BEN FORDHAM, HOST: Well, the Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, is joining us live on the line for the first time in 2023. Prime Minister, good morning to you.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, PRIME MINISTER: Good morning. Good to be with you.
FORDHAM: Thank you very much for talking to us. Look, I'm going to focus on the Voice today because I'm sure you would appreciate that there are a lot of people who want to try and get as much information as they can. And I note that last night on Sky News with Chris Kenny, I might just kick off with this one, he said, 'If the referendum was to fail, would you go ahead and legislate a Voice anyway?' Now, you wouldn't answer that question. I think it's important that you do, because otherwise people will be wondering, 'Why are we going to the ballot box anyway?'
PRIME MINISTER: Well, one of the things that I'm not doing is leading with a position that assumes a loss of a referendum. That would not be a very sensible thing to do. And I am determined to do what I can, along with so many other Australians who will be campaigning for a 'yes' vote from across the political spectrum. And that is my focus.
FORDHAM: But it's important, isn't it, when we are being asked to go to the ballot box and to say yes or no, that we know whether or not that vote counts?
PRIME MINISTER: It does count. The whole point of a referendum is that you change the constitution. And that will do just two things. One, it will recognise First Nations people, Aboriginal Australians, in our Constitution, in our nation's birth certificate. That is something that's been spoken about for decades, but never achieved. And secondly, it will say that there needs to be a consultative body, not a body that makes determination or makes funding decisions, but one that enables Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be asked about policies that will directly impact them so that we can close the gap in education, in health, in all of those issues. That is what is being asked. Now, the issue of legislation for the Voice comes after that, because the Voice is subservient to the Parliament. It's not seeking to be above it, or even beside it. It's just a body where the Parliament will continue to be the decision-making body in Australia.
FORDHAM: I understand that. And I think the overwhelming majority of Australians agree that it's long overdue that we recognise Indigenous Australians in the Constitution. But on the question of the Voice, if Australia says no, you're probably still going to say yes.
PRIME MINISTER: No. What I'm trying to do here is to do what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have asked for since 2017. That was a process leading up to the Voice.
FORDHAM: But in 2023, you're asking us to say yes or no, and you won't confirm whether or not you will follow that judgement by the Australian people. If Australia says no at the referendum, you may still say yes, you may still legislate it.
PRIME MINISTER: No, you're confusing rugby league and rugby union here. If Australians say no, then there will be no constitutional change.
FORDHAM: Okay. Let me ask you just about some comments you made early on about the Voice. I'll just start with a simple question, will the Voice be a Voice to Parliament or a Voice to Parliament and to Government?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, it will be both. But it will be a Voice to Parliament, effectively, so that it won't just speak to government, it will be accountable to the Parliament. The work that was done under the former Government, by Tom Calma and Marcia Langton envisaged a parliamentary oversight committee that would have oversight over the activity of the Voice. So, the Voice won't be accountable to the government, in terms of its findings will be made public.
FORDHAM: Prime Minister, if it's advising government, and when you originally made the announcement, you used the words, 'A Voice to Parliament and to government', and if a Voice can constitutionally advise government, that creates a legal minefield. This is what the experts are saying. Because if the Voice makes a recommendation which is not endorsed by government or ignored, then legally they can take you to the High Court.
PRIME MINISTER: That's not right. That's not right, Ben.
FORDHAM: All the legal experts say it is right.
PRIME MINISTER: That is not right.
FORDHAM: Well, can I go to the Constitution? Can I go to the Constitution?
PRIME MINISTER: Have a look at the words that are very clearly there, Ben, in the draft that I released last July. It makes it very clear, very clear that that's not the case. And what's more, the Calma-Langton report makes it very clear that they do not want the body to be justiciable, that is able to go to court to say, 'We weren't asked about x policy, we should have been', that will not be allowed. And that's why you have legislation before the Parliament that will determine the nature of that detail. But the constitutional change that is envisaged has been drafted by some of the best legal minds in the country.
FORDHAM: Not your Attorney-General? Did you get legal advice from the Attorney-General?
