Tuesday, 17 October 2023
Matters of Public Importance
Australian Constitution: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice
I have received a letter from the honourable Manager of Opposition Business proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:
The Prime Minister's incompetent and divisive management of the Voice referendum.
I call upon those honourable members who approve of the discussion to rise in their places.
More than the number of members required by the standing orders having r isen in their places—
The incompetent and divisive management of the Voice referendum by this Prime Minister has resulted in a tragically missed opportunity for this nation. Around Australia, many Indigenous people are deeply disappointed in the result. We saw Allira Davis, chair of the Uluru Youth Dialogue, say on Saturday night:
The Prime Minister is moving on tonight. He just wants to go to Washington and prepare for re-election. And we are just a blip.
We saw Uluru dialogues campaigner Sally Scales say:
This was a devastating result that keeps our people in the status quo. It is bleak. The PM was insulting & pathetic.
Of course, around Australia, as well as Indigenous Australians, many other Australians of goodwill are deeply frustrated because there is wide support for constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians.
Many Australians were ready to stand with that bipartisan support for constitutional recognition. They were ready to be part of what could have been a national unifying moment, much as the 1967 referendum was a national unifying moment. But because of this Prime Minister's incompetent and divisive management of this referendum, this opportunity for our nation has been missed, which is a tragic missed opportunity, and it is down to the poor management, the incompetent management of this Prime Minister—a prime minister who failed to do the work that was required to secure an outcome.
He made his announcement on election night that his government was committed to implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full—truth, treaty, voice—but he never did the detailed work to build genuine support across Australia and amongst Australians. It was all going to skate through on the vibe. He even tried to prevent the Australian Electoral Commission issuing a pamphlet to all Australian setting out the case for 'yes' and the case for 'no', even though this has been a standard requirement in referendums under the act for decades for very good reason. If you are going to ask Australians to vote on something, it is surely reasonable to explain to them what the issues are. But this government under this Prime Minister tried to prevent that normal practice from occurring. It only happened because this side of the House, the Liberal and National parties, insisted on Australians being fully informed before they came to make their decision.
Of course we know there was a failure to provide funding for the two campaigns, as has normally been the practice in referendums, so the contrast between the result achieved under a coalition government in 1967, when a 90 per cent 'yes' vote was achieved, was because the coalition government of that time did the necessary work to get the result. But this Prime Minister was overconfident. He thought this was a lay-down mesire. He thought there was no work that needed to be done. We know he is hazy on the detail. We know he doesn't know the price of petrol. We know that all kinds of basics elude him—the unemployment rate and all the other details that most people would think a Prime Minister, or at that time a Leader of the Opposition, would be across.
Similarly, he showed his laziness, his lack of focus on the detail, his lack of rigour in the approach that he took to this failed and divisive referendum. He failed to make the necessary decisions on how the Voice was actually going to operate. He failed to explain to Australians how it was going to work, even when it became clear that Australians were crying out for this detail. They wanted to know. Australians approached this in good faith. They approached this with an open mind, but they had questions that they wanted to know the answers to. How many people would be on the body? Would they be elected or appointed? What would be the powers of this body? Across what scope of issues could it make representations? What would be the consequences if the Voice was not consulted in relation to a decision made by a minister or made by a public servant? These were the questions that it was increasingly clear the Australian people wanted to know the answers to. On this side of the House we did everything we could to get answers to those questions in this place, but the Prime Minister stubbornly refused to do the work.
He stubbornly refused to get across the detail and to share the detail with Australian people, and these characteristics of his personal operating style, which have been increasingly dismaying to Australians, are at the very basis of why this referendum was a failure and why this referendum has divided Australians. Of course, as the results on Saturday night make crystal clear, he failed to speak to Australians across the great sweep of suburban Australia. He failed to speak to Australians in regional and remote Australia. Who did he speak to? Don't ask me. Ask the Labor member for Macarthur. He was speaking to the inner-city elites. That is a failure of competence.
If you are a politician seeking to put a proposition to the Australian people, seeking to make the case to them, seeking to persuade them, the first thing you've got to realise is that there are 17.6 million people who get a vote and they don't all live in Marrickville. But this is a failure of competence by this government and a failure of competence by a Prime Minister, a man who has been a professional politician since the 1990s and yet he failed to run a competent campaign. He failed to realise the basic political truth that you win campaigns not by speaking to the people who are already supporting you; you win campaigns by speaking to those who are unpersuaded, and that is what he manifestly failed to do.
But the biggest failure of competence by this Prime Minister was because he was resolutely determined to make this issue a partisan issue when, for more than 10 years, it had been taken forward on a bipartisan basis. It is an accepted wisdom of Australian politics that you cannot get a referendum passed unless there is bipartisan support. And don't ask me for proof of that; ask the Prime Minister himself. On Saturday night, when he was asked why he thinks Australians voted no, he said: 'The truth is that no referendum has succeeded in this country without bipartisan support. None.' Well, he's right, but why did he do nothing to get bipartisan support? Why did he make absolutely no effort to engage with this side of the House, to engage with the Leader of the Opposition?
