I rise to contribute to the debate on the Constitutional Alteration Bill.
“We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.”
That’s the closing line of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
On Friday, it will be six years since that patient, gracious, generous and optimistic invitation was extended to the people of Australia.
A hand outstretched. A powerful show of faith in the innate decency and fairness of all Australians.
Through this legislation, and this referendum, our Government is giving the people of Australia the opportunity to take up that invitation.
To grasp that hand.
If not now, when?
Already, this gracious call has been answered by faith groups and community organisations.
By local sporting clubs, and our national sporting codes, enriched for decades by the skill and genius of Indigenous superstars.
By universities, by the business sector and the trade union movement.
By every single Premier and Chief Minister across the political spectrum.
And by everyday Australians in their thousands: knocking on doors and making phone calls, explaining how a Yes vote will give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people greater opportunities – and make us a better and more united and more reconciled country.
Mr Speaker, later this year, all Australians will be asked one question:
“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?”
Voting Yes will add the following words to our Constitution, as proposed in this legislation:
Chapter IX Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples
129 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice
In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia:
- There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice;
- 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;
- 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.
Mr Speaker, this differs, and is the only time there has been a change made from the draft wording that I put forward at the Garma Festival in July of last year.
At that time, when I put it forward, I said that it was a draft and we were open to debate. And I encouraged Members to come forward, and indeed, the public to come forward as well.
Since then, this draft in this legislation improves on the Garma legislation, and shows the fact that we were trying, as much as possible, to embrace as many people as possible going forward with this wording, and we took that on board.
The difference between the Garma words and these words in this legislation is the following:
The Garma words had in recognition but they said of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders rather than Islander Peoples, that's the difference there.
Point one remains exactly the same. In point two, we, together with the Referendum Working Group, agreed to changes to make it clear in the second and third points the primacy of the parliament, to make it even clearer.
So it adds the before Parliament to make it clear it's this Parliament, and of the Commonwealth is added in section two to make it clear that this is what we are talking about.
There are two critical changes in clause three. The first is to change the words that were there. It said:
The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to the composition, functions, powers and procedures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
That was the Garma wording. There were two critical matters changed in the wording that's before this Parliament now. One is to add the word matters, so it reads with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
What that does legally is very much broaden and make it very clear the primacy of the Parliament. And the second is the key word including, its composition functions powers and procedures. Again, making it very clear, making it even tighter, the legal definition.
This form of words is legally sound, and should be the words that goes forward.
Indeed, to quote the advice of the Solicitor-General, advice that I note was called for by those opposite. They now have it, the Australian people have it.
In the words of the Solicitor-General:
[Section] 129 is not just compatible with the system of representative and responsible government prescribed by the Constitution, but an enhancement of that system.
Powerful words by the Solicitor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, backed up people such as former Chief Justice French, former Justice Hayne, the leading legal academic on constitutional matters, Professor Twomey, and so many others.
Mr Speaker, some have suggested that we alter or remove the second clause, specifically, the reference to 'Executive Government'.
And I certainly respect the Member for Berowra and his motives. We share a passion for advancing reconciliation with First Peoples. And he has my utmost respect.
But the argument put forward is not a legal or constitutional one.
They are not saying that the Voice shouldn’t talk to the Executive Government.
They’re just saying that it shouldn’t be included, that part, in the Constitution.
In recognition as well, of course, that the Executive Government under our system, as opposed to systems such as the United States, derives its power from this Parliament. From this Parliament.
Instead, they want to alter the proposal in the hope of gaining more support.
To that I say two things:
Firstly, the changes made to the Garma draft and agreed to by the Referendum Working Group are aimed precisely at reinforcing the primacy of the Parliament.
Secondly, in spite of that, the Liberal Party frontbench already locked themselves into saying No before the committee process, that they called for and they said was important, had even commenced its work.
And the National Party decided to say No before the draft question had even been finalised.
From the outset, instead of seeking ways to agree – they have looked for excuses to disagree.
