to unanimously did suggest was that to fix problems, like social disparity, domestic violence, substance abuse and education and health outcomes, governments at all levels must provide more on-the-ground solutions and manpower at the coalface. What our community needs is less red tape and bureaucracy and more immediate action.
In my final words on this issue I want to make a few things clear. I will always vote 'yes' on legislative reform that I believe will move the dial when it comes to meaningfully closing the gap. I will vote 'yes' on initiatives that support the prevention of family violence. I will vote 'yes' on reform that provides the right manpower on the ground to improve health and education outcomes. I will always vote 'yes' on tangible solutions that provide measurable results. But I will not vote 'yes' on a change that divides the nation arbitrarily on the lines of race and that leaves too much to individual interpretation.
I'm passionate about doing what I can to provide better outcomes for everyone in my community, including Indigenous Australians, who deserve action over symbolism and swift response over delay. I recognise the entrenched systematic and historical changes faced in many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, particularly those in remote Australia. These issues must be addressed, and in my view the delivery of evidence-based, community-led initiatives will better address these challenges and improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples better than a referendum.
I rise today to speak on a bill that's going to be a defining moment in our nation's history. I start by firstly acknowledging the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia and as the traditional owners of this land. I acknowledge the traditional land owners here in Canberra, the Ngunnawal people, and I also acknowledge the traditional owners in my electorate of Richmond, the people of the Bundjalung nation.
This bill—the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023—is a powerful marker of our respect for the First Nations peoples of Australia. I pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have occupied the Australian continent and maintained relationships with Australia's land, waters and sky for more than 60,000 years. We are so incredibly fortunate to live in a country where our First Nations peoples represent the oldest continuous living cultures in human history. Despite this remarkable fact, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are not recognised in our Constitution. This is not alright. This is not acceptable. This needs to change, and I'm incredibly proud to be part of a government that will make that change.
The constitutional amendment in this bill will rectify more than 120 years of explicit exclusion from the provisions of Australia's founding legal document. This bill is to amend the Australian Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing the Voice. It is the first formal step towards holding a referendum by the end of this year. It's a form of constitutional recognition that is practical and long overdue.
We, importantly, need to recognise and acknowledge the atrocities in our past and the actions that have led us to this moment—the dispossession of lands, languages and cultures, and the infliction of top-down harsh government policies. All of these have contributed to the deep and continuing wounds of generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their cultures. The fact is that there are moments in our history that are shameful. However, there are also moments in our history that we can and should be proud of in terms of reconciliation, like the 1967 referendum, where more than 90 per cent of Australians voted to amend the Constitution to allow the Commonwealth to make laws for Aboriginal people and to include them in the census. In 1992 the Mabo decision overturned the legal fiction that Australia was terra nullius. This was legal recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's relationship to their country. I was so incredibly honoured to be here in this place in 2008, when then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised to the stolen generations, their descendants and their families for the profound grief, suffering and loss caused by their mistreatment. The apology was very, very powerful and it did make a difference. Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our Constitution and listening to their views on laws and policies that matter to them will also make a difference. I am credibly honoured to be a member of the Albanese Labor government that is taking this next important step in the future of our nation.
At so many events, gatherings and functions in my electorate, people continue to raise the issue of the Voice and the upcoming referendum. It is a conversation that my community and many other communities are having. They are having it because this will be a defining moment for our nation's history. The overwhelming feeling in my community out there is one of hope and excitement about the Voice and the change will bring. People know this is an important moment, like the apology was a moment, like marriage equality was a moment. People want to get involved in this referendum. They want to help, they want to volunteer, they want to be part of history in the making.
What is also really wonderful about it in my community is that so many people, regardless of their backgrounds or political allegiances are supportive of the Voice to Parliament. It's great to see that support. That includes representatives from local councils, state government representatives, local organisations, small businesses and many individuals themselves. They all want to come together on this particular issue, and that's because they want to be on the right side of history and to take up what is an incredibly generous offer from our First Nations people to walk hand in hand into a better and more respectful future. The Voice has the support of every single state and territory leader across Australia. The business community, unions, sporting organisations and faith groups are all backing 'yes'. Constitutional recognition is supported by 80 per cent of Indigenous Australians, the largest First Nations consensus on the way forward in this country. I have great faith that my community on the north coast will get this right.
Let's be very clear. This pathway, this future, is supported, as I said, by the overwhelming majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates. It was supported by those delegates who gathered from all points under the southern sky in May 2017 on the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum to endorse the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It is time to accept that generous invitation in the Uluru Statement from the Heart for all Australians to walk with our First Nations people towards a better future. The Uluru Statement from the Heart was supported by over 250 delegates following consultation with 1,200 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who were involved in the Uluru dialogues. The resounding message from the dialogues is reflected in the call from the Uluru Statement from the Heart: voice, treaty, truth.
Our government is committed to implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full. This means having the referendum later in the year to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our Constitution. It is about giving Indigenous Australians a say in their future. Essentially, the referendum is about two things: recognition and listening. That is, recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia, with more than 60,000 years of history and continuous connection to this land; and listening to the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people when it comes to laws and policies that affect them. We know listening to communities leads to better policies, better laws and better outcomes, and making a practical difference on the ground in areas like health, education and housing. That's what the Voice will help deliver. We know outcomes are better when we partner with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and the evidence is there through a whole range of programs; we know this is the case. And it's clear that outcomes are better when communities are actually at the heart of that decision-making. And the best way forward to do this is through the Voice to Parliament.
It's a simple proposition. Australians will be asked a very simple question at the referendum:
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?
If approved at the referendum, a new chapter will be written into our Constitution, and it will recognise, finally, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia and establish the Voice to Parliament. Chapter IX, titled 'Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples', will read as follows:
(i) there shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice;
(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;
(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.
The constitutional amendment confers no power on the Voice to prevent, delay or veto decisions of the parliament or of the executive. What it does is create a critical link between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and the parliament and the executive government. That's vitally important. It gets the balance right. It will enhance our democracy and our democratic institutions. Very importantly, it ensures the Voice will be an enduring and independent representative body that cannot be taken away by any governments or politicians. It will be there.
The Voice will complement and enhance existing structures of our democratic systems. Indeed, the Solicitor-General says the proposal to enshrine the Voice in the Constitution is not only compatible with Australia's system of representative and responsible government; it will actually enhance that system. That's what is so vitally important. The fact is it is a very straightforward design. It has been designed and developed through an incredible amount of consultation and collaboration with many people.
Last year we went to the election with a clear commitment to implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart, including holding this referendum. And the Australian people elected us. They know we are committed to holding this referendum, and I think they know how important it is. With the introduction of this bill the Albanese government is taking the first formal step to honour that commitment. It's a commitment we made not just to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; indeed, we made that incredibly important commitment to all Australians.
I would like, for a minute, to talk about some of the design principles of the Voice. The Voice will give independent advice to parliament and government. It will be able to make proactive representations as well as respond to requests. The Voice will be chosen by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities' people based on the wishes of local communities, not appointed by government. It will be representative of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities with a gender balance that includes youth. It will be empowering, community led, inclusive, respectful and culturally informed. It will be accountable and transparent. The Voice will work alongside existing organisations and traditional structures. The Voice will not have a program delivery function. It doesn't have a veto power. It's very clear what the design principles are.
