Press Conference - Sydney

27 Aug 2022
Prime Minister, Minister for Indigenous Australians
Shaquille O’Neal; Indigenous Voice to Parliament

PRIME MINISTER ANTHONY ALBANESE: Good morning. Today we're met with Mr Shaquille O'Neal, talking with him about the Voice to Parliament and about constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians. Shaq is someone who is well known to younger people, and one of the things that we have been doing is trying to mobilise support for the Voice to Parliament by talking with sporting figures. We know that Mr O'Neal does a lot of work in the United States about social justice and lifting people up who are marginalised, including through sporting organisations. We have had discussions with the AFL, the NRL. And here he is. How are you going?

SHAQUILLE O’NEAL: Hello Australia, nice to see you. I’m here in your country – if there is anything you need from me, let me know.


O’NEAL: Congratulations to you guys. And I want you to know: Shaq loves Australia. All right?


O’NEAL: All right, I’ll see you soon.

PRIME MINISTER: Have a good time.

O’NEAL: I need that government clearance too.

PRIME MINISTER: That will be done. Linda presented Shaq with a boomerang that may well need some special customs clearance to get through into the into the United States and out of Australia. But what we've been doing is part of what you'll see us doing over a considerable period of time. We want to build the broadest possible support and we want to engage with people who can connect with young people in particular, but with all sections of our society. Shaq has at that record, particularly when it comes to bringing people together of different backgrounds which is consistent with our approach to a constitutionally recognised Voice to Parliament and recognising that Australian history didn't begin in 1788. We should be proud that Australia is the land where we share our great continent and nation with the oldest continuous civilization on earth. Shaq has agreed to do some vids and to have a chat about the importance of bringing people together. And that's really what the Voice to Parliament and constitutional recognition is about: lifting up our great country, providing a moment of which we can all be proud when Indigenous Australians are recognised in our Constitution. By respecting Indigenous Australians and asking them for their views on matters that affect them – on education, housing, health and other issues – then we stand a much better chance of getting positive outcomes in Closing the Gap, which is something that we need to do. Finally, it is about how we see ourselves, but it is also about how Australia is seen in the world. Australia will be seen more positively when we demonstrate our maturity as a nation by having our birth certificate recognise our full history.

LINDA BURNEY MP, MINISTER FOR INDIGENOUS AUSTRALIANS: I will make two additional points. This forthcoming referendum is not a referendum that is owned by the government. This is a referendum for the Australian people. We are very much seeing it that way. As the Prime Minister said, it is about making everyone proud, and filling that glaring omission in our birth certificate by recognising First People. Finally, it will have two important roles - a Voice to Parliament. It will be about our birth certificate and it will be about all Australians. But it will also be about practical things, about improving the life choices and chances of First Nations people, whether it be life expectancy, incarceration, housing, education. By asking First Nations people, which is an act of common decency and good manners, what the legislation and the laws of the parliament is passing, looking at what the effect will be on First Nations people is what the Voice will be about.

JOURNALIST: inaudible

PRIME MINISTER: It was a very positive conversation. Shaq asked to meet and I was certainly happy to meet during his visit to Australia. He is interested in this country, this is his second visit to Australia. He knows that we are a warm and generous people. He wanted to inform himself about what this debate was about by engaging directly with the Minister for Indigenous Affairs and myself as the Prime Minister. It is a really positive discussion about the way that Australia is seen in the world.

JOURNALIST: Do you think that Shaq, through these discussions, will be speaking to a global audience?

PRIME MINISTER: Quite clearly he is a global figure. He is a big figure in all ways

JOURNALIST: inaudible.