This is in spite of the fact that in 2019, both political parties went to that election saying that a Voice would be advanced.
That the same thing occurred, of course, going back to then-Prime Minister Howard, who spoke about the need for constitutional recognition all those years ago.
Instead of taking the chance to unify, there are some that have sought only to divide.
Now clearly, there is no form of words that will satisfy some of the leaders of the No campaign.
Indeed, the Leader of the Opposition gave a speech in this Chamber that is simply unworthy of the alternative Prime Minister of this nation.
And therefore, we will not undermine the hard work and the goodwill of so many people across such a broad breadth of the political spectrum, including the former Minister for Indigenous Affairs, who I pay tribute to today.
Minister Ken Wyatt, who worked so hard to bring us to this moment and who was included and was a part of, of course, the Referendum Working Group that came to this united position.
Mr Speaker, alongside the proposed question and amendments, the Referendum Working Group also published a very clear set of design principles, and I want to go through them today, because what they did was explain what Constitutional Recognition through a Voice is and how it will work.
- The Voice will give independent advice to the Parliament and Government.
It will be able to make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
It can do that proactively – as well as to respond to requests from the Parliament or the Government.
And the Parliament could seek its input early in the development of laws and policies.
- It will be chosen by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people based on the wishes of local communities.
Not appointed by the Executive Government or the Parliament, chosen by locals, serving a fixed term, to ensure regular accountability.
- The Voice will be representative of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, gender balanced and include youth.
Members would be chosen from each of the states, territories and the Torres Strait Islands. With specific remote representatives as well as representation for the mainland Torres Strait Islander population.
All of that work, of course, occurred under the former government, under the report commissioned, lead by Marcia Langton and Tom Calma, under the former Coalition government.
- It will be empowering, community-led, inclusive, respectful and culturally informed
The Voice will consult with grassroots communities, with regional bodies to ensure the representations it makes are informed by their views and experience.
- It will be accountable and transparent
Subject to standard governance and reporting requirements.
- It will work alongside existing organisations and traditional structures
Respecting their work and their contribution.
- It will not have a program delivery function
- It will not have a veto power
Over decisions by this Parliament or by the Government.
These design principles are the product of years of hard work, including by the expert members of the Referendum Working Group.
They also represent years of consultation and dialogue among communities.
The more than one thousand meetings that took place in the lead-up to the First Nations Constitutional Convention that was held at Uluru in 2017.
Thousands of conversations on country, in cities and in regional towns.
And – just as importantly – lifetimes of experience in what works and what doesn’t.
Decades of providing expert advice, authoring reports, leading Royal Commissions, building organisations.
Only for those recommendations to be ignored by governments that believed they knew best.
The choice we have now – as politicians and as citizens – is are we going to repeat those same mistakes.
Should we just keep doing what we have been doing for such a long period of time and expect a different outcome.
Are we going to accept another 100 years of expensive, well-intentioned failure by governments of all persuasions.
Across the board ,we have failed. That is why we have a Closing the Gap report every year, and why tragically, in so many areas, we have not closed the gap.
Are we going to sentence another generation to lives of lesser opportunity - to, as Uluru says, the ‘torment of powerlessness’.
Or are we going to learn from the success of programs that empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people:
Justice reinvestment in regional New South Wales – including by the former Perrottet Government that I pay tribute to their support for this process – reducing the crime rate, reducing the re-offending rate and improving educational outcomes.
Indigenous Rangers - proudly working to preserve our beautiful national parks.
Community Health Organisations – consistently delivering better services and getting better outcomes.
The success stories are there to see – but consulting and listening and co-operating shouldn’t be a matter of luck, or a question of who is in government.
It should be available, because consultation and listening is always the best option.
Mr Speaker, it is disappointing but not surprising that the loudest campaigners for a No vote have already been reduced to relying on things that are plainly untrue.
It’s also very telling.
And in his desperation, the Leader of the Opposition is now seeking to amplify this misinformation – and all of its catastrophizing and contradictions.