The Voice to Parliament referendum gives us all an incredible chance to write a new chapter in our Constitution, to make history. The 2023 referendum later this year will be an incredibly unifying moment for all Australians. For over 120 years we have not recognised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in our Constitution. We have the opportunity in this referendum, which is why it's so incredibly important to have people voting yes right across the nation. Indeed, voting yes is the best chance we have to create change and to deliver a better future.
I know, talking to people in my community, the commitment they have—in fact, they want to be a part of history because they see how important this is. They know this is overdue. It was one of the very big issues in the election campaign, our commitment to making sure that the Uluru Statement from the Heart was followed through. We are doing that now with this bill for the referendum for the Voice. Australians have generous hearts, and they want to see a better future right across the nation. People in my electorate have reflected to me about wanting to vote yes, and I certainly encourage people across the nation to do the same. Together, in a positive and generous way, we can walk together to create that better future.
As I said previously, I was very fortunate to be here in 2008 when then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd gave that apology to the stolen generations. It was an incredibly moving moment here, it really was, in terms of the reactions in this place, and across the nation. It changed the nation. It really did. We have an opportunity to do that again. We need to embrace that moment and move forward together. I encourage everyone to vote yes to make this happen, and I strongly commend this bill to the House.
I acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, who are the traditional custodians of the land on which the Australian parliament meets. I acknowledge their elders past and present and their connection to the lands, waters and skies around us.
It is an honour to represent the constituents of the electorate of Brisbane in this House. The lands of Brisbane belong to the Yuggera and Turrbal peoples. The traditional name for Brisbane is Miguntyun, or Meeanjin. The southern border of the electorate of Brisbane is Maiwar, the Brisbane River.
Colonisers first surveyed Moreton Bay and greater Brisbane in 1799. In the 1820s, New South Wales Governor Thomas Brisbane tasked John Oxley with finding an alternative site for a penal settlement for convicts. In 1824, Oxley sailed into Moreton Bay and recommended that greater Brisbane be the side of this settlement. This marked the beginning of the Yuggera and Turrbal peoples being deliberately killed. With the intent of the destruction of their nations, they were subjected to genocide.
Cutting through my electorate is Boundary Street in Spring Hill. My colleagues the member for Ryan and the member for Griffith also have a Boundary Street or a Boundary Road in their electorates. These street names originate from the 1860s, when those remaining Yuggera and Turrbal peoples were pushed to the fringes of Brisbane by British colonists. At each location in Bardon, Spring Hill and West End there were boundary posts. First Nations peoples were only allowed to cross these posts during working hours so that they could be used as labour for the benefit of white people in the township of Brisbane. Mounted police would patrol the townships and the boundary posts after 4 pm to exclude First Nations peoples from their own land. If caught inside the boundaries of the township, punishment would presumably have been severe.
What is now known as Australia—the lands of the Yuggera and Turrbal peoples and the lands of those hundreds of other sovereign Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations—was invaded. Sovereignty from First Nations peoples was never ceded. Successive governments at federal, state and local levels have perpetrated grave injustices, dispossession and imprisonment since colonisation. These injustices continue to this day. Systemic racism is embedded into the fabric of our laws and social policies in this country and impacts every aspect of First Nations peoples lives. It is through this lens that the Australian Greens and I come to the consideration of this legislation, the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023. The Greens will be supporting the 'yes' campaign during the referendum.
It is important to acknowledge that the Voice to Parliament is one element of the story of the Uluru statement. As the first party to endorse the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full, we support progressing truth-telling and treaty-making alongside the Voice referendum. A successful referendum later this year could be the start of a decade of change for First Nations people as we move towards truth-telling, treaty-making and self-determination. We have an opportunity to change things for the better with First Nations people throughout this nation. The Greens are committed to working with the government to advance First Nations justice while listening to the concerns of First Nations people around the country. I note the Prime Minister has said he is committed to implementing the Uluru statement in full, and in the October 2022 budget the government committed $5.8 million to a makarrata commission. But they are yet to show any real action or progress on truth-telling and treaty-making. I urge the government to advance these elements of the Uluru statement this year.
I am disappointed that there are those in this place, namely the coalition, who were seeking to derail the Voice referendum and stand against advancing First Nations justice. This referendum is about recognising and respecting the First Peoples of this country and their culture, the oldest living culture in the world. The dog whistling, racist rhetoric by many of those in this place should be rejected, and it's certainly rejected by the people of Brisbane. I thank those residents of Brisbane who have contacted me about the Voice referendum. I have considered all of your correspondence and thank you for sharing your views with me. I note that the overwhelming sentiment of this correspondence was in favour of progressing all elements of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
Lastly, and most importantly, I would like to thank the elders who have spoken to me about the upcoming referendum and who are the traditional custodians of the lands now known as Brisbane. I thank those elders who represent community controlled organisations in my electorate who have spoken with me about the issues over the past year. I also thank the Australian Greens and Queensland Greens First Nations networks, whose representatives have met with me over the past year about the Voice referendum. I deeply appreciate the time that local elders, community controlled organisations and First Nations networks have taken to outline their views and engage with me. I deeply respect your views and understand your positions on the referendum. I hope that we can continue to work together in the lead-up to the referendum and long after as we work towards truth-telling, treaty-making and true justice for First Nations peoples.
I rise to speak on the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023 bill, which is probably the most consequential bill that will come before this parliament and probably the most consequential bill in my time representing the people of Lyne, which is my great honour and privilege. I have grave concerns about parts of this bill. In truth, I can't support the question that is being put, because of some existential problems, which I will outline.
Lyne has been a seat in the Federation since Federation, and it currently covers from the Hastings River in the north-west down to the Hunter River, from the mountains to the sea. It is the traditional lands of the Birrbay and the Warrimay, and, at the north of it, some of my constituents were in Dhanggati areas at various times since 2013. After redistribution I inherited some of the other tribes, the Wonnarua, around the Hunter region. Essentially, it's mainly Birrbay and Warrimay historical country.
Many people support pieces and the intent of Indigenous recognition in our Constitution. In fact, I spoke about getting Indigenous recognition in the Constitution in my maiden speech. But what is proposed in this has gone much further than that simple act of recognising that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were the first peoples who inhabited this continent.
Going through the bill and the explanatory memorandum has to be done with serious consideration. Many of my constituents won't ever look at an explanatory memorandum, so I'll explain it to them: every bill has an explanatory memorandum explaining with much more detail how the bill will enact powers and processes. But the bill creates a whole new chapter in the Australian Constitution, which has been working well since Federation. The obvious problems were corrected in 1967, by removing race from the Constitution and giving the right to vote to all Indigenous Australians, which had been limited, and they were also counted in the referenda. Subsequently, the first bill to enact that referendum came through in 1966 under Prime Minister Menzies, but the bill lapsed, and then it was brought back in under Prime Minister Holt. It was different to now because it was fixing an obvious wrong without complicating or changing the whole nature of how our government and our Constitution would work, which parts of this proposal will existentially change. I will outline those.
The 1967 referendum had a long gestation. It was one of 14 bills proposed at the end of World War II to enable changes to the Constitution. Earlier proposals brought in by Mr Calwell failed. This one didn't, because it had broad bipartisan support and united the nation instead of dividing it. Ninety-one per cent voted for it. It corrected an obvious fault. Since that time, it's had the effect of Aboriginal Australians receiving the vote. It was also strengthened by changes in 1984, which made voting compulsory for Aboriginal Australians.