This had been a process which was bipartisan going back to 2007. In 2012, both the Liberal and Labor parties in this place voted for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Act. It had bipartisan support. Under the previous coalition government there was a bipartisan committee, chaired by the Liberal member for Berowra and Labor Senator Pat Dodson. They were co-chairs. There was bipartisan support. The two parties of government worked together on this important issue. Why? Because there was recognition across the political system that, if you are to win the confidence of the Australian people on this issue, if you are to achieve a national unifying moment of the same scale and magnitude as was achieved in 1967, it absolutely has to be bipartisan. That has been recognised by everybody for more than a decade.
Yet it was this Prime Minister who turned his back on bipartisanship, who refused to engage with this side of the House, who treated the parliamentary committee, frankly, with contempt. Liberal members on that committee, such as the member for Menzies, put forward several reasonable suggestions, all of which were ignored. On any test of basic political competence you would have to say from day one the critical success factor in getting this referendum up was to make it bipartisan. This would not have been too hard for this Prime Minister to do, but he failed that test of basic political competence. Of course there was a deal to be done here, but the Prime Minister never made any effort to do a deal. He failed to consult with the opposition on the wording. This turned into the Prime Minister's own vanity project. He failed to manage this in a way which would bring the Australian people with him. He lifted up then cruelly dashed the hopes of Indigenous people around Australia. This has been an unedifying and disappointing outcome, and the responsibility for it sits at the feet of one man, the Prime Minister of Australia.
Australians voted no to the Voice, but they didn't vote no to Closing the Gap. This MPI talks about division. The real division in this country isn't between Australians who voted yes and Australians who voted no. It's a division between the life and opportunities of black Australians and white Australians. The hard truth, if we're willing to accept it, is that both sides of politics have failed here over decades. My friend the member for New England questions that. But if we're honest with ourselves the gap targets prove that. I'm not blaming you. I'm not blaming our side of politics. I'm blaming all of us. The fact that if you are an Indigenous Australian you're more likely to die at childbirth is evidence of that. If you're more likely to suffer chronic disease, that is evidence of that. If you're more likely to die earlier than other Australians, that is evidence of that as well.
The same is true in education. I believe in my heart about the power of education. I talk about it ad nauseam. I believe in it because I have seen it with my own eyes. I grew up in a community where education changed the lives of people who came here looking for a better life in the western suburbs of Sydney—people who were migrants and refugees. I believe in the power of education because I've lived it. I'm the first person in my family to go to university; but not just that: I'm the first person in my family to finish school. I'm the first person in my family to finish year 10. Education has changed my life. As in this job, with this responsibility, I think I see more clearly than ever before that that opportunity, powerful as it is, hasn't reached into every corner of this country, into every home and into every life.
When you look at the education statistics for Indigenous Australians, they hit you in the face. If you're a young indigenous person today, you're less likely to go to preschool and other kids. We know how important early education is. Not just that, if you're a young Indigenous person today you're more likely to fall behind at primary school than other kids. The natural consequence of that is that if you're a young Indigenous person today who falls behind at primary school, you're less likely to finish high school than all the other kids. And that means that at the end of the day you're less likely to go to university than other children. Colleagues here have heard me talk about this before: about 45 per cent of young adults today have a university degree, but only seven per cent of Indigenous young people do. Think about that gap. Of all the gaps, that's the biggest: 45 per cent of young adults have a university degree, but only seven per cent of young Indigenous adults do. If you are a young bloke of an Indigenous background today you're more likely to go to jail than to university. I've talked about what that means in terms of the cost that we all pay for that. We pay $11,000—
I'll talk about that in a minute. The member says 'What are you doing about it?' That's an important question. Let me answer that in a moment. But let me talk about the costs, too. $11,000 a year we pay to send somebody to university. $148,000 is what we pay to send someone to prison. That's the cost of this divide—the real division in this country, not the political division that we want to fabricate here or that we want to create for political benefit, the real divide-in-life opportunities that all of us in our hearts want to close.
The member for Kennedy asked, 'What are you doing about it?' What we're doing about it is the legislation that's in the parliament that the member for Kennedy rightly—and I thank him for it—voted for a couple of weeks ago.
At the moment if you're a young Indigenous person and you get the marks and you live in the member for Kennedy's electorate, the demand-driven system means the university will be guaranteed to get the funding to get that young bloke or that young woman to university, but not if they live in Brisbane or Sydney or Melbourne. It applies to Indigenous kids in the bush but not in the city. We're fixing that. The legislation that this House has voted for, which is now before the Senate, is about extending that system to all Indigenous kids. We're told, if it works, that it will double the number of young Indigenous people with a university degree in the next 10 years. That's good. That's pretty good. It doesn't really close the gap, because remember what I said: 45 per cent of young people in their 20s and 30s have a uni degree today; seven per cent of Indigenous young people do at the moment. If this legislation works, in 10 years time that will be 12 per cent.