PRIME MINISTER: We had legal advice from the best legal minds in the country. And, of course, the Attorney-General was involved in those processes. The question that I know you're going to is whether the Attorney-General's Department was given the speech in advance about that. It has been done by legal minds, the best of which are not all in one place. It is out there for all the see. We have had former High Court judges writing opinion pieces after opinion pieces, making it very clear that this issue will not lead to a legal minefield.
FORDHAM: Well, let me quote, PM, just on that, the former High Court Justice, Ian Callinan, has warned, and he says, and I quote, 'Stretching my imagination only a little, I would foresee a decade or more of constitutional and administrative law litigation arising out of the Voice'. So, that is the former High Court Justice, Ian Callinan.
PRIME MINISTER: And other former Chiefs of the High Court have made very contradictory statements to that.
FORDHAM: Well, why didn't you get legal advice? Why didn't you get legal advice from the highest law office holder in the land, the Attorney-General of Australia?
PRIME MINISTER: Ben, I have already told you, you are confusing two issues.
FORDHAM: That's a simple question, PM. That's a simple question. That's why the Attorney-General's there. Why didn't you get his advice?
PRIME MINISTER: The Attorney-General isn't there to give legal advice. The Attorney-General is the Attorney-General. The Solicitor-General is the person which you are confusing, is the person who gives legal advice to the Government. The Attorney-General is a political officer who's the first law officer of the land.
FORDHAM: So, you got legal advice from the Solicitor-General?
PRIME MINISTER: We got advice from a range of High Court judges, former High Court judges are on the record, such as Justice French and others.
FORDHAM: The former High Court judge, Murray Gleeson, who said on the Referendum Council said the Voice should be legislated first, because, quote, 'Australians would want to see what the body looks like and hear what the Voice sounds like before they vote on it'. You have Marcia Langton, the Indigenous leader, who said in July 2021, 'The almost unanimous view of our 52 members is that our proposal should be legislated as soon as possible'. Your predecessor, Bill Shorten, put it this way. He said it will be easier for a referendum to succeed and harder for a scare campaign to be run if we already have lived legislative experience of such a body. So, there you have Marcia Langton, Murray Gleeson, Bill Shorten all saying the same thing. Are they all wrong?
PRIME MINISTER: You know full-well that that's not Marcia Langton's position or Bill Shorten's position.
FORDHAM: Well, I'm reading her quote and I'm reading his quote.
PRIME MINISTER: You know full-well that's not the case, Ben. You shouldn't mislead your listeners.
FORDHAM: I am not misleading anyone.
PRIME MINISTER: You are, Ben. Marcia Langton has made it very clear that she supports the constitutional change. She's indeed participating in the referendum working group as a senior member. And Marcia Langton, those comments are in the context of a Government that refused to hold a referendum and said that they would legislate rather than have a referendum. That Government that received the report, not once but twice in their Cabinet, from former Minister Ken Wyatt, who does know something about this, the Minister under the Morrison Government took a position to Cabinet twice. It was rejected. We never saw any legislation. Nothing advanced.
FORDHAM: I acknowledge what you're saying that Marcia Langton has obviously grown in her view and she might have developed her view. But I also I want to make clear to anyone listening that the quote that I just read from Marcia Langton is accurate. And it was a quote that she delivered previously. Let me just ask some simple ones. Because I think, and you'd acknowledge this, I think people were suggesting in your Government that people were being disingenuous if they thought there wasn't enough detail around. But it doesn't matter what radio station you're listening to, when it comes up, people say they're confused. So, let's just get a few quick ones out of the way. Would the Voice have its own premises in Canberra?
PRIME MINISTER: Premises as in an office?
FORDHAM: Yes, will it be a department?