Most people would support the original intent to get recognition in the Constitution for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. When I was supporting it in my maiden speech, it had been discussed as possibly being mentioned in the preamble, a statement of the obvious, to honour and acknowledge them. Section 129(i) of this proposed bill mentions that there will be a body to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, as a way of getting formal recognition. It creates a whole new chapter and a whole new section 129. Section 129(ii) provides for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to be able to make representations to the parliament and the executive government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. That also has to be taken in part in synchronicity with section 129(iii) and the explanatory memorandum. Section 129(iii), where the parliament will have powers to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures, are outlined extensively in the explanatory memorandum.
I've heard a lot of descriptions of what the Voice will do. Some of them are quite simplistic and misleading. I've heard people say that it will miraculously fix reconciliation, it will allow the gap to be closed, and it will correct all the historical wrongs and rewrite history. There are so many misleading concepts of what this will do. What you must read are the works of the policy promoters and those that did a lot of work about driving the Uluru Statement from the Heart and their depositions at the very rushed five-day inquiry. Changing the Constitution was afforded only five days. Some of the committee inquiries that I do go for months, half a year. But this was proposing to change the Constitution, and it was afforded only five days. Many of those policy proponents and the people who made depositions, and the explanatory memorandum, say that the right to make representations engages a lot of procedural and administrative law. Making representation requires a lot of prerequisites. The people making the representation have to be informed. It ensures that they should be consulted, there should be procedural fairness, and they should have the right to seek judicial review of executive decisions. The Solicitor-General, in his comments, said that section 129 doesn't enable all these other proposed representations, but other sections of the Constitution will be engaged once this is created as a standing body under the Constitution. Section 75 of the Constitution ensures that the Voice will be entitled to consultation, procedural fairness and the ability to seek judicial review of executive decisions.
We have all seen that the power to delay executive action of government by referring it to the High Court is a well-worn path in constitutional matters. I too have been to the High Court, and it is a significant process. The proponents, the legal architects, of the Uluru statement have confirmed that this is their intent—to have many representations proactively about other matters besides those which are peculiar to Indigenous Australians. In fact, the explanatory memorandum confirms that. It will require them to satisfy procedural fairness and a proper consultation process. Inevitably they will need legal assistance to make sure what they are proposing is done correctly and all those administrative law procedures are followed. It will mean huge resources will have to be appropriated to it.
What they have said both in the press and in their depositions to the inquiry is that they expect to make representations to executive government about laws of general application because all those laws affect everyone. Some of the significance of it is that presenting to executive government means they will be able to make representations about budgets, for instance, or about education policy, foreign policy, defence—you name it. They can make representations to APRA, the Reserve Bank, any minister of state about any existing legislation and, most importantly, proposed legislation. Every bill that goes through this House will have to be sent off to the Voice to get their opinion. It really will gum up the works.
Section 129(iii), in effect, to me, has shown that the Attorney-General has realised that these are the consequences of (i) and (ii), so they are trying to limit the constitutional power that is being conferred by the first part of this bill. There is a comment that was made by the Leader of the Opposition that you can't over-legislate the Constitution. Even though section 129(iii) is giving the powers to this parliament to make bills about the Voice, the existential problem is that they can't be out-legislated, because that's why the High Court is there. It will mean that if representation is made but procedural fairness has not been followed, or a full explanation not given, or a deep consultation not had or a proper legal explanation not there, it will lead to any of these decisions that the current parliament and past parliaments have made and will make will be up for challenging and perhaps rescinding if they win in the High Court. It will result in a major transfer of power from this parliament to the courts, who are not elected, and there are problems with the make-up of the Voice. It is yet to be defined. We do not know the full details of how it would work.
The government is asking us the Australian people to take things on a promise, that they will work it out after it's been created. But there will be a lot of procedure that is currently not required. The Leader of the Opposition mentioned in his speech practical examples of how it could query decisions about defence matters, education policy, funding—you name it. For instance, in the department of the environment, any coal, gas, mineral or water rights could be challenged by the Voice, by making representations to the minister for the environment.
That is why, in truth, I can't support it. It really is going to create an unelected body, solely chosen on the basis of heritage and race. After getting rid of restrictions in 1967 based on race, we are now putting it back into our Constitution. And it is dividing people. It's not dividing Indigenous and whites or non-Indigenous people but people of all races. People are coming to me and saying, 'What's going on here? I thought Australia was egalitarian.' Some Indigenous people in my electorate are for it; some of them think, 'I can't understand what it's doing. All we're hearing from is these top-level people down in Canberra who fly off to the Northern Territory when they're talking about Indigenous matters.' They want to be treated the same as everyone.
Australia is an inegalitarian nation. The 1967 referendum fixed a lot of that. It made us all the same. We're all equal before the law, and we have the same set of laws. There is no legal impediment for any Indigenous person to run at local, state and federal elections. We should allow our 11 senators and any Indigenous person who gets elected to be the voice this parliament.
I speak today to support the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023. It is unequivocally a good thing and right that the Australian people will get the opportunity to vote in a referendum that will enable an important change to our Constitution that will recognise our First Nations peoples through a voice to the parliament.
Because of some sad and crushing personal circumstances, I might not be present to vote on this bill, but I want to put on the record of this parliament my wholehearted support for this important step in our nation's history, one that will take significant steps to right some wrongs of the past.
Recognising the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia in the Constitution, through the Voice to Parliament, will never make everything right, but it is a good start and a start we must make to reconcile us all with those dark and tragic parts of the history of this nation that sit alongside Australia's great achievements. Enshrining the Voice to Parliament will enable us to turn a corner and take up the generous offer of the Uluru Statement from the Heart to walk together in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.
Soon after I was elected to this place in July 2016, nearly seven years ago, I went to Bertram Primary School, in Kwinana in my electorate, to a school assembly. I'll be honest. Before I was elected, I didn't have a great deal to do with school assemblies and have not been to many, and they sure have changed since my last day at primary school—in 1982 or something. At this assembly, two Noongar students did an acknowledgement of Whadjuk country in their own language. It was beautiful.
While I've seen many acknowledgements of country and welcomes to country, it was a new experience for me to witness two young local Noongar kids recognising their own country in their own language. It was an acknowledgement of country that Bertram Primary School had been doing for some time and continues to do. I think about those two young students from time to time. This year they will probably be 18 years old—hopefully, in time to enrol in the referendum on the Voice. Recognising Australia's Indigenous peoples will be entirely natural for these young people and their peers, and I imagine many of the older teenagers across Rockingham and Kwinana in my seat of Brand will wonder why this took so long.
In 2018, in the 45th Parliament, I had the opportunity to witness one of the meetings of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. It was before the Barunga Festival, where the committee met with the four Northern Territory land councils: the Anindilyakwa Land Council, the Central Land Council, the Northern Land Council and the Tiwi Land Council. The committee was co-chaired by Senator Pat Dodson and, of course, the member for Berowra, two keen and enthusiastic supporters of the Voice. The meeting was held under a large canopy in Barunga, about an hour's drive from Katherine in the Northern Territory. I had never imagined in my life that I would witness such a meeting of such remarkable people in such a place.
Together with my friend and colleague the member for Newcastle, now the Deputy Speaker, Sharon Claydon, I sat under this tent and watched and listened to the hearing for many hours. As we watched, the member for Newcastle asked me quietly, 'Where have you ever seen so many people deeply engaged in such a lengthy and detailed discussion about the Constitution?' It was a remarkable observation. Of course, I'd never seen such a sight. I've studied constitutional law, I've been a lawyer, I worked at a university for 10 years and I've been a parliamentarian for seven, and never in that time have I seen such an engaging discussion about the Constitution of this country—not in a lecture theatre and not in this parliament.