PRIME MINISTER: No, but what he does know, and what the world knows, is that there is a gap there between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in life expectancy, health outcomes, education, housing, infant mortality. The world knows about these issues. People who are concerned about social justice and opportunity, regardless of their background and the circumstances of their birth, they are interested in these issues. The issues of the rights of Indigenous people are global issues. Here in Australia, I believe that it will send a really positive message to the world about our maturity as a nation if we say we recognise and we are proud of the fact that our history didn't began in 1788. Of course, it didn't end then either. We need to recognise the fullness of our history in this nation, the fact that Indigenous people looked after this nation for at least 60,000 years. Since then, of course, we have had people come to this country to share this continent with Indigenous Australians. The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a generous and gracious offer, it is a hand out asking for that hand to be joined in partnership going forward.

JOURNALIST: Regarding the detail of the Voice: it’s been described to me that what you are trying to achieve here is simply saying, ‘Do we need a bridge over Sydney Harbour, yes or no? We’ll focus on the design once we know what the Australian public want the bridge in the first place.’ Is that a fair appraisal of your approach?

PRIME MINISTER: There is a fair bit of detail out there already. I will ask Linda to add to this but Tom Calma and Marcia Langton did a lot of work. But also, it is important that people don't overcomplicate what this is. The draft wording that I put out at Garma is something that is being worked through. It is not my wording. It is being worked through, including by some of the best legal minds in this country, working through saying what the Voice is and also what it isn't. It will recognise First Nations people, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, in our Constitution, which at the moment is a gap. Secondly, it will make it clear that they should be consulted through a Voice on matters that affect them. Thirdly, it makes clear through the draft wording that it is not a third chamber, it's not something that usurps the power of parliament. It is something that will be subservient to legislation in the parliament. So it may change over a period of time. To use your Harbour Bridge analogy, from time to time you might need extra lanes on a road, but you know that the road is necessary and that is what we need. A bridge isn't a bad analogy, because it is a bridge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians – that we're talking about here.

BURNEY: There is a lot of information out there. Tom Calma and Marcia Langton co-designed what a Voice might look like. There has been two parliamentary inquiries and there was much work done in the last decade by academics, constitutional lawyers and First Nations people. There is an enormous amount of information already out there. The other thing is that, at the end of the day, and the Uluru Statement is very specific and clear about this, it will be the parliament that will make the final decisions about the way in which the Voice will look, and what its functions would be. The Uluru Statement was clear - it will not usurp the parliament. It will be an advisory body only and it will be a body that is enshrined in the Constitution. It will be a permanent body.

JOURNALIST: Will there be an opportunity to ask Shaq any questions?


JOURNALIST: Referendums are very difficult to succeed, so you are taking quite a political risk. Are you prepared, personally, if it fails?

PRIME MINISTER: We have had a discussion about this prior to the Garma speech that was worked on by Linda and Patrick Dodson and others as part of the discussion that we had as a government. Before the 2019 election there was a commitment to advance this issue, to advance the Voice, and not much happened during the last term, or not enough happened. I think that has been acknowledged, graciously, by the former minister Ken Wyatt. What we are of the view of is that that, yes, there is always a risk. But there is also a very clear certainty if you don't have a referendum. If you don't have a referendum, by definition you will not advance and it will not succeed. I certainly don't have the view that my election as Prime Minister represents an opportunity to just occupy the space, it is how do you do things for the better. That requires risk, but I believe that in reality it is either an opportunity to succeed or a certainty of not succeeding. I have thought that through. We are deliberately creating the space for movement across the political spectrum.

JOURNALIST: Are you not worried about further division throughout the campaign? That was one of the key concerns about the same sex marriage plebiscite, some pretty bad rhetoric was raised. Are you concerned that that may be a consequence?

PRIME MINISTER: Of course we are concerned. But the truth is, inappropriate comments have been, unfortunately, from time to time, including from political representatives, directed towards Indigenous people over a long period of time. I think some of the comments that have been made about this debate are ill-advised. But it is also such an opportunity to bring the country together, such an opportunity for unity going forward. There were similar comments made prior to Kevin Rudd issuing the Apology to the Stolen Generations. For a long time there was a delay. There was an argument put that it would be a divisive moment. The truth is, I look back at the footage of kids at school stopping and watching on big screens, that was a unifying moment for our country and I was proud to have been part of it. It was the proudest moment I have had in parliament. I believe this will be exactly the same. It will be one where people look back and go: ‘why didn't we do it before?’ There is no downside, only upside. It is an opportunity to bring the country together.

BURNEY: It’s really about all Australians. It is about First Nations people and recognition. And First Nations people have said to me directly that we are willing to take the chance on a referendum. The Prime Minister and I are of the view, and the Australian people are also of the view, that there is a new dawn coming in this country. I have been involved in Aboriginal affairs for 45 years and I have never felt the optimism, I have never seen the curiosity that non- Aboriginal Australians have about truth, about the story of this country. This is a chance to give all of those people a way to demonstrate their support: you actually go and cast a vote for decency. And I think Australians will turn up.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible) the blueprint of a final design for the Voice? Why isn’t it the prominent option for (inaudible)?

PRIME MINISTER: No, I haven't said that. I have made it very clear in my comments and I repeat them again today: I'm creating the space for people to come on board. This isn't my decision. This isn't my proposal. I want this to be the Australian people's proposal. I want it to be supported, not just by the Labor Party, but by as many political parties as possible, by the business community, by the union movement, by the non-government sector, by sporting organisations. I've had discussions with churches. I've had discussions with the AFL, with the National Rugby League, with basketball organisations, with netball, with other sporting organisations. I've had discussions, of course primarily, with Indigenous Australians. We travelled to the Torres Strait just a week ago to make sure that we heard directly from Torres Strait Islander peoples. We want this to be everyone's proposal. We are not being prescriptive here, deliberately. When we come down to the legislation being considered in the parliament, that will be the time when the specific wording is agreed to. Even in the speech I gave at Garma, I made it very clear that here is a proposal to move the debate forward, not to end the debate and say ‘this is it’ – to move the debate forward. I think that is really important. I'm genuine about this. I'm genuine about inclusiveness. And what people look for is for prescription, so they can then say that ‘in that 170 page report I disagree with what was on paragraph three on page 54 and therefore I'm against this proposal’. I am not going down that road. That does not mean there won't be more specificity, there will be. But I want people to own this process. Peter Dutton said to me, for example, that he wasn't aware of what the question would look like. We have put the question of what it might look like out there now. We have put out there precisely what the words might look like now. But if there is a different word or a tweaking here or there, we are up for that debate as well. Maximising support for this proposal is what we are aimed at. I have spoken to media organisations explicitly about this as well. I want this to succeed.

JOURNALIST: Minister Burnie, if I could ask you, what do you think of having celebrity endorsements such as Shaquille O'Neal? Does it sway undecided voters?

BURNEY: Well, that is up to voters. But I am really pleased and very proud that Shaq has sought a request through the Prime Minister to specifically talk about the plans that we have in relation to a referendum. He said it was a noble task, that it was important. I think the most significant thing in what the Prime Minister has said is that we need to build a broad-based support across the country for a referendum change. It's not easy in Australia, we all know that. And I think having Shaq O'Neal as part of a campaign is important. But it is also extremely important that we build support across the community. It was just so wonderful to meet him and to see that there is international interest from people like Mr O'Neal in relation to the nation-building project that we have under way about the referendum.

JOURNALIST: Were you surprised?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, he approached us through the people who organised his visit to Australia. We responded very positively to it and it was a terrific meeting. We will try to meet as many as many people as possible – anyone who wants to be supportive of this proposal, we are up for it. We presented him with a Rabbitohs jumper from Souths, which was very nice. It was nice of Mr O'Neal to give my son a Lakers shirt. He was very chuffed with it. We just want to seek out support wherever we can. We are up for it. I say to Australians, get on board this. This will improve the nation. It will improve our self-confidence in the way we see ourselves, but it will also improve the way that we are seen by the world.