Shouting about ‘re-racialising the nation’.
Those exhausted clichés of Orwell and ‘identity politics’.
The ongoing conceit that there is apparently no inequality in Australia now, no legacy of discrimination, no disadvantage to address, no gap to close.
That logic suggests there is no need for a Minister for Indigenous Affairs. Job done.
This is the same Leader of the Opposition who says that he boycotted the National Apology because he thought it was just symbolism and wouldn’t make a practical difference.
Now he is leading a campaign against Constitutional Recognition through a Voice, saying that he only wants symbolism - not something that will make a practical difference.
Let’s be clear about this.
There is, of course, a powerful, uplifting symbolism in recognising the First Peoples of Australia in our Constitution.
The fact that we share this island continent with the world’s oldest continuous culture is a source of pride for all of us.
The fact that our national story stretches back 65,000 years and more – is something our nation’s birth certificate should recognise and celebrate.
All this alone is a reason to vote Yes.
But this alone won’t create jobs in communities, or get children through school, or tackle disease and disadvantage.
That’s why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in every part of our country have repeatedly said that they don’t just want to be celebrated - they want to be heard.
Because the Constitutional Recognition Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are seeking themselves is the opportunity to improve their lives.
In the words of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, so ‘our children will flourish’.
So when No campaigners make these wild claims about what the Voice will concern itself with, I simply say to them – and indeed to all Australians following this debate – for just a moment, put yourself in the shoes of the people calling for this change.
Because for most non-Indigenous Australians, this will make no difference to their lives. But it is an opportunity to make a difference for Indigenous Australians.
Imagine you stand on the other side of the ‘gap’.
Imagine your brothers and sisters are likely to die a decade younger than the general population.
Imagine your daughter is more at risk during childbirth – and your grandchild more at risk of infant mortality.
Imagine your son statistically more likely to go to jail than university.
In 2023, imagine that people in your community twice as likely to commit suicide as anywhere else.
Imagine the rate of disease and disadvantage among your friends and neighbours is far higher than elsewhere.
Imagine all of this – and then imagine that after generations of being sidelined and ignored, you are finally given an opportunity to change it. To be heard.
You are finally given a meaningful say in the programs and policies that you know can work, that you know will make a difference.
Do you think you would spend a single second thinking about public holidays, or parking tickets, or any of the other nonsense the No campaign go on about?
This referendum is about two things: recognition and listening.
Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our Constitution – and listening to them so we get better outcomes.
It is the means to the end. The end is about closing the gap.
Mr Speaker, in conclusion, Australians will cast their vote in this referendum, sixty years after the Yirrkala Bark petitions were tabled in the old parliament.
56 years after the 1967 referendum.
48 years after the sand poured through Vincent Lingiari’s hands.
32 years after the Barunga Statement, painted and planned by Yunupingu, was hung on the wall of this Parliament.
31 years after the High Court upheld Eddie Mabo’s call for justice and overturned the discriminatory fiction of Terra Nullius.
15 years after we said Sorry to the Stolen Generations.
All of those were opposed at the time.
All of those, we were told would lead to bad outcomes.
All of those are celebrated now.
We hold them up as milestones of national progress.
We see them as testament to the instinctive generosity and optimism and character of the Australian people.
A Yes vote at this Referendum is a chance for all of us to take the next step on the journey of reconciliation.
To be counted and to be heard on the right side of history.
More than that, to be part of a better and more reconciled future nation.
I say, Mr Speaker, if not now, when?
In this chamber we are each of us one vote among 151.
In this referendum we will only be one vote among 18 million.
Because this historic opportunity belongs to the people.
This is a chance for Australians from all faiths and backgrounds and from all walks of life to celebrate the best of our nation, to show the best of ourselves.
To vote Yes for Constitutional Recognition.
To vote Yes for the form that it has been asked for, through a Voice.
To say Yes to the invitation to walk together to a better future.
With humility and hope and optimism, I commend this Bill to the House