At Barunga, more than a hundred Indigenous Australians, organised in their land councils and various groupings, sat, listened and caucused on how they would speak to the committee that day. They talked about the points that needed to be made and what had been said and what had not yet been said. There was good humour, there was some harsh reality and there was thoughtful consideration of recognising Indigenous Australians in the Constitution by those who had themselves been seeking to be recognised and included since they were excluded in 1901.
All Indigenous communities face significant challenges. That is, of course, undeniable. Appalling inequality exists between remote communities and urban areas. But, as all those land councils know and as our Indigenous sisters and brothers know, you can fight battles on more than one front, and the people at Barunga who participated in the inquiry on that day know that. The First Nations gatherings from around the country that wrote the Uluru Statement from the Heart know that as well. Despite the challenges, our First Nations Australians argue for a better constitution and a better country. We need to listen, and we must listen. We must listen to what the Barunga Statement said 30 years ago, and we must listen to the more recent Uluru Statement from the Heart—both documents coming from the ground up, from Indigenous peoples themselves, from right around the country; both petitions presented to parliament. Enshrining a Voice to Parliament in the Constitution is our opportunity to act and listen and ensure that, quite simply, Indigenous Australians will have a recognised Voice and a say on matters that affect their lives.
In my first speech in this place, in October 2016, I made some observations that I'd like to repeat in this parliamentary debate:
Fear is a tremendous and dangerous weapon, and its use is as old as the hills of this, the oldest continent on the face of the earth.
… seeking for a continuing city … where it can never be found: in a fluid world.
He spoke about fear and considered it to be the case that:
… the fear we have to conquer if we seek wisdom—is the fear of change.
Sir Walter Murdoch was the founding professor of English literature at the University of Western Australia. He was a self-confessed conservative, and he lamented:
… I feel like kneeling down daily and praying to be delivered from this shameful fear of change, and praying that my country may be delivered from it.
He was reflecting that things must change and they should change and we should not be afraid of change.
I'm a bit more optimistic, perhaps, than Sir Walter in my language, and I know that Australians do embrace change. We have seen that. But it is a word of caution for some conservative forces that seek to use fear and misinformation in holding Australia back from doing what is right, and it is indeed the right thing to do to recognise Indigenous Australians in the Constitution through a Voice to this parliament. Voting 'yes' in the upcoming referendum on the Voice is not a revolution; it is a modest and respectful and meaningful change to our Constitution that will enable the First Nations people of Australia to have a say in the matters that affect them. After 65,000 years of their caring for this unique country, we should listen to and hear the voice of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sisters and brothers.
I very much look forward to engaging more with the Western Australian community and the people of Brand on this important moment for the nation. There is much to discuss. We have this chance to work together to achieve a positive change for Australia and all who have the enormous great fortune to live here.
The work we do in this place is extremely important. Much of the time legislation is debated and passed which will affect some Australians, not all. A lot of it goes unnoticed by the general public. But every now and then there comes a time when a piece of legislation has the potential to shape the future of our country for generations to come. This is one of those times. The constitutional amendment which we are voting to put to the people in a referendum will have a lasting impact. In my view, it is not something that will impact us for the better. I do not support the Voice. I will not be voting in favour of the Voice. At a time when the government wants to divide us on the basis of race, we must walk together as one.
This is anything but a modest proposal. We don't believe the rhetoric of the Prime Minister, who is looking for a political victory. This political victory would be to the detriment of the very people who the Prime Minister says this will improve the lives of. The Voice will not work. The Voice will create a small group of people based on race who will supposedly represent the views of the entire Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. We need to see real and concrete outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We need local and regional bodies that can feed back to government from the grass roots, because I can tell you a Canberra voice will not know what the people of Palm Island or the people of Townsville want or need. A Canberra voice cannot speak for the hundreds of different—unique—Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across our vast land.
My position on the Voice is something I considered from a range of different perspectives. It stems from my close personal connection. My mother-in-law was born on Palm Island. Her parents were part of the stolen generation. My wife is Aboriginal. It stems from a lack of detail about the government's proposed Voice and how it will work. And it's from a real concern that there will not be any concrete action to help address some of the unique challenges of our First Nations population as a result of the Voice. It is extremely personal for me.
As I said, my wife is Aboriginal. My daughters—Astin, who is five, and Emery, who is three—are Aboriginal. I made a promise when they were born that I would do everything I could to create a better future for them. Will the decisions I make today create a better future for my children and other children throughout Townsville, Palm Island and Australia? This is a question I ask myself every day. Will the Voice create a better future for Aboriginal children facing significant challenges right now? Will the Voice put an end to children as young as four smoking marijuana? Will the Voice stop the five-year-old being sexually assaulted by a family member and returned to the perpetrator because the authorities didn't want to remove an Aboriginal child from its Aboriginal family? That child is at risk right now. Will the Voice stop the high incarceration rates? Will the Voice bring us together as a nation? Will the Voice stop domestic violence? My view is that it won't. It will not come close. So I do not support the Voice.
The Aboriginal people in my family and the many I've spoken to in the community and around the country do not support the Voice. In 10 years time, will I be able to look my Aboriginal daughters in the eye and say, 'I bent the knee because of emotional blackmail,' which is what we're seeing from the Albanese government? I cannot, and I won't.
I remember the first time I saw my wife, Jenna. I did not consider her race, her ancestry or her Aboriginality. I simply thought she was the most remarkable woman that I'd ever met. I saw a person who I knew I wanted to walk beside in life, as equals. Together we have built a life and created two beautiful daughters, as equals. We make decisions about our lives together. I'm a proud Australian. My wife is a proud Aboriginal Australian. My children are being raised to be proud Aboriginal Australian women. We are walking proudly towards our future together. And we are saying 'no' to the Voice, so that we can remain as we've always been: equals.
The wording of this proposal that we are putting to the people of Australia is extremely concerning. There are many legitimate questions to be asked. There are procedural questions about the process that has—or, in my view, hasn't—been followed to get us to this point today. Why did the government establish a committee to establish a permanent change to our country's Constitution with only six weeks for submissions, public hearings across the country and a report back to the parliament? There wasn't enough time. There were 270 submissions and a few hearings here and there. The closest hearing to my city, to where I live, in Townsville, was in Cairns. The views of the people of Cairns or Yarrabah are not the views of the people of Townsville or Palm Island or Mackay.
Another question is: why did the government refuse to provide any detail that would explain how the constitutional change will operate? Why must we wait until after the referendum to find out how the Voice will affect our nation? It is never a good thing when the government says to its people: 'Trust us. We're the government.' Other questions which are constantly being put to me, when I meet people at street stalls and events throughout the electorate of Herbert, are: Who will be on the Voice? How will they be appointed? How will their eligibility be determined? Why do we need the Voice when there are members of parliament and senators who are already the voice of the people for all Australians? Why haven't we had the standard opportunity to thrash out these questions at a constitutional convention? Why do we need to put the Voice in the Constitution when it's something that can be implemented by the parliament anyway? If it's about constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, why don't we insert a sentence in the preamble that acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the first inhabitants of the land? It's something I believe we all support.