No, they do. If you want to be a doctor working in an Indigenous community, if you want to be a teacher teaching kids in Indigenous community, if you want to be a nurse helping people in Indigenous communities then things like uni are important. We need to make sure that more young Indigenous people—not just Indigenous people but more young people from electorates like Spence, where barely more than seven per cent have got a uni degree—get a crack at TAFE and uni, so fee-free TAFE places are important. The legislation in the parliament is important too.
But, if we're really going to fix this, we've got to go back before university; we've got go back to school, because this is where the problem is at its most obvious. NAPLAN results tell us that one in 10 young people at the moment fall behind the minimum standard. But it's not one in 10 Indigenous kids that fall behind the minimum standard; it's one in three. The NAPLAN data also tells us that if you fall behind at primary school when you're eight then you're more likely than not to still be behind when you're 15 at high school. Believe it or not, only one in five kids who are behind when they're eight have caught up by the time they're 15. I still believe in the power of education, but that number shocks me. Think about this, colleagues: only 20 per cent of kids who fall behind when they're little have caught up by the time they're 15—one in five—and it's only one in 17 Indigenous kids. They're basically locked out of the system. One in 17 Indigenous kids who fall behind when they're little have caught up by the time they're older at high school. That explains why so many kids aren't finishing high school, that explains why we're now seeing a drop in the number of kids finishing high school and that explains why there are so few Indigenous young people at university getting a university degree. What a waste. This is what we've got to fix. This is what all Australians want us to fix.
I've said many times that I don't want us to be a country where your chances in life depend on who your mum and dad are or where you live or the colour of your skin. No Australian does. But if we are honest with ourselves they are today. Again, the hard facts show us that, and fixing that is what the Universities Accord is all about. It's also what the next National School Reform Agreement will be all about—closing the funding gap for our schools but also this education gap, this gap in opportunity.
At the moment non-government schools are funded at about 100 per cent of the Gonski level of schooling resource standard. Some are above and some below. They'll all be at 100 per cent by the end of the decade. No public schools are, except in the ACT. Over the course of the next decade they'll top out, unless action is taken, at about 95 per cent. So what we do here working with the states and territories is important, but so is what that money is spent on, and nowhere is that more important than in places like the Northern Territory and in particular Central Australia. It is hard to find a place where there is greater disadvantage or a bigger education gap than there. That's why we're investing $40 million in 40 schools in Central Australia next year, allocated to get all of them to 100 per cent of the schooling resource standard. That means the most underfunded schools in Central Australia will get the most funding. At the moment, non-government schools in the Northern Territory receive on average about 97 per cent of that core funding level. Government schools, by contrast, are at 80 per cent. So if we talk about gaps, that is a massive gap. And, unless action is taken, that gap won't close until 2050.
This investment in schools, both public and private schools in Central Australia, mean that those 46 schools will get to that full funding level next year—in other words, 26 years early. I think that's a good thing, but it isn't just that: it's making sure that it's tied to the sorts of things that are going to work. These are things like early intervention in literacy and numeracy support for the sorts of kids I've spoken about today, who fall behind. There are three big pieces of work happening in my portfolio: the Universities Accord; the O'Brien review into school education funding and what it's tied to; and the early education work that we need to do before a child even starts at school. More work is needed there. The three of those will come together next year to form a blueprint for us about education for the next decade and beyond. This is for all of us to work together on to build a better and fairer education system for Australia—in particular, for Indigenous kids.
I acknowledge his contribution and what the minister just said. All his statistics are correct, but all that his statistics mean is that in this country we have a lot of work to do. But I will actually bring it back to what this MPI is about: the process that this government followed with the referendum.
It was a flawed process and the flaws in the Prime Minister that got us into this situation we were, and are, in. What this is all about is the arrogance and bad judgement of the Prime Minister personally. As he says now, after the event, we needed bipartisan support. He didn't display a lot of behaviour and judgement before the referendum that encouraged that. There was no Constitutional convention and there was no process that encouraged bipartisan support. This was even down to the 15 questions about the referendum that the Leader of the Opposition gave him and asked him to come back to us on. He didn't even pay us the respect to respond to those questions. There wasn't even a response to the 15 questions that we had.
He ignored lots of advice. There was lots of advice about having two questions. We know that the Australian people are generous and we know that 85 to 90 per cent of Australians, I believe, would have supported constitutional recognition without blinking. But, no, he ignored advice on that. He ignored advice from strong 'yes' supporters, like Father Frank Brennan and like, in fact, the previous Labor leader, Bill Shorten, who was on record as saying, 'We need to legislate a Voice before we try to put a Voice in the Constitution.' That's because there were too many unanswered questions about the Voice. There were too many unanswered questions about putting the Voice into the Constitution—questions like, 'How will the power of the Voice work compared with the parliament, if it were in the Constitution?' A lot of people have respect for Father Brennan and the fact that he wanted to support the 'yes' case. But, again, the Prime Minister was arrogant and showed his bad judgement by ignoring people like that.
