Senate debates

Tuesday, 14 August 2018


Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition Relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island; Report

6:23 pm

Photo of Patrick DodsonPatrick Dodson (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (Senate)) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I rise to take note of the interim report of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition Relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. The committee has been tasked with finding a way to advance the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in ways which could be supported by Australians from all walks of life and contribute to a more unified and reconciled nation. My co-chair, the member for Berowra, Mr Leeser, and I have taken on this responsibility with a shared commitment. We have listened carefully to the repeated ongoing calls for true recognition to empower First Nations communities. In our hearings, we have heard the deep level of frustration in the community about the length of time it has taken to deliver constitutional recognition of our First Nations peoples. We remain committed to working with our colleagues from across the political spectrum to help shape a way forward for the parliament and the Australian people to consider.

I thank my Senate colleagues Senator McCarthy, Senator Duniam, Senator Siewert and Senator Stoker for their contribution and also our colleagues in the other place Ms Ley, Mr Llew O'Brien and Independent member Cathy McGowan. The secretariat have been impressive, and their commitment and dedication is appreciated.

In my view, the interim report takes some small but important steps towards the greater recognition of First Nations peoples. It does three essential things. Firstly, the report highlights that the lack of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representative perspectives in policy and legislation formulation is undermining the good intentions aimed at improving education, health, economic and criminal justice outcomes. These persistent failures, highlighted in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, were termed 'the torment of our powerlessness'.

Secondly, it accepts the invitation articulated in the Uluru Statement from the Heart to work together towards the establishment of a First Nations voice to address the structural disempowerment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and enable them to have a greater say in their affairs.

Thirdly, it hears and considers the call to provide a constitutional guarantee by way of referendum to entrench an enabling power to establish a voice to the parliament.

It also outlines the committee's aspirations for our work during the second half of our inquiry and puts some important questions for consideration, particularly in chapter 7.

While the Uluru Statement from the Heart calls for a First Nations voice, it surprised many that it is in keeping with international movements by nation-states and First Nations peoples towards greater self-determination for indigenous populations, as agreed in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. International experience tells us that First Nations voices can be a form of recognition with a real potential to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and improve socioeconomic outcomes without challenging the primacy of parliament. In most cases it enhances its capacity and ability towards mutually beneficial outcomes for the nation.

With appropriate design, it would not be a third chamber of the parliament, as some have claimed. Instead, it may enable and empower First Nations peoples to have a chance to provide advice on policies and legislation that we make in this parliament and possibly create better outcomes for the future. It is clear that the effectiveness of and support for a First Nations voice will critically depend on its design and functions. Moving forward on these questions is a major task for our committee.

There is clear support in First Nations communities for a voice grounded in local representation, feeding up advice into regional and national elements. Many of the challenges faced by people in their day-to-day lives, however, do not fall within the jurisdiction of the Australian parliament. To be effective, a First Nations voice, we have been told, should operate at all three levels: local, state and territory, and national. The committee heard that a First Nations voice should be made up of elected representatives with a balance of gender. It should defer to cultural authority and also remain inclusive of those Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders displaced from their ancestral homes. The function and operation of the voice will require further fleshing out in the work of the committee.

The Referendum Council recommended that a First Nations voice should advise the parliament in relation to the heads of powers in section 51(xxvi) and section 122 of the Constitution—the race power and the territories power. Others sought a broader advice ambit to formally interact with the policymaking process as early as possible in the cycle. There are mixed views on how to make sure that governments give advice due consideration. They argue that it is not enough to have a voice if the governments continue not to listen. It is clear that the final design of any voice must be built through cooperative co-design.

Our committee have met with First Nations peoples in places across Australia in the last four months, and we have many places we wish to visit yet. In the central west of New South Wales in the town of Dubbo, we heard from Mr Des Jones from the Murdi Paaki Regional Assembly. When asked about the proposed voice, he said:

We have to have a representative body. The voice within that body must come from the people. It must be the people's voice.

One of the major issues facing the committee that we will need to work through over the next months is the question of constitutional entrenchment of the voice. Legislative advisory bodies have a chequered history, with the risk of being abolished should they fall foul of the government of the day. It was the strong view of the Uluru statement that any voice needed to be entrenched in our nation's founding documents through a change in the Constitution agreed through referendum. However, we need to work through the issue of what questions should be put to the people and whether, in order to build support, it would be sensible to legislate first and then, after experience shows the voice to be effective, put the question to the people. Others argued a different view and encouraged that the question of the voice should go to referendum now and be first in the order of things to do. This is an issue that we will continue to work through in the months ahead.