If the Voice has to give advice to both the parliament and the executive government, how will anything ever be done in a streamlined way? The executive government and ministers make dozens, if not hundreds, of decisions a day. Does the Voice need to be consulted on every one of them? And, given that the Voice will be in the Constitution, how can we be assured that we will not end up in a position where the High Court is constantly deciding whether the Voice has been properly consulted on issues? What safeguards will there be put in place against High Court activism? Just how powerful could this Voice be, when the Prime Minister himself has said that it would be a very brave government that didn't accept its advice? As one commentator said, the Voice will create constant opportunities for a tiny minority of actors to hold the parliament and executive government to ransom by using the immense leverage and opportunities for lawfare carefully woven into the Albanese amendment. It is no exaggeration to say that it will cause the end of parliamentary democracy as we know it.
These are all valid, legitimate questions, which the Prime Minister and the government have, arrogantly, refused to answer or even vaguely address. They are answers the people of Australia deserve before being sent to the ballot box.
At the centre of this debate are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We need to remember to ask ourselves: why are we having this debate in the first place? There are many reasons, but I believe the reason we have to hold first and foremost in our minds is that we need to be doing better when it comes to addressing the systematic social and societal issues that our First Nations people are experiencing. It's the concrete outcomes that we need to be seeing on the ground in the community. I mentioned before the little Aboriginal boy smoking marijuana and the sexual assault victim being returned to the perpetrator. As I said before, a Canberra voice of 20-odd people—or whatever it may be; we haven't been told—will not know the solutions to these problems.
We must deliver better outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We need a sensible, considered approach, not a risky or divisive one. That's why we must have local bodies that are at the coalface, which can feed up through the chain to the decision-makers in a structured and considered way, focused on real solutions. A grassroots model will prioritise local and regional bodies and be focused on delivering practical outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in accordance with the framework provided by the Calma-Langton final report. This would see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians' insights, life experiences and moral authority moving up to Canberra, rather than down from it. If you can't get local governance right, you definitely won't get national governance correct.
In government we allocated $31.8 million to support the first year of required work to design the local and regional structures, and we stand by this commitment. Our approach ensures that local and regional voices are heard and that these bodies deliver real and tangible improvements for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including making women and children safer and improving education and health outcomes. The problem is we don't know what the government intends to do with the Voice. The Prime Minister hasn't said which parts of the Calma-Langton report he agrees with or will support.
We all want a better future for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, a better future for all Australians. We want to walk together as equals and want a better future for our children. A voice to parliament says this will never occur. If it is in our Constitution, it cannot be removed.
In conclusion, we as a nation need to be extremely careful here about what it is we are trying to achieve. We must not be held to ransom by a government that is wanting to emotionally blackmail the Australian people. Ultimately this referendum will go ahead and it is Australians who will have their say, as is their democratic right. My message to them is: 'Know your facts. Do your research. Make sure you don't take everything on face value.'
As the federal member for Herbert I believe it is my role to outline my position to the community, which is why stand in this place today. I cannot support this constitutional change which divides Australians on the basis of race. I encourage Australians to think very carefully about their own decision. We must walk together as one.
URPHY () (): The member for Herbert just ended his speech with the line, 'We must walk together as one.' I absolutely agree with him that we must walk together as one. While there are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in today's Australia who have had magnificent lives, have succeeded and are role models—and I'm sure the member for Herbert's wife is absolutely one of those people—the truth is as a country we haven't walked as one. We haven't walked as one since 1788 and we surely haven't walked as one since the Constitution was adopted in 1901 and didn't recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the First Nations people of this country and, in fact, didn't recognise them as people. The ancestors of the member for Herbert's wife, not that long ago, weren't recognised by our Constitution or Australian governments as people.
When we ask, 'Why are we having this debate in the first place?' and the member for Herbert says, 'Because we need to do better; because we need concrete outcomes on the ground,' I agree with him. We need to do better. Because the unfortunate and damaging and distressing history of our country is that our ancestors did very badly at the start, so damagingly badly. And governments over the years—some with bad intention, I would say, and bad attitude about race; others with the best of intentions—haven't done well enough. They haven't. Where I part with the member for Herbert, the Leader of the Opposition and the National Party is at the conclusion that the Voice won't do anything to fix that.
It is inexplicable that anyone in this chamber could stand here and say, 'We need to do better—more needs to be done—but we don't want to do it differently.' We know that one of the problems that has existed in this country for 200 years is that non-Indigenous people have done things to Indigenous people, not with them. The policies that have been introduced, from the stolen generations onwards, have been done by non-Indigenous Australians to Indigenous Australians, not with them, and most of the time—pretty close to all of the time—without even having consulted them. When people talk in this chamber about horrific circumstances that some of our First Nations people live in, that children experience and that communities grapple with, they should acknowledge that is not because First Nations people are inherently alcoholics or don't love their children or don't know how to look after their children or don't want to live in secure accommodation. It's because, for a very long time, we—those of us who aren't Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander—have said, 'This is how you should live your life,' or, 'This is how you should address the problems in your community.'
Now, in 2023, we have an opportunity to change that. We can say that we might not be the people who committed the wrongs, that wrote the Constitution that ignored 60,000-odd years of civilisation—that wasn't us—but we're going to be the people that address it. The Voice might not immediately fix the situation of the young boy that the member for Herbert was talking about, but how can you say that making sure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people get to play a role in decisions that are made, in policies that are developed, that impact them directly couldn't be better than what we've got now?
This is not a political plaything. This is not emotional blackmail from the Albanese government. This is not the Albanese government's Voice or Labor's Voice. This is the culmination of a decade of consultation, of so many processes, which Aboriginal people have designed themselves and have participated in themselves. They have produced one of the most beautiful pieces of writing we will see in modern Australia, in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and have said, 'We ask for voice, treaty and truth, and we ask you to walk with us to get there.' This is not emotional blackmail of those on the other side or of any Australian to say why you should vote for the Voice. It is just a clear and simple entreaty to say: be part of a new chapter in Australia's history where we aren't divided on race, where we don't have to hand down a Closing the gap report every year that shows that First Nations people struggle under socio-economic conditions that are far worse than in the rest of the community. Be part of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to say, 'We are bigger and better than that, and so can our future be.'
I thought I was going to come in here a bit angry about some of the spurious arguments that have been put forward in this place—which is supposed to be a place of fact and debate—against the Voice. But I can't find it in myself at the moment to be angry as much as just so deeply disappointed on behalf of my Indigenous friends who have dedicated their lives to making the lives of their community better. I am disappointed on behalf of two women who work in my electorate of Dunkley, Karinda Taylor and Deb Mellett—two smart, hardworking, fierce, take-no-rubbish, take-no-step-backwards women. Deb Mellett runs the Indigenous gathering place, and Karinda Taylor is the CEO of First Peoples' Health and Wellbeing. If anyone met these two women they would say, 'That's who I want my daughter to grow up to be.' Whether they be black or white or Asian, whatever their background is they would look at these two women and say, 'They possess all the characteristics—love, compassion, strength and a dedication to others—that I want my children to possess.' But they also have to fight every day for their community—and they should be heard. Neither of them want to be a parliamentarian—although I think Karinda should be! They don't want to be in parliament; they want to be with and for their community, but they want their knowledge and the knowledge they have inherited from generations and generations of First Nations people to be heard when governments and politicians are making decisions about their lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren. That is not too much to ask.