Instead, he went for the vibe—he went for the feel-good. He liked the T-shirt and he likes hanging out with the corporate elites, like the Alan Joyces. He likes hanging out with the celebrities, the jingles and everything else. He just went for the vibe and no detail. Again, it shows his arrogance on this, how he had no judgement on this and how out of touch he was with the Australian people. The Australian people—and, indeed, this chamber—wanted detail and we weren't given it. Again, there was a lot of confusion. As the Prime Minister said when he won the election, his first promise was that the Uluru Statement from the Heart would be in full. 'In full' meant not just the Voice but treaty and truth-telling as well. So where is he about truth-telling? Where was he about that? When questions were asked about that, about what the ramifications of the Voice were in relation to the Uluru statement, it was, 'Nothing to see here'. In fact, he tried to crab walk away from some of the things that he said. This made it more confusing.
The result—and I say this really, really humbly—has been a really sad result for this country, with this Prime Minister's flawed process and judgement on this whole thing. He has divided families, he has divided communities and on Saturday night he divided this nation. And he's divided Indigenous communities. He speaks generically—as did, might I say, a lot of commentators on Saturday night and Sunday—about the Indigenous community. The Indigenous community were divided on this. You had one group with Lidia Thorpe and people who supported her point of view and what she thought of the voice, and you had Indigenous leaders like Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Warren Mundine at the other end. They were divided. The Indigenous community was divided on this, and that's what this Prime Minister did with his lack of judgement and his arrogance about this. Before I go on, I want to acknowledge my parliamentary colleague Jacinta Nampijinpa Price. I thought her tone and her demeanour through this whole debate were to be congratulated.
We do now have to move on from this. We now have to get back to practical outcomes. We as an opposition—again, the shadow Indigenous minister has said we need in audit straight away; the one thing we need is an audit into the current spending. A lot of people on the ground don't see this money or don't feel it's hitting where it should. We also need a royal commission into sexual abuse. When we talk about closing the gap, that is most prevalent in rural and remote communities, and there needs to be a royal commission into the abuse, sexual abuse and assault in those communities. (Time expired)
This is an extremely important topic and this is an extremely important time to discuss this topic; but, unfortunately, what we have today is a petty motion in which to frame this discussion. I want to start by saying that I was saddened by the result on Saturday night but I acknowledge that result, I accept that result and I think, in time, after we've had a time to reflect and after the Indigenous community has had a time to reflect, this chamber, this community talking with the Indigenous community, will figure out a way to move forward. I want to start with that acknowledgement.
I also want to say that I fully support all of the observations made by the Minister for Education. We had a result on Saturday, but we're all in here two days later and we are left facing a set of extremely troubling issues that this nation has been facing for a very long time. They haven't gone away. All of the issues that he talked about in relation to unequal access to education, all of the issues in relation to unequal access to health, all of the issues in our justice system—notwithstanding the fact we had the royal commission into deaths in custody, some decades later, on many metrics, the situation is worse. As the Minister for Education said, that's across governments of both stripes, but it is nonetheless a fact. In my own electorate we have far, far too many children in out-of-home care. There is issue after issue which this chamber, this parliament and this country are faced with regardless of the result on Saturday night, and that needs to be our focus moving forward.
It's in that context that what we have today is the most cynical, disingenuous and, frankly, juvenile of motions and set of contributions. It's a pointscoring set of contributions to a motion that is trying to take advantage of a situation in the basest way. I almost feel as though I'm listening to a set of observations on election night from a set of members of a panel trying to make observations about why this or that trend occurred or this or that suburb voted this way. What we're actually faced with now is a set of endemic, long-term problems, and we need to figure out a way forward.
If we had an opposition that was committed to its core function, which is to put up an alternative vision, we wouldn't be faced with this motion and we wouldn't be faced with a set of contributions that would have been well in place on election night with pundits trying to guess why the politics were playing out a certain way or going through the entrails of the mistakes this or that campaign made. If we had an opposition that was genuinely committed to trying to find solutions to these issues, they would have come here with an alternative. We already have a set of policies in place and we will develop more policies, but, when we come into this chamber, we talk about a positive vision in this space going forward. The point that I'm making is that this motion and the contributions to date have been entirely focused on the politics, on the tactics and on base pointscoring.
Those opposites say there was the opportunity for bipartisanship. Well, they had a decade in parliament and there was zero action. That was the opportunity for bipartisanship. There was the Statement from the Heart in 2017. Six years later, those opposite didn't embrace any of it; it was rejected. We had the Voice described as a third chamber by those opposite. When those opposite were in government, they didn't accept any of it substantively. Where was the genuine opportunity for bipartisanship? It's a completely disingenuous argument.
They come in here with phrases like our side didn't do the work. In our first term we are doing exactly what we said we would do; we took this to a referendum. They said we're not doing the work. They were in power for 10 years. Since 2017, when the Uluru Statement from the Heart was handed down—when they were in government—nothing had happened.
Those opposite come in here with all of these very disingenuous arguments, hand-wringing. It is absolutely ridiculous. Then they come in here with their alternative vision: an audit, an accountant's version—the accountant dog whistling, saying by implication that there's waste everywhere and trying to invalidate the money that's been spent and invested in our Indigenous communities. It's absolutely pathetic, and this motion shows that this opposition is not serious about coming up with sensible, long-term, meaningful policies.