Our interim report also considers the Uluru Statement from the Heart's call for the establishment of a makarrata commission to oversee truth-telling and agreement-making. Such a proposal also has a long history. In 1983, the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs delivered the report Two hundred years later, which looked into the compact, or makarrata, between the Commonwealth government and Australian Aboriginals. I gave evidence to that committee 45 years ago, and we are still trying to achieve this goal.

We cannot honestly be celebrating our shared national history without also acknowledging the depth of our often tragic and bitterly contested past and working together to resolve the issues. The committee has more work to do over the next months. We will be undertaking further consultations and travelling to other parts of Australia to speak to both First Nations peoples and other Australians. In the Kimberley region, where I am from, we met with Neil Carter, from the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre. Neil's words were:

To move forward, we need to heal the past wrongs that have been done to our people and to have a voice in Canberra at the federal level so that we can deal with those past wrongs. That's what our elders are looking at. If you're going to have constitutional recognition of our voice in parliament, that's the sort of thing that can make us all a stronger people, white and black.

On behalf of the committee, I would like to acknowledge and thank everyone who's worked with us on this inquiry to this point and I encourage them to continue their contribution to the work of the committee. By working together, with our different starting points, we may, at long last, reach a landmark on a long and difficult road. I commend the interim report to the Senate.

6:32 pm

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to take note of the interim report of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. From the outset, I would like to commend the co-chair, Senator Patrick Dodson, and Julian Leeser MP for their shared commitment in delivering this report. I also commend my other Senate colleagues on the committee and our colleagues in the other house for their work.

Firstly, I want to acknowledge that we are here on the traditional lands of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples. I believe most sincerely that, with the numerous submissions—over 400 submissions—and the witnesses that have come to the inquiry to date, which heartened me deeply, this parliament of our country, both the Senate and the House, will navigate a way in harnessing the hearts that are coming together, giving advice, giving constructive criticism but also giving a vision for the future of our country in a way that we can reflect on and say, 'Are we bold enough, are we brave enough, to take the steps that can and must unite our country?'

As Senator Dodson said in March this year, the Australian parliament appointed our committee to build on the work—not to replicate the work but to build on the work—of the 2015 joint select committee, the 2012 expert panel, the 2017 referendum council report and the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Pinpointing the beginning of the reconciliation movement is difficult, but it includes the 1967 referendum, the Northern Territory Land Rights Act, Vincent Lingiari, the Racial Discrimination Act, the Barunga Statement, the Redfern Statement, Mabo, the Native Title Act, the Bringing them home report, the stolen generations and the Sorry Day marches, Closing the Gap and now constitutional recognition and the Uluru Statement from the Heart. When it is listed like that, it is clear to see the tremendous amount of positive work that generations of Australians, those still with us today and those who've long gone, have contributed to our country. The committee's role is to pull all of that work together to work towards a model for recognition, for truth-telling, for respect and reconciliation. I do commend the members of that committee.

It is wonderful to travel the country with members of all sides and really examine this in a very sincere and genuine way to say to the Australian people, both black and white, that this parliament takes this path very seriously. This decades-long history of work towards recognition, truth-telling and reconciliation shows there is an enormous amount of goodwill in our nation, and our committee is hearing this. We urge Australians in the coming months to continue to come forward to our committee with your submissions to guide our parliament here on the lands of the Ngambri people. This process won't be easy and may not be pretty either, but it certainly will be worth it. It will be worth the hard conversations that challenge people to think truthfully about our nation's history and, even more preciously, about our nation's future.

This report gives an outline as to how a First Nations voice to parliament could fulfil a number of functions, including serving as a representative body or bodies which provide mechanisms to consult and engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on policies, legislation and services which affect them. The voice will advance self-determination and lead to greater local decision-making, economic advancement and improved social outcomes, as well as contribute to a more unified and reconciled nation. What the report does is confirm a First Nations voice to parliament. It's not a third chamber of parliament, which is something that we have heard consistently.

The concept of a representative body to be a voice for First Nations people is not new, in fact, according to the evidence that came through. I urge all senators and members of the House to have a read of this interim report, where we do canvas very honestly the questions around the pros and cons of different organisations, of different structures, of land councils, of the congress, of the national body ATSIC. And it was important to hear men and women come forward from all persuasions, whether they had a full role in ATSIC or not, to speak honestly about what we could learn as a country from that. The committee heard views on the features of ATSIC that could inform the design of the voice, including its relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and its regional boundaries.

It was wonderful to hear from the honourable Amanda Vanstone, who was the federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs at the time of the abolition of ATSIC. In response to questions about ATSIC's regional councils she said:

I didn't have as negative a view of the ATSIC regional structures as of the central one, but if something's going to go, you really have to make a clean job of it. In hindsight, that might have been a mistake.