Put aside the legal sophistry about proposed section 129, because, as I've said in this place before, the overwhelming majority view of legal experts is that that section is properly crafted and will adorn our Constitution, and that the ridiculous arguments about it gumming up parliament and ending democracy as we know it are just that—ridiculous. Do what the member for Herbert said: know your facts, do your research. Put aside the ridiculous arguments about 'not enough information about the Voice' and the far-flung suggestions about the consequences of section 129, and just look deep into your heart. Which side of history do you want to be on? I want to be on the side of history that says, as a country, we want to move forward, to honour our First Nations people and make sure that no government ever again can dismantle the mechanisms for them having a role in issues that affect them. I tell you what: a lot of good people do. A lot of good people want to be on that side of history.
In conclusion, I want to say how proud I am of the Criminal Bar Association in Victoria, of which I used to be a member before I got elected to this parliament. Dave Hallowes SC, the chair, who is an old and dear friend of mine, put out this statement:
The Victorian Criminal Bar Association supports the proposal to amend the Australian Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the First Peoples of Australia by the establishment of the Voice.
As the Uluru Statement from the Heart recognised:
Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people o n 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.
The unacceptable over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in custody persists notwithstanding that more than 30 years have passed since the landmark final report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. That report examined the many ways in which our criminal justice system failed to deal justly with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons. It also examined the disadvantages that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons confronted, disadvantages that frequently continue to inform the prevailing circumstances when First Nations persons come before our criminal courts.
Whilst criminal justice primarily falls within the province of State legislatures, it does not do so exclusively. Moreover, the Commonwealth has wide scope to make laws on matters relating to, or which affect, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons. The Voice would provide a mechanism by which First Nations persons could communicate their views on such matters. The Victorian Criminal Bar Association—whose membership consists of barristers who prosecute criminal cases, barristers who defend persons charged with criminal offences and barristers who do both—considers that mechanism to be a fair and proportionate measure which has the very real potential to address injustices that are so often seen by those of us who practise in criminal law.
To Dave Hallowes SC and all the members of the criminal bar in Victoria: I acknowledge your support for our brothers and sisters who are Indigenous Australians and for those of us who aren't Indigenous Australians who want to take up the generous request of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and say, 'We want to walk with you, and we want to walk forward into a country where we're walking beside each other, as one and equal.'
First Nations people have been bravely raising their voices for decades, for centuries, from the resistance in the frontier wars and the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association in the 1920s to the Tent Embassy in the seventies and the Australian Black Lives Matter and sovereignty movements today, alongside countless other instances of local organising and campaign work led by First Nations people. If you had to draw up a balance sheet, you'd have to say that they have, on the whole and despite progress here and there, been shamefully not listened to by both sides of politics. In fact, the dispossession that came with colonisation has continued in many ways.
In some ways, things have actually been getting worse. We are seeing growing, absolutely disproportionate incarceration rates. They have doubled in the last three decades. First Nations children are now jailed at 20 times—20 times!—the rate of non-First Nations children. Eleven-year-olds are being locked up and abused for minor offences. Over 540 First Nations people have died in custody since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. This all connects with the absolutely shameful lack of housing for First Nations people, the poor funding for Aboriginal legal services, the lack of support for First Nations-led education across the country, the abysmal health outcomes that stem from underinvestment in First Nations-led health and underinvestment in our universal health system more broadly, particularly in regional areas.
When social issues emerge from this, the response from governments, both Labor and Liberal, has been the opposite of empowering First Nations people to co-design and to lead their own solutions. They have been paternalistic disasters, like the Northern Territory intervention. On top of this, governments of both persuasions have allowed the ongoing destruction of First Nations country for the profits of coal and gas corporations. Queensland Labor swung its support behind the Adani's Carmichael mine against the wishes of the Wangan and Yagalingu mob. We've seen destruction of sacred sites, like Juukan Gorge, for the profits of these fossil fuel corporations. We've seen the destruction of sacred sites like the Djab Wurrung birthing trees in Victoria and at Deebing Creek Mission, near my electorate, which are the sites for highway expansions and for the profits of big developers.
Against all of these injustices, First Nations people have fought back. They've raised their voices, only to have those voices silenced and ignored. So the idea that alongside truth and treaty Australia will have a Voice to Parliament is an important and timely one, and the Greens support the campaign for yes. In fact, the Greens were the first to support the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full, and we see Truth, Treaty and Voice as intimately bound up with one another.
A truth-telling process can set the record straight on the crimes and the impacts of colonisation and can unite the nation around a shared understanding of our history, not sweeping it under the rug. A treaty can unite Australia on a shared future, helping empower First Nations people to be in charge of their own destiny and formally recognising their sovereignty. A Voice alone won't be enough. We need truth; we need treaty. But a successful referendum could be the start of a decade of change for First Nations people as we move towards this truth-telling, this treaty-making and towards self-determination—and that self-determination concept is absolutely critical here.
We need to ensure that this Voice is properly democratic and reflective of the interests and the will of everyday First Nations people in this country, that it represents the grassroots of First Nations communities who fully understand their own lives and the way forward for their own communities. We also need to make sure that the government listens. To do that, we all need to join up with First Nations movements to build the community power that will hold the government to account, to open up space for real change and build solidarity between First Nations and non-First Nations communities. Because at the end of the day, the same big corporations that are ruining the planet for profit and undermining all of our futures are the same big corporations destroying First Nations country. The system that puts the profits of huge multinationals ahead of everyday people's needs is the same one that systematically puts First Nations communities last. Thank you.
I am, of course, supporting the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023. I'll be campaigning for the 'yes' case and encouraging members of the Kingsford Smith community to also support this important constitutional alteration to establish an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament.
The Gamay Rangers are an Indigenous rangers group that care for country around Botany Bay. They're a team of dedicated, skilled rangers that bring thousands of years of historic and cultural knowledge to their management and conservation of the land and the waters of Botany Bay. They have been part of that water and that land for centuries. They know its ecosystem better than any other human on earth. There is a team of scientists from the University of New South Wales that are looking to do work on seagrass restoration in Botany Bay. They have been consulting the experts. They have been consulting the Gamay Rangers. They've taken a different approach to traditional science and conservation projects, and it's paying dividends. Professor Adriana Verges from UNSW, who is leading the project, said: 'It's been rewarding getting to know and understand their connection to the bay. As an ecologist, we have ideas about what is important for habitat, but by listening to the rangers, we now know it's important to understand what species are culturally important to help build habitat around that as well.' Here we have an important environmental program that is benefiting from listening to people that know that habitat best: First Nations Australians.
Consulting First Nations Australians about issues affecting them will ensure that governments of all levels make better decisions and get better outcomes for First Nations Australians across our continent. First Nations Australians have known this for a long time, but we have not been listening. Well, it's time for us to listen. In 2017, 250 representatives from First Nations communities across Australia came together at Uluru. They spoke with one voice and they said: 'Enough is enough. We are the most incarcerated race of people in the world. We have lower life expectancies than the average Australian. We have inferior health outcomes to the average Australian. Our children's educational outcomes are below mainstream Australia. We have been dispossessed of our lands, our culture destroyed, our languages ruined, our children taken from us. Enough is enough. We want to be respected, and we want to be recognised. We want to have a say about issues affecting our communities. We want to be heard.' They spoke with one voice when they said in the Uluru statement, 'We want a Voice to Parliament about matters affecting us and our communities.' They asked the Australian people to talk with them, not to them.