Do you remember the start of this? Do you remember Shaquille O'Neal? Shaquille O'Neal, an African American basketball player, was rolled out to start the process of this referendum. What a joke. It just goes to show you the kind of competency that was going to be rolled through the whole program of this referendum. Remember when we found out that the Prime Minister, by his own admission, hadn't read the whole Uluru Statement from the Heart document? He hadn't read it all. What a debacle. The final one is that we had a referendum which could have had two questions: one on recognition, yes or no, and one on the Voice, yes or no. And I'll tell you what the Australian people would have done. The first one would have been a massive yes. The second one would have been a massive no—as we saw. But this hubristic, divisive debacle that was inflicted upon the Australian people had to be seen through, even though the Prime Minister's own Attorney-General was seen in the paper suggesting guardrails and amendments. Oh no, he knew better. He wasn't even going to listen to his own Attorney-General.
So why did people vote against what we had? Because it is a racial clause. I'm Caucasian, I'm a whitefella—I can't be part of the Voice. Chinese people can't be part of the Voice. Indians can't. It's determined by the colour of your skin and your DNA. In our areas, that's so offensive, because we find that the problems are determined by intergenerational poverty, regardless of the colour of your skin. Whether you're white, whether you're black, whether you're brindle, it doesn't matter. If the problem is in a regional village, like in my electorate, or in the outback, poverty is indiscriminate. Poverty doesn't care about the colour of your skin. That's how things should be addressed.
Of course, the Voice never had a right of veto; we all knew that. But it did have a right to go to the High Court, because that's why it's in the Constitution, and question the process of consultation. The Scarborough gas deal, $16 billion, 170 kilometres off the coast of Western Australia, is currently held up because the consultation process was apparently flawed. It was permanent. We couldn't get rid of it. Once it's there, it's there for good. But they never gave it a trial run. They never actually put it in legislation and gave it trial run.
Another thing was that 80 per cent of Aboriginal people supported the Voice. No, they didn't. That is not the truth. Let's look at my own electorate. The biggest Indigenous community—in my area they call themselves Aboriginal. The biggest Aboriginal community is Tingha. Do you know what the 'yes' vote was in Tingha? It was 13.5 per cent. At Tamworth High, it was 39 per cent; Oxley Vale, 28 per cent—and these are the ones with a strong Aboriginal component. Armidale south got 59 per cent, probably the best. In Werris Creek—I used to live in Werris Creek; we used to call it 'where it's crook'—it was 24 per cent. Inverell, 19 per cent; Glen Innes, 25 per cent—not even close. So stop the mythology and stop with this misleading idea that this was something supported by Aboriginal people as a whole. It wasn't. It wasn't 80 per cent. In my area it wasn't even half. It wasn't even close.
Why? I'll tell you why: because they weren't consulted. When you talked to them—I would go to former mission areas, and I went to NAIDOC Week—they didn't know what it was about. And you divided us up. So I'd go to NAIDOC Week and say 'Look, mate, you know I'm a no.' They would say, 'Yeah, Barnaby, I've kind of picked that up.' But if there was a different question this would have sailed through. You could have got it. You could have stopped this discussion. It was like discussing how your marriage is going. It was so hard for us in regional areas. We wanted to park this.
But things move on. And what they weren't discussing was the other issues out there. Other issues that are burning up. I tell you what the next one is going to be: it's going to be the transmission lines, the wind factories, the solar factories. It's going to be people in the seats of Cunningham, Whitlam, Paterson, Ballarat, Hunter, Shortland. Watch: this is the next issue.
You took a massive hit. You lost a lot of paint with that referendum. You really did. You trained people how not to vote for you. But if you get the next one—
An honourable memb er interjecting—
You can laugh, mate, but if you get next one wrong you're going to be remarkable. You're going to be the second one-term government in the history of Australia.
The Albanese government is going to continue working for the shared wellbeing of the Australian people, and we're going to continue to keep our commitments. That's what we have done so far and what we're going to continue to do. I'm sorry that Australia didn't vote yes, because that's the outcome I personally supported. I know how strongly it was supported by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. We put the referendum in the terms that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people asked for through the most comprehensive referendum constitutional process that has ever occurred. That's what we said we would do and that's what we did.
I accept the outcome with good grace. In my electorate people turned out and voted in good spirit, with respect for one another and with respect for our democratic process. That's not what we're seeing with the motion that has been brought today, and it's not what we're seeing with some of the ridiculous questions that have been put in the first two days of this parliamentary week. The opposition has settled upon a method that it intends to prosecute, not that different from what we saw the last time we were in government: basically negativity at every turn, chaos at every turn and division at every turn. Create division and then blame division, practice negativity then seek to profit from negativity.
That's not what Australians want to see from this parliament. That's not what they should expect from their government. If you want a judgement on competence, just when it comes to the referendum that we held, you could look at Ken Wyatt, the cabinet minister responsible for advancing constitutional recognition under the previous government. He utterly rejected and repudiated the approach that those opposite have taken to this process. You could look to the member for Berowra, the shadow Attorney-General and the shadow minister for Indigenous Australians. He resigned his position in discussed at the approach taken by those opposite.
Irrespective of whether Australia chose yes or no, the work of reconciliation and the work of closing the gap had to continue. If Australia had voted yes on Saturday that work had to continue. The fact that Australia voted no on Saturday means that that work has to continue. It wasn't going to be done with a yes vote and it's not finished with a no vote. That's something that we should apply ourselves to hear. We should stop having these kinds of finger-pointing exercises. We should stop confecting division then blaming division. We should apply ourselves to the task that I think all Australians want to see their government apply themselves to, which is closing the gap and ending the disadvantage that afflicts too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Fremantle voted no relatively narrowly. We ran a big positive campaign, and the way that the 500 volunteers were received in the community was always respectful, even though on many occasions they were having conversations with people who had decided to vote no. That's the nature of our democracy. People coming along and trying to suggest that the process that we just had, which is a legitimate and necessary part of a democratic process, is somehow a bad thing or inherently a divisive thing, are just bananas. They are bananas. At the last election, this government was elected, pretty clearly, on a two-party-preferred outcome of 52-48. Is that divisive? That's democracy. People who come along and claim that those processes are inherently divisive and bad are doing harm to our democracy, the kind of harm that we've seen in other places, like the United States, which we should utterly reject here and which we should repudiate at every turn.
Last Thursday, the Prime Minister came to Fremantle. He came with me to the site of what will be a new urgent care clinic in Beeliar, in the south-east of my electorate, the fourth in metropolitan Perth. I think we're going to go on to deliver 58—after we promised 50—urgent care clinics, where people can go and get health care for those things that can't wait but don't need the resources of an emergency department. Forty per cent of presentations at Fiona Stanley Hospital Emergency Department are exactly those kinds of issues. Because of these urgent care clinics, people will go there with their Medicare card and get fully bulk-billed health care. Immediately after that, we went to a rally and spoke to some 'yes' campaigners. That's what this government is about—advancing the shared wellbeing of this nation in critical areas, like our public health system, and keeping our promise to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to hold a referendum that they asked for. That's what the Prime Minister did with me last Thursday. That is Anthony Albanese in a nutshell—a leader who keeps his promises.
I'm glad that the member for Fremantle mentioned public health in this matter of public importance, because public health is important. Indeed, we heard the minister for health today talking about urgent GP clinics, Medicare clinics and the Ipswich hospital-hotel. It's not Happy Hour for pharmacists, let me tell you. I know it was a slip of the tongue, but it is not Happy Hour for our pharmacists. In Trundle, with just a little community of 400, the pharmacist there, Sam Lee, who came to Australia from South Korea in 2005 and said he always wanted to own his own pharmacy, is now facing the prospect of having to leave town, of having to pack up shop because of the 60-day dispensing rules. This is an abomination. I say that because the government has talked about nothing other than the Voice in recent weeks, in recent months, indeed, since being elected to office. Shame on them for that. At the same time, they've brought in rules which are going to make it so hard for those frontline chemists. Those people are doing so much good, particularly in regional and remote Australia and particularly for our Indigenous Australians. But they now face the prospect of having their bottom lines halved and their profit margins taken away because of this nonsensical rule that the government has put in place without care or consideration for our pharmacists. Again, I say shame on them.
They said that life imitates art. In Warren Brown's excellent cartoon in the Daily Telegraph today, he depicts the Prime Minister flushing some notes down the toilet, saying, 'Oh, well. It was only $450 million.' At the same time, there's this chap behind him, saying, 'So, about my $275 saving on electricity, where exactly is that?' Indeed, one might ask the question. On no less than 97 occasions, the Prime Minister, as the opposition leader, prior to the May 2022 election, promised that there would be a $275 saving on power bills for households. There was no disclaimer. There was no saying, 'Well, it'll be in 2025 or into the Never Never.' He said it would happen under his watch when he came to government. Power prices, which had fallen eight per cent in the last 12 months of the coalition government, have just gone up and up and up. And yet all we heard about was a divisive, unnecessary referendum.
As the member for New England quite correctly pointed out, had there been two questions, had there been a question about including Indigenous history et cetera, as a preamble, into the Constitution, just acknowledging the fact that they have been here for 65,000 years, Australians would have said yes. There is no question: Australians would have adopted constitutional recognition. Then, if there had been a separate question, such as the one Australians were asked, regarding the Voice to Parliament—we all know what happened on Saturday. Unfortunately, there has been a lot said and written about the result on Saturday, and regional Australians particularly have been knocked and mocked by inner-city elites, by metropolitan media and by activists for the shame that they have supposedly brought on our nation for voting no.