The honesty in coming forward was important on this journey and continues to be for this committee, because we need to understand what was it about structures like ATSIC that worked. What were the structures or elements of ATSIC that we need to stay away from? It came through consistently in the first couple of months in terms of the regional boundaries, in terms of the elections and how the elections took place. We had people like Bill Gray, who was a former secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and former chief executive officer of ATSIC, pointed out some of the negatives or things we had to watch out for if we were going to go down this path of elections, if we were going to go down this path of influencing, contributing and advising to policies.

How does it work in the mechanics of the cabinet process? How does it work in the mechanical structure of the parliament? At what point could an advisory group be included? These are the sensible, mature conversations, the hard conversations that are being held by this committee. The Hon. Fred Chaney, AO, a former minister for Aboriginal affairs, is another person who noted that the structures of ATSIC brought together regional administration, which he suggested was essential to closing the gap but could also feed up to a national voice. Again, these are men and women of all persuasions—black and white, young and old—who are providing very valuable information to our committee.

The issue that consistently has been raised also as a fairly singular important point—and Senator Dodson spoke about it here—is truth-telling. The voice must be representative of First Nations people, including women, elders, young people, traditional owners and the stolen generations. Additionally, this representation needs to occur across urban, regional and remote areas and be representative of Torres Strait Islander people, both in the Torres Strait and on the mainland. Again, these are concepts and ideas that continually come forward to our committee, and I whole heartedly agree with the statements.

All First Nations people have a right to contribute to the development and implementation of the voice regardless of gender, lineage or socioeconomic status. This report has put the development of the voice squarely back on the political agenda, which is a really good thing for our country. We can make right that step in going forward with the voice. We can do this.

At the 20th anniversary of the Garma Festival this year, the message was clear, as it was last year, when Yolngu elders came together to call on parliamentarians to stand strong. Irrespective of your political persuasion and beliefs, come together in the knowledge that our country has unfinished business. And again that message came through at Garma.

The First Nations people are not giving up on the voice, and this side of the House is certainly not either. Labor remains unwavering in its commitment to honour the views reflected in the Uluru statement and the final report from the Referendum Council that a voice that needs to be enshrined in our constitution and that a truth-telling commission needs to be established. (Time expired)

6:42 pm

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

I'll only spend a few minutes taking note of this report given that two of my colleagues on the committee have made such excellent contributions. I would also like to join in acknowledging and thanking Senator Dodson and Mr Leeser for their excellent co-chairing of the committee. I was particularly heartened, when I was at Garma this year, not only to note the points that Senator McCarthy just made in terms of the community calling for support of the voice but also to hear Noel Pearson say the committee report exceeded his expectations. Given that I don't always see eye-to-eye with Noel, I've got to admit, I think that we are on a unity ticket on this issue in that I think this report—although it's probably a bit rude saying this as part of the committee—has made an excellent contribution to progressing the voice because it has enabled people to very clearly articulate their support for the voice. That's a message that I took on very strongly.

There is very strong support for the voice. You'll note that in chapter 7, under paragraph 7.18, it says some common themes have emerged from evidence and committee, and that is the strong support for the concept of the voice. I can't articulate that strong enough. Support for local and regional structures has also been articulated. It's my personal opinion—and this was reinforced for me last weekend when I was at Garma—that there is strong support out there for constitutional entrenchment of the Indigenous voice. People articulated that really strongly in a lot of the evidence that we heard. They raised ATSIC and the fact that it was there one day and gone another, basically, and they articulated that the power of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to make decisions was taken away. They very strongly want the voice body entrenched in the community. The evidence was also very clear that people didn't see the voice body, whatever it looks like into the future, as a third chamber, and so we should just knock that ridiculous concept on the head.

There is a list of questions that are clearly articulated in chapter 7, and I really urge the community to read this report. If you're really, really interested, go and read the Hansard of the hearings that we had. You will hear the passion of people for the Indigenous voice, and for the makarrata commission encompassing truth-telling and treaties. There is really strong support for those concepts. There was overwhelming support for the fact that these were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, chosen by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, clearly putting the Uluru Statement from the Heart on the table. That was really strongly articulated as well.

What was really strongly articulated, too, was that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples want to be able to determine who goes on that voice body when the structures are eventually put in place. I, for one, am feeling very optimistic about how we can take the work of the committee forward and I have more optimism now about the ability of this place to come together to ensure that we have the change that has been so strongly pursued, as has been articulated by both Senator Dodson and Senator McCarthy in their contributions.

I urge Australians to read this report, look at the questions and provide your thoughts to the committee so that we can complete the task that we have been given. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.