This bill and this referendum represent the government and the parliament respecting the views of First Nations Australians and listening to their view. Most importantly, it represents the government acting to deliver First Nations Australians a constitutionally enshrined voice to the parliament in Australia. Although the Albanese Labor government sought and received a mandate at the election to hold this referendum, this is not the government's referendum. This proposal to alter our Constitution does not belong to one political party or a particular politician. This referendum belongs to the Australian people—Australians who recognise that 65,000 years of continuous cultural connection to this continent by First Nations Australians is a source of pride for our nation and should be celebrated in our Constitution; Australians who believe that the lives of First Nations Australians can be improved if we listen to and respect the views of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians about issues affecting them; Australians who believe that we will be a better nation, a better people, if we work together to amend our Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the First Peoples of this continent and enshrine in that Constitution a voice to parliament for them. All Australians are invited to be part of this change as we move towards this era of acknowledgment and respect.
This bill, if passed, will allow the government to get on with that process. This bill allows the government to hold a referendum of the Australian people within six months. That referendum will ask the Australian people to vote on a proposal to amend the Australian Constitution to do three things: to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the first people of Australia; to establish a body to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice and to outline that the Voice may make representations to parliament and the executive government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. That's it. It's as simple as that.
This is a proposal whose time has come. Since 2010, there have been seven inquiries, investigations and reports into constitutional recognition of First Nations Australians, involving the parliament, expert panels and the Australian people. Despite all these reports, there's been excuse after excuse—predictably from, unfortunately, the former government and from certain political leaders, kicking the can down the road and providing excuses about why we couldn't do this. Well, the new government, the Labor government, is saying: 'Enough is enough. If not now then when?'
The latest inquiry into this proposal, which was conducted over the last couple of months, was by the joint select committee that's investigating this constitutional alteration. They received 270 submissions from Australians. There were 71 witnesses and five public hearings. That committee, the latest in a long string, has again recommended that this bill be passed without amendment, and that is what this parliament should do. The time has come to recognise First Nations Australians in our Constitution.
I know that Australians have busy lives. Some may not be aware of this proposal, and some may want more information before they make a decision. I and members of the government respect that, and that is why the government will conduct an education campaign to inform Australians about the background to the Voice proposal, how it will work, what it will mean for all Australians and the wording of the referendum question. In the community I represent, I will be holding public forums across the community, inviting members of the community to come along and hear and be educated about this proposal before they make a decision. Those community forums will be open to all members of the public.
There is quite a bit of information that has been released by the government on the advice of the expert working panel, a group of First Nations Australians, members of various political parties and leaders of Australia who came together to advise the government about how we establish this Voice to Parliament. There are a number of principles that they have laid down for the design of the Voice to Parliament that we know. First, the Voice will make representations to the parliament and the executive government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Second, the Voice will be chosen by Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people based on the wishes of local communities. The third principle is that the Voice will be representative of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander communities, will be gender balanced and will include youth. Fourth, the Voice will be empowering, community led, inclusive, respectful and culturally informed. Fifth, the Voice will be accountable and transparent. Sixth, the Voice will work alongside existing organisations and traditional structures. This means that the Voice will respect the work of existing organisations, including the parliament. Seventh, the Voice will not have a program delivery function. And, importantly, the final principle is that the Voice will not have a veto power over the work of this parliament.
That is important to highlight. The Voice will be an advisory body. It will be up to the parliament whether or not it accepts the advice that comes from the Voice, and the Voice will certainly not have a veto power over the actions of government or the actions of this parliament. It will simply be an advisory body. It will simply reflect Australians finally recognising the 65,000-year connection that First Nations Australians have had with this continent and enshrining a mechanism in the Constitution, that can't be taken away by governments of the future, to allow First Nations Australians to be heard by government about matters affecting them.
I have lived in the community that I represent my entire life. I feel fortunate to represent that wonderful community of Kingsford Smith. I have had a deep connection, particularly, to the waterways around my community, the fantastic beaches and Botany Bay. I grew up surfing, fishing, playing and swimming in those waters. I feel a deep connection to that important place.
Robert Cooley and his team of Gamay Rangers have educated me and others in our community about traditional food sources, about the fragile nature of the ecology of Botany Bay and how to conserve that ecology into the future. Our community and all three levels of government are now much wiser in the approach that we take to environmental and development policy around Botany Bay because we have listened to the experts, because we have had the opportunity of being educated about the historical connection and the cultural connection and the importance of that to First Nations Australians.
The Voice gives us an opportunity to achieve better policy outcomes for First Nations Australians and all Australians on a national scale. Let's not waste this opportunity. Let's not cast aside this welcoming hand that's been offered by First Nations Australians. Let all Australians accept the invitation to listen and learn from the First Australians, to finally show them the respect that they deserve for their continuous connection to country over 65,000 years. It's time for the First Nations Voice to Parliament, and passing this legislation is the first step in ensuring that all Australians can work together to finally deliver a constitutionally enshrined voice to parliament.
I rise to speak on the second reading of this very historic opportunity to contribute to a debate around our Constitution and the proposal that this Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023 bill will be putting to the Australian people. I note the historical significance of us having a debate around changing our Constitution, because it happens very rarely.
There was a debate that didn't proceed to referendum back in 2012-13, of the Gillespie government, the last time there was a proposition to change the Constitution discussed in this chamber. The last time we passed a bill for a referendum was for the Republic referendum in 1999. Before that you go back, on average, more than a decade between each time proposals come forward. Many speakers have noted that it is very difficult for a referendum to be successful. It has been a rarity, given the number of proposals that have been put forward, for them to be successful. I know other speakers have talked about the mechanism that we have, not only achieving the national vote but the majority of states as well.
This proposition I come to with an interesting point of view. I will be supporting the bill because I do support this question being put to the Australian people and this proposition being resolved, much like the 1999 referendum resolved the question around constitutional monarchy for many decades into the future. I, equally, have already been very clear and public in the fact that I will have a vote like the 17½ million other Australians for this referendum and I will absolutely not be supporting the proposal to change our Constitution as outlined in this bill. But I am very comfortable with the people of this country having their say, and I hope to be a part of the campaign to convince them that this is not a change that is in the best interests of our nation and the good government of this nation.
South Australia was very central to the drafting of our Constitution. Sir John Downer, in particular, was one of the pioneering early drafters of various proposals through the 1890s that culminated in the Australian Constitution, which was adopted both in the United Kingdom parliament and, ultimately, in Western Australia, thankfully. We love having Western Australia in the Commonwealth. Deputy Speaker Goodenough, I know that you're very proud as a Western Australian that the good people of Western Australia are in the Commonwealth and remain in the Commonwealth, as they so should for a long time into the future.
At Federation, something that's not very well understood is that the voting enfranchisement for the first Commonwealth elections was based on people that were on the electoral roll in the various colonies that became the states. In my home state of South Australia, we had Indigenous enfranchisement in South Australia. At the first Commonwealth elections, in the state of South Australia—and only in the state of South Australia—Indigenous South Australians had a vote. At one stage, in the 1890s, South Australia was going to be the only state that enfranchised women to vote at that first Commonwealth election.
Regrettably, it was the case that the South Australian electoral roll became the federal roll. If you were an Indigenous South Australian on the electoral roll at the time of Federation, you stayed on the electoral roll, but Indigenous Australians could not then join the Commonwealth election roll in the early decades of our Commonwealth. That was shameful. I'm very pleased that more than a century since, we have broken down so many elements of inequality around race, gender, religion, age, and all sorts of things, that held back certain Australians in different ways within not just the formal structures of government but also the way in which our society operated in the past. We have spent so much time breaking those divisions down. I feel that we've never been a more united and more equitable nation than we are now in the year 2023. There are no doubt more opportunities to continue to improve the equity of this nation.
I have three serious concerns with the proposition that this bill will put to people to change our Constitution. The first is very much rooted in that sense of equity, and particularly equity of citizenship, in our nation. I have great concern that what we're doing through this proposal is suggesting or creating a different treatment for certain Australians in our Constitution to other Australians. Even though there is great virtue in elements of arguments that people may put as to why certain special treatment should be or is justified, that can always be the beginning of a very dangerous and unforeseen trend and one that had not gone the way some early proponents thought it might when they stepped down this path throughout history. I think equity of citizenship in this nation is vitally important. It was wrong when we had inequality of citizenship. It was wrong when Indigenous Australians weren't entitled to vote in elections. It was wrong when women weren't entitled to vote in elections. It was wrong when Australians, for different reasons, have been discriminated against throughout our history. So, here in 2023, I stand very firmly against that kind of inequity being reintroduced in any way, shape or form, particularly into the Constitution of our nation.
Secondly, I am very sceptical about the benefit of creating a new bureaucracy in Canberra and its likely effectiveness in addressing real and serious issues of Indigenous disadvantage, which are important and should have our focus. I'm not so convinced creating a new bureaucracy in Canberra, with all the various examples that we could call upon as to when more government has been created, particularly centralised here in Canberra, would ever achieve the kind of benefit that some people might claim through this proposition.
I'm desperately concerned, and I think everyone in this House is desperately concerned, about the serious challenges for Indigenous Australians that need our attention—particularly in remote Indigenous communities, where the issues are most acute. I think it is regrettable that, at the moment, the only topic regarding Indigenous assistance, welfare and support from government is whether or not this new bureaucracy should be created in our Constitution, rather than the kinds of discussions we could have right now about, instead of this topic, the ways in which we could do better to provide assistance with the most significant challenges that are facing Indigenous communities. We know what they are. We have the Closing the Gap process and the annual report against those metrics. Some have had better progress than others but we are in no way close to closing the gap. And we are spending an inordinate amount of time on text in our Constitution and a bureaucracy in Canberra, and whatever the costs are around that, which I think is time that could be much better spent talking about serious practical solutions to the challenges in those communities.
My third concern is very much around us, frankly, becoming like the United States of America. It is a country I greatly admire, but one thing I think they get wrong in the United States is that their courts decide things that are in the purview of parliaments and the democratic process. I don't want to see a situation where we change our Constitution and create open lawfare over a whole range of questions, and where we've got no control over whether jurisprudence may head or land on a whole range of things that occur when you dramatically change the Constitution of our nation. The Constitution has supremacy, and the High Court has the ability to interpret that Constitution with no ability for this chamber or this parliament to interfere with or change that interpretation whatsoever.
We have heard through evidence to the committee on this and the public debate that there are many former High Court justices with varied opinions on this, former eminent jurists, and people coming from both sides of the argument around advocacy for this change. But none of them are saying there is no risk as to how the powers of what we are creating might be interpreted by the High Court, and what that could lead to around the way in which our government functions. I love our Westminster system of government. I love the fact that the executive of government comes from the legislature and is accountable to the legislature. Yes, we have an independent judiciary, and they quite rightly adjudicate questions of interpretation of law and, most importantly, in the case of the High Court, the Constitution, the governing document of our nation—which is why changing the Constitution is so significant. In doing it, you don't come back from the consequences of that.
Right now, if people don't like the current government, and their local member of parliament is in that government, they can vote them out at the next election. They can come to see me, as their local member—and we'll all have a great deal of advocacy from our constituents who are for or against this very issue we're debating right now and many other issues that will come into the court of public opinion, into the public domain and into this parliament. And we are accountable to those voters and their views. Every three years—I think we could change that to four at some time—they get to choose whether they're happy with their local member of parliament and the government of their nation. And that accountability is to every Australian who gets a vote in selecting their representatives and the composition of this parliament. We must cherish that and the fact we are such a strong vibrant democracy because of that. I don't want to see a situation where we have that except in a whole range of cases where the High Court has determined that because we've changed our Constitution in a certain way there are now elements of our democracy that are taken away from our democracy and are taken away from this parliament. That is unequivocally the consequence of creating an additional power in the Constitution and creating another body within our governmental framework that has rights and powers that may be determined in whatever way by the High Court into the future. When we find out the answers to all these questions it will be when we've already changed our Constitution permanently.
We've about six months to debate this. It's my understanding from the indications of the government that, once this bill is passed, the referendum question will be put later in the year—around October and November. We are going to have a spirited debate—and that's one of the great things about our democracy. I commend the contribution of my good friend the member for Menzies, who made the most important point in the debate I have listened to so far—without disrespecting the excellent contributions from all members—and that is that we must have civility and respect in this debate. Everyone is contributing to it because they love their country and they care about our future. They have views about what will make this country even better in the future.
A debate about our Constitution couldn't be a more fundamental conversation for lawmakers to have, for civic leaders to have and for every Australian to have. Those conversations will happen over the next six months. At times there will be nasty contributions, and we should call out those nasty contributions. At times people will get personal, and we should not tolerate that. At times wild claims will be made that are not relevant to the debate and are seeking to trick people into believing certain things might occur that might not. It's possible that that will happen on both sides of the argument. There's no question about that. I come at this with a view on what should happen, and I will call out people who seek the same outcome as me if they behave in that way. I hope all members have that same attitude—I'm sure they do.
I will support this bill through the parliament. I'm very comfortable with the people of my electorate having their say on this. I think it is very important. It is something that needs to be resolved by having a referendum. I will support the bill. I will campaign against changing our Constitution in that referendum campaign. I will vote against it, and I will absolutely respect the result of that referendum when the people of this country have the final say. I commend the bill to the House.
The earliest photo I have of me in Boorloo, the Perth electorate, is at a rally. Ron and Wendy, my mum and dad, are walking down William Street, marching for Aboriginal land rights. In my dad's arms is a six-month-old baby—me. My mum is pushing the empty pram. They're smiling for a staged photo, but the reality of these protests and rallies in 1985 was different. Dad tells me they were yelled at and hateful slurs came from the street to Aboriginal leaders and all who supported them, like my mum and dad. On one occasion mum and dad, with six-month-old me, were spat on—hate in physical form. But we know that compassion overcomes hate. I'm a realist. We'll see division, racism and hate in this debate, but time and time again hate loses the policy argument. It has no moral authority, no integrity and no longevity.
For some Australians it will be confronting to see the racism that so many Aboriginal people have experienced throughout their lifetime. Other Australians will learn for the first time the truth of Australia's treatment of First Nations people. Together we can learn and grow. We can choose our future, choose to heal, choose to take responsibility and choose to recognise and consult with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, because it is the right thing to do.
My parents were both primary school teachers. They taught me not just to stand up for what is right; they taught me to make what is right a reality. Our home on Hampton Road was opposite Fremantle Prison, which was then a working prison that was disproportionately filled with Aboriginal people. Australian prisons are both symbols of justice and symbols of injustice. Fremantle Prison has long since closed and become a World Heritage site, but Indigenous incarceration continues to be an unacceptable national failure. As the Uluru Statement from the Heart says:
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.
It is this hope for the future that dominated my recent discussion with Dr Robert Isaacs, a great Western Australian Aboriginal leader. He said: 'The government must honour its commitment to the Uluru statement. The Voice will take not only Aboriginal people but the Australian community into the future—a new beginning, a new era for Aboriginal affairs in the community at large.'