PRIME MINISTER: There would be some form of an office, yes. But these matters will all be dealt with by legislation. The way that Noel Pearson has put it, Ben, is that you are making a decision over whether there be a Sydney Harbour Bridge or not and then you decide how many lanes it will be, which will go in what direction, what the toll will be, some of that detail. The question before the Australian people is a really simple one. It's a really simple one. It doesn't go to, our Constitution doesn't go to whether there would be an office somewhere or not. It doesn't even have, our Constitution doesn't have the Office of Prime Minister in it. The Constitution is the birth certificate of the nation that has in it the principles. All of the detail will be the subject of legislation that everyone, everyone in the Parliament, the House of Reps and the Senate, there'll be processes to deal with these issues, a whole range of the further serious detail, not whether there would be an office or not.
FORDHAM: You know where I am getting to though. If you use your Harbour Bridge example, I mean, before you build it, people want to see the plans. They want to see the plan. So, will members of the Voice be paid?
PRIME MINISTER: There's no suggestion of that, Ben.
FORDHAM: I don't know. We don't know, PM. That's why I'm asking.
PRIME MINISTER: You do know what is before the Parliament.
FORDHAM: No, hang on a moment. I don't know whether members of the Voice are going to be paid. And you've just answered the question that, I think you've answered it as no. PM, please don't tell me what I know and what I don't know. Please don't tell me what I know and don't know. I'm genuinely asking these questions.
PRIME MINISTER: I hope you know what the Constitution is.
FORDHAM: I asked you, PM, I asked you whether or not they will paid.
PRIME MINISTER: And I said that level of detail will all be subject of legislation?
FORDHAM: No, I think you just said no, didn't you, a minute ago that there's no suggestion of that?
PRIME MINISTER: I said there's been no suggestion of that. Go and have a look at the Calma-Langton report.
FORDHAM: Does that mean no? Or does that mean maybe?
PRIME MINISTER: It is 260 pages of detail. It goes through a national Voice, it goes through regional Voice. Ben, you could come up with, you know, 50 theoretical questions about a whole range of issues in order to undermine what is a very simple principle. 'Do you recognise Indigenous people in the Constitution?' That's the first question. That's the first question. And the second is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were asked to have a process. And what they wanted the process to come up with, they came up with the Uluru Statement from the Heart in 2017.
FORDHAM: But the Uluru Statement from the Heart does not call for a Voice to Parliament and executive government on all matters affecting Indigenous people.
PRIME MINISTER: It finishes, Ben, with the quite majestic words in 1967 we were counted, in 2017, I might be a word or two wrong, because this is off the top of my head, we seek to be heard. It is just asking for a Voice. We have tried doing what is best, with the best of intentions, for 120 years for Indigenous Australians. We have massive gaps in education outcomes, in life expectancy, in infant mortality, in health outcomes, in justice issues, in incarceration rates.
FORDHAM: I think everyone understands that, PM. We're talking to Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, about the Voice to Parliament proposal. Just on that, and all those problems that are a national shame, and there's no doubt about that. We already have dozens of Indigenous specialist organisations throughout the country on top of there being a Federal Government agency called the National Indigenous Australians Agency. It's got 1,200 staff, it serves 400 Indigenous communities. The staff are in metropolitan, regional and remote locations. And the job of these staff, almost a quarter of whom are Indigenous, is, and I quote, to provide advice to the PM and Ministers on priorities for Aboriginal people. So, I think people want to know, why is a new body needed when you've got all of those organisations and you've got Ministers for Indigenous Affairs?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs is responsible for government policy. The Voice to Parliament will be a process whereby, from the bottom up, Indigenous Australians will have an opportunity to express their view over issues like education and housing and health that directly affect Indigenous Australians. That is what they are asking for here. It is a gracious request. We know that the existing systems haven't worked on so many of the gap measures that we have tried to close over a period of time, there has been a growing gap rather than a closing one. We know as well, Ben, I'll take you back a little while till the Apology to Indigenous Australians given by Kevin Rudd.
FORDHAM: I am keen to go forward and to focus on 2023. Because I've only got a few minutes left. Can you just answer this for me?
PRIME MINISTER: When that happened, Ben, when that happened, I'll make this point, prior to that happening, and it was resisted by the Howard Government for a long period of time, we were told, 'This will change everything for the worse'.
FORDHAM: PM, can we focus on 2023?
PRIME MINISTER: And guess what? People now wonder why that didn't occur. And it is the same principle in 2023.