Australians don't get it wrong. They might have got it a little bit wrong in May 2022, but they don't generally get it wrong when it comes to having the choice. Aren't we lucky that we have a democracy and that we can have that choice? On the War Memorial, there are 103,000 names of Australians who served and who sacrificed their lives so that we could have that vote. Now we've had the vote. Let's move on. Let's put in place the practical measures to close the gap. Let's do what Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and the opposition leader have said that we need to do. Let's make sure that we have a royal commission into child sexual abuse, particularly in vulnerable Indigenous remote communities. Let's have a royal commission whose terms of reference include where and how the $33 billion that we are spending on Indigenous programs is being spent. And let's do something else: reinstate the cashless welfare debit card which was taken away without thought or consideration for those Aboriginal women particularly and which was making such a practical difference to the lives and livelihoods of children and families in Indigenous communities. (Time expired)
The result on Saturday was not what many of us wanted to see. I am really deeply disappointed to have seen it, but we absolutely respect the decision. This is a democratic process, and I am pleased that we live in a democracy where we can have these discussions and where people can peacefully turn up somewhere and vote and have their say. Obviously we accept the result on this referendum, but I do want to acknowledge that many in our community are devastated by this result. My heart is particularly with the First Nations people who put their heart and soul into the 'yes' campaign and the process that led up to it over many, many years. I'm talking about the Uluru dialogues, the Uluru statement, the 'yes' campaign and even, of course, the many years before that that had been put into seeking constitutional recognition and the fights for Indigenous rights over many, many years. I respect very much that the Indigenous community has asked for a time of silence—a week of quiet to let the dust settle—before we start picking apart this result. I respect that very much.
I want to acknowledge that I'm proud that the majority of people in my community voted yes and that the majority of people in Indigenous communities around the country voted yes. There are people really feeling this at the moment, and I think we need to be very respectful of that. I want to thank all the people—nearly a thousand volunteers—in Canberra who came together to ask people to vote yes. Many of them had never volunteered on a political campaign before, and I was very proud to campaign alongside them. I acknowledge every conversation that they had and the many hours that they spent making phone calls and door-knocking, on street stalls, on pre poll and on polling day.
I want to acknowledge our Prime Minister. I am incredibly proud that he took this referendum to the Australian people, that he respected the agency of First Nations Australians and that he showed leadership when the oldest continuing culture on earth gave an incredibly gracious and generous invitation to Australians through the Uluru statement. I'm proud that he took that outstretched hand and that he had the guts and the determination to put the question after the many years that this process has been going on. I also I want to acknowledge the Minister for Indigenous Australians, the member for Barton, Linda Burney, who, through this whole process, has shown such leadership, such grace and such strength.
This has been a long process. It started under the Abbott government and it was the biggest-ever consultation with First Nations Australians from every corner of this vast country. They came together, with the culmination being the Uluru Statement. They said, 'In 1967 we asked to be counted and now we ask to be heard.' That was the question. When I was first elected as a new MP in 2019, there was a lot of excitement here because there seemed to be the prospect that this parliament was going to work together to progress that Uluru statement. This was back when Ken Wyatt was the Indigenous affairs minister. At that time, I had the great privilege to be involved in our caucus First Nations committee and to work with wonderful people there as we progressed that discussion. I want to acknowledge in particular—as well as Linda Burney—my friends Senator McCarthy and Senator Pat Dodson, and the conversations we had there as this came to fruition.
I also want to acknowledge the newer Indigenous members of our caucus, Senator Stewart, the member for Lingiari and the member for Robertson, and the work that they have put into this. And I want to acknowledge our local Indigenous leaders here in Canberra: Auntie Violet Sheridan and her grandson Noah Allen; and Auntie Matilda and Paul House. I want to say that although this vote didn't get up, our government remains completely committed to listening to you and to walking with you in reconciliation, and for the better future for all Australians that comes when we come together and we continue to listen.
Thank you to all the speakers who have come before me. We may never again in this parliament, certainly, and however long we're here, have an MPI after a referendum. I think we can agree that it's going to be a long time before we have one again. So it's right and proper that we discuss it in this place.
Those opposite may not like the words of the motion, but I thought that maybe in their party room or in other places within this building they would be having these conversations. If they're not then I suggest that they do, because four out of five of their own seats had a different view to theirs. That's fine; that's okay. I remember when I expressed my view quite early on that many of them and their supporters said, 'Be careful, Wolahan, be careful; you're out of touch with your electorate.' That's not a fair thing to say to anyone and I won't say it to them. All of us owe three things to our constituencies: we owe our best efforts, our selfless judgement and our honest belief. And if our honest belief is different to that of others, particularly on a referendum, then that is okay. What are people asking us to do? To be dishonest? To be a follower and not lead? I'm sure that those opposite passionately believed in this, and I commend them for it. People on our side, like my friend the member for Bass, passionately believed in it, and I commend her for it. That's all we owe our electorates.
But we have to ask: 'How, when the idea was presented, did the goodwill of this nation go from close to 70 per cent in the polls to 38? How did that happen?' If you have not taken the Australian people on this issue, we need you to take them on important issues of national security and economics. Of course we want to hold you to account and of course we want to be over there one day. But we also need you to succeed in the national interest. You embrace the moments when people on our side cross the floor or speak out against our own party; there are politics and theatre in that. None of you do that, and if you did you'd be kicked out. Maybe that extreme discipline you have within your own party doesn't help you all the time.
Yes, I acknowledge that, Deputy Speaker Claydon. Maybe that discipline doesn't help all the time, and perhaps this is the time for some honest reflection about what went wrong. We've heard commentators give the various reasons why people voted as they did. They're pretty clear, and there are four of them. The first was about division. There is value in our common humanity and dignity, and those were expressed in various different ways, like, 'Don't divide us on ancestry,' or, 'Don't divide us on race'. None of us likes the word 'race'; it's an outdated term. But that make sense to people. It makes sense to people that no-one is inferior and no-one is superior. The argument that there was a difference between race, indigeneity and an ancestry—it was a distinction without a difference. It just was. That wasn't misinformation or disinformation. It was a distinction without a difference.
On detail: the detail mattered, and there's a good comparison. You can go to the 1999 referendum and say, 'For tactical reasons, don't put a bill before people because they'll split.' But you could also go to the same-sex marriage plebiscite, where a bill was on offer and where people looked at it and said, 'I actually like what I see.' If there was a bill sitting somewhere in this building on a G drive, it would have been constructive for the Australian people to have seen it and it would have been constructive for the joint select committee to have compared it to the model that was on offer. Maybe it wasn't going to match. Maybe it wasn't fit for purpose. That would have been helpful.
In terms of legal risk, all of the legal experts agreed that the scope was extremely broad. They disagreed on the likelihood of risk, but they agreed on the consequences of risk. I think maybe that was a key turning point where, in the joint select committee, we could have properly sought to address that risk where there was disagreement, instead of having a ticking exercise where you say, 'It's good to go.' That's not how the law works. That's why the High Court has seven positions. They often split four to three. Former chief justice French and former justice Hayne have often been in the minority and been just as passionate with their view. I think it was a mistake to have sat in the committee and to just have accepted that as a given. That's why we have courts of appeal. Law is about disagreeing and getting to the truth. Finally, I'll say this: our Constitution is a structure of our democracy. It's not where we solve problems. We can still solve these problems here and in other places, and let's do it.
I must say that today it does feel like a big reach for those opposite, including for the previous speaker and the member who brought this motion, to be accusing those on this side of incompetence and division. If we look at the conduct during this referendum debate, I think that, for those on the other side, looking in the mirror when it comes to incompetence and division might be more to the truth of what's happened over the past few months. I want to particularly reflect on one part of this referendum debate and the actions of those opposite that I find particularly concerning, and that is some public statements from those opposite that seem to be aimed at undermining the integrity of the AEC, our independent electoral body.
The AEC is a world-leading electoral commission. It is an important democratic institution, it is independent and it is in none of our interests to undermine the independence and integrity of that institution. So we should not, and cannot, let anyone get away with Trump-like statements that are aimed at undermining the integrity and independence of the AEC. This type of behaviour does nothing but diminish trust in our elections and the processes of our elections. I do ask those opposite, including the Leader of the Opposition, to reflect on their behaviour and their public statements that seem to go to undermining trust in the AEC. All of us in this place and our entire country benefit from having strong democratic institutions and having a strong independent electoral watchdog, and that is what the AEC is.
I do spend a lot of time, in my role as chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, reflecting on our democratic institutions and particularly the role of the AEC. So I thought, in this context, it was particularly important for me to raise that today and talk about some of the broader implications of some of the debate that we had in the referendum. I will note as well that our committee has recommended that, for future elections, we do have truth in political advertising laws in place. I think it is important that Australians can vote in an environment whereby they feel like they go to vote armed with the facts. Again, I would ask all, particularly those opposite, to reflect on their behaviour during this referendum and to reflect on the information they put out and on whether it would meet the test of truth in political advertising. These are questions for all of us. They are questions that go to the heart of how we conduct ourselves, and they're questions that go to the heart of how we do elections in this country.
I'm proud to say that on our side of the House we do respect democracy and democratic institutions. We put this question to the Australian people, as we should have, and as Aboriginal people asked the Prime Minister to do. They came to him and said, 'We have been working on this for decades. Please put this question to the Australian people.' He had the courage to take that forward. Australians were asked to have their say. Are we disappointed with that result? Yes, we are. Do we respect that result? Do we respect the processes that led to that result? Absolutely, we do; that is what democracy is about.
While the country didn't say yes on Saturday night, my community in Jagajaga did say yes. More than 450 volunteers worked across my community to have the conversations at a local level, knocking on doors, standing at train stations, hosting conversations with neighbours, handing out at polling booths. I'm really proud of the work they did. I'm proud of the conversations they had to explain this concept and to convince people to vote yes.
While we didn't see the result we had hoped for beyond Jagajaga, I know that those people of goodwill will continue to work to close the gap, will continue to do all they can to build on what is a really positive community movement and carry that forward. I know that they will continue to stay engaged in the work that we all know we must do to support First Nations people and to support the change we need to see more broadly. Again, I thank them. It was a real privilege to stand alongside them and to campaign locally, and I am proud of the result that we did achieve in Jagajaga.
Once again, I will just ask the opposition to think about whether these types of discussions serve any purpose apart from trying to make them feel better about their behaviour over the past few months.