Senate debates

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Committees

Constitutional Recognition of ATSIP; Report

3:56 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I also rise to make a contribution to the discussion on the report of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. I was a member of the committee, and, as Senator Dodson pointed out, the Greens tabled a minority report. There were a number of reasons for that, but, first off, I want to make a few introductory comments.

I very strongly concur with Senator Dodson and Senator McCarthy that through this committee process we heard very, very strong—in fact, I would say overwhelming—support for the voice. There was support for a voice to parliament that is advisory, not a third chamber, and I think the report comprehensively deals with that issue. But we heard comprehensive support for the voice. What I also heard was that people wanted it in the Constitution. They've seen their institutions that were set up before taken away with virtually the stroke of a pen, and they don't want that. That was one of the reasons I felt compelled, after much thinking, to table a minority report.

A number of us in this place have been involved in the debate around constitutional recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, our First Nations peoples, for a long time. Some have been involved a lot longer than I have. But in the time that I have been involved—when there's been a formal process through this place and also as a member of the expert panel with not Senator Dodson but Professor Dodson at the time—we've been on a journey of learning about constitutional recognition.

The Referendum Council were asked to consider constitutional recognition. They went through an extensive consultation process and came back and said: 'We actually don't want what you've been talking about. This is what's important: the voice.' It was the most comprehensive process of consultation that had been undertaken with our First Nations peoples in a very, very long time, and that's what they said. I have urged members of this place many times to read it. I urge you again to read it. It so eloquently describes what the aspirations of First Nations peoples are. Every time I read it, honestly, it brings tears to my eyes because it is so powerful. That was another reason I felt compelled to do a minority report. It was because we have been on this journey, because we have been trying to reach a consensus on an approach.

Every report that I've signed onto I have agreed with, even though I might have wanted to go further, even though it might not have exactly represented the Greens' views or my personal views. I come from a political party that prides itself on consensus, particularly the Greens Western Australia. That's what we were founded on, and we continue to try and practise that at all times. I can't say we're perfect at it. But that's why it took me a great deal of heart searching to come to this decision, in that I couldn't honestly sign up to this report knowing that many members of First Nations communities actually don't support the approach—the fact that the design should come first—and that we in this place still cannot come to a mutual agreement that the voice and constitutional recognition should be enshrined in our Constitution. And I thought it was time that we acknowledged that, that we acknowledged that we're not there yet. Signing up to the majority report signals that we are still on the journey to get there, when some of us are already there. I thought that it was more honest for me to articulate that I think there are these differences that we still need to address.

That's not to say that the recommendations—in particular recommendation 3, on truth-telling, and recommendation 4, on a national resting place—are not extremely important. Senator Dodson made a point about the national resting place. Of course we support a national resting place. We strongly support the concept of the voice at the local, regional and national levels, or however that then looks.

I put a lot of weight on hearing from everybody, all members of our community, but in particular I paid a lot of attention to the very late submission, I will acknowledge, from the First Nations members of the former Referendum Council. They outlined putting in place a process—they suggested a legislative process—that would lead to the design of the body. The argument they make is that other institutions that are enshrined in our Constitution, such as the High Court, were not designed before they were in the Constitution, and I take that very much to heart. They articulated and in fact drafted some legislation. They also have some very simple words that could go into the Constitution in terms of enshrining the body. A lot of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are concerned that constitutional recognition could undermine sovereignty and treaty, and I think the words that we could put in the Constitution, as outlined in that submission particularly, are very simple and I don't believe they would do that. The majority report outlines, I think, 19 different options for what the body could look like and how you could word the Constitution. The committee, in its interim report, actually asked people to give us their suggestions, so of course people are going to come forward with different views and potentially different models. It's not beyond the wit of this place to come up with a way forward through those particular models and suggestions.

We strongly support the voice being enshrined in the Constitution. We are deeply concerned about moving to a legislative model articulating the body for the voice, for a number of reasons. One is that I heard very strongly that people wanted the voice to be in the Constitution. We are deeply concerned that there will be a lot of expectations put on a body set up through legislation. Of course, bodies take quite a long time to get going. Any institutions take a while to get going. We are deeply concerned that that would then be reflected on many years down the track before we got to then enshrining the voice in the Constitution. A lot of people questioned whether we would in fact ever get there.

We are deeply committed to continuing the national dialogue. Our minority report does not mean, 'We are out of here; we don't want to discuss it anymore.' We are very keen to see an ongoing discussion of the voice. We are deeply committed to its enshrinement in the Constitution and we want to be part of the national, respectful conversation.

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