FORDHAM: Respectfully, PM, if this new body is going to be the answer to all of those problems, can you just focus on that for me? 2023, the Voice to Parliament proposal, we're going to the polls. Are people going to be appointed or elected to the Voice?
PRIME MINISTER: The Calma-Langton report...
FORDHAM: Just answer the question.
PRIME MINISTER: You are asking question, let me answer it.
FORDHAM: You're losing people when you constantly point to reports. You're always talking about, 'Go and read the 260 page report'. This is a radio show.
PRIME MINISTER: I am not. I'm about to tell you what's in it.
FORDHAM: Appointed or elected?
PRIME MINISTER: I am about to tell you what is in it.
FORDHAM: That's not the question. That's not the question, PM. Appointed or elected?
PRIME MINISTER: I'm about to tell you, if you actually stop talking and allow me to answer the question. It envisages two people from each state and territory. It then envisages a group of people specifically representing remote communities.
FORDHAM: Are they appointed or elected? You haven't answered it.
PRIME MINISTER: Because you're not interested in the answer.
FORDHAM: No, you're telling me how many people and where they might be. I'm asking very simply, are they appointed or elected?
PRIME MINISTER: What the report suggests is that in some cases, in New South Wales, for example, they are already working towards, so for your listeners, they're already working towards a Voice in New South Wales towards some process whereby Indigenous people vote for a group and that would come from that existing group.
FORDHAM: So, they'd be elected?
PRIME MINISTER: One of the things is it's not one system is what is envisaged.
FORDHAM: All right. You've acknowledged your draft words for the referendum and not set in concrete and, quote, 'If improvements can be made, then by all means, come forward with them'. So, how do we come forward?
PRIME MINISTER: Correct. You've got my phone number. Make a suggestion.
FORDHAM: Hang on, but the millions of Australians who will be listening to this.
PRIME MINISTER: There will be a process in the lead-up to the referendum being called of legislation before the Parliament. That's the thing. There'll be two lots. And there will be a process whereby people can make submissions to the parliamentary inquiry, which will be about the words that will go forward in the referendum. And that will be a process whereby Australians can all put forward their views and suggestions about the wording that is going forward.
FORDHAM: And who is the umpire on the final formula of words?
PRIME MINISTER: There will be a committee. The Parliament. Ben, the elected Parliament will determine the words going forward. This is not my proposal. This isn't the Government's proposal. This needs to be the people's proposal.
FORDHAM: But this is your proposal. You announced it after the election. This is your proposal.
PRIME MINISTER: That's not true, Ben.
FORDHAM: Who announced it?
PRIME MINISTER: This is a proposal that goes back to 2017.
FORDHAM: Yes, I know that. But you announced it. And now everyone wants to know how it's actually going to work. And that's why many people have said over time, 'We want to hear what it sounds like, we want to know what it's going to look like'.
PRIME MINISTER: The idea that I announced a Voice to Parliament is, you know, not true.
FORDHAM: You did, after winning the election.
PRIME MINISTER: Ben.
FORDHAM: Have I missed something? After winning the election, you made an announcement. '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 Parliament and executive government'.
PRIME MINISTER: Yes.
FORDHAM: 29th of July 2022.
PRIME MINISTER: At Garma. At Garma, I put forward, because people said, there is a dilemma that people said, 'We want to know what the question would look like. We want to know what the constitutional change would look like'. I consulted a range of people, including serious jurists around Australia. We put forward those words very clear. In that same speech, Ben, it says, 'Here's the draft words', to promote debate. And has Peter Dutton, or anyone who says they want more info, come up with improved words? No, I haven't seen any.
FORDHAM: Okay, I've got so many more questions, but I know I'm going to have to leave it here. Just a yes or no answer. Is it going to happen in October?
PRIME MINISTER: It'll happen in the second half of this year.
FORDHAM: We appreciate your time. And look, I know there's lots more questions, but we'll get to them another time. I do appreciate you jumping on the line.
PRIME MINISTER: Thanks, Ben.
FORDHAM: Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese.