Television Interview - ABC Insiders with David Speers

31 Jul 2022
Prime Minister
Garma Festival; Indigenous Australians; Voice to Parliament

DAVID SPEERS, HOST: Prime Minister, thanks for joining us here at Garma.

ANTHONY ALBANESE, PRIME MINISTER: Good to be on the program. And it is great to be here at Garma.

SPEERS: It is. Look, let’s start with the words in your speech here. You described a Voice to Parliament as an opportunity to deliver a long overdue embrace of truth and justice and decency and respect for First Nations people. How would it achieve those things?

PRIME MINISTER: It would achieve that because one of the things we know is that giving respect is a precondition for advancement. If we look at the programs that have really worked, like Justice Reinvestment, like Homelands Policy, they are programs which have directly involved and had a sense of ownership from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Where we have sought to impose things from Canberra, without that consultation, without their involvement, is where problems have arisen over the last 121 years.

SPEERS: The referendum question you have proposed is simple. It asking, ‘Do you support an alteration to the Constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice?’ Pretty straightforward. Are you confident that is enough, that voters will understand what they are voting for?

PRIME MINISTER: Yes, I am. It is a simple proposition. It is a simple proposition which is consistent with good manners. It says where you are implementing a policy that affects a group, in this case the oldest continuous civilisation on the planet, something we should be proud about, you should consult, you should involve them.

SPEERS: The words you propose to be added to the Constitution are also pretty simple. They make it clear that Parliament would have the power to decide the functions and composition, functions and powers and procedures of the Voice. Why should those powers be left to the politicians to work out rather than being enshrined in the Constitution?

PRIME MINISTER: Because this isn't a third chamber of the Parliament. We need to make clear to the Australian people, in order to have success, not just what it is, the Voice, but what it isn't as well. This makes it very clear this doesn't change in any way the primacy of our democratically elected Parliament.

SPEERS: Does that mean a future Parliament could narrow those functions and powers of the Voice, effectively leave it powerless?

PRIME MINISTER: No, people will be accountable. One of the things that enshrining in the Constitution does, it ensures that the Voice cannot be eliminated or silenced by a change of government or a change of Prime Minister. It is very important that constitutional recognition occurs. We know the end of the last century, there was a referendum that wasn't successful. What we need to do is enshrine it in the Constitution, have the Voice to Parliament, that when it operates, people will wonder why we didn't do it before. I see this similar to the Apology for the Stolen Generations or the 1967 referendum or Native Title.

SPEERS: But the way you drafted it means that future parliaments can change the powers and functions of the Voice, can make it less powerful, more powerful?

PRIME MINISTER: We're a democratic nation. Parliaments are, in the end, they're the accountable body. This hasn't been, to be very clear, this isn't my wording. This is wording that has risen up from hard-working people who have been involved, Indigenous and non-Indigenous.

SPEERS: It mirrors the words that were proposed by Noel Pearson, Pat Anderson, Megan Davis.

PRIME MINISTER: The key to this involvement has been that the Uluru Statement from the Heart arose from a massive consultation process with First Nations people in the lead-up to 2017. Since then, we have had five years of further consultation and engagement, including with the First Nations people you mention, but also eminent legal jurists about how you would enshrine what you want the Voice to represent, but also make clear to the Australian people what it isn't, so you maximise the chances of it being carried.

SPEERS: There is contention over this. Even here at Garma I have spoken to some who would like details over the power and function of the Voice put in the constitution, protected from a future parliament watering them down.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, what it will do is enshrine the Voice to Parliament. It does so in a very practical way. I believe, then, once it is there, it will operate effectively, it will get more and more support. We were faced with the challenge of - do you wait until everyone is in agreement of every element going forward? But I'm faced with the question, as Prime Minister of this country, that I asked this morning, if not now, when?

SPEERS: What about how it would work under your Government? Under the Parliament where you are the Prime Minister with the numbers, will there be some greater detail around how the Voice will be constituted, its powers, and so on, before we have a referendum?

PRIME MINISTER: What I have done today is take the step forward. I've take a step forward because the danger was that the process stalled, that the good will and momentum which is there wasn't taken forward. There is a risk here. As I said this morning, there is a risk of not advancing as well. The risk is that you concede a lack of success by not having the question. We will have to have to have, of course, to have a referendum, we will have debate in the Parliament. Part of that will be about what a Voice will look like. That will occur inevitably, that discussion.

SPEERS: Before the referendum?

PRIME MINISTER: Inevitably, there will be a discussion about what it will look like. The final form is accountable to the Parliament, just like other laws in this country are accountable to the Parliament.

SPEERS: I understand, but this is the interesting part. You are saying to us, there will be some greater detail before Australians vote? You know the line the critic also run, if you don't know, vote no about this Voice. You are saying there will be some greater detail?

PRIME MINISTER: To be clear, David, that by the way that the constitutional proposed changes are there, it's making it clear that the primacy of the Parliament continues. So, it may well be, that over a period of time, the functions of the Voice do change. But that is the point.

SPEERS: I understand that. How it would function under your watch?

PRIME MINISTER: We're not there yet.

SPEERS: This is the detail some want to see, not in the constitution, but from you.

PRIME MINISTER: David, there will be. One of the things I'm trying to avoid here - there will be, as occurred at the end of the last century, when a referendum wasn't successful, people looking for all of the detail and saying, ‘Well, if you disagree with these 50 clauses, if you disagree with one out of the 50 but 49 are okay, vote no’. We're not doing that. We're not doing that. We're learning from history. We are about maximising the opportunity which is there. We're appealing to the good will of the Australian people. And as I said, the Australian character as I see it. That's why I am optimistic that Australians will embrace this simple concept that where issues affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people they consulted. And out of it will come better practical results and outcomes because you will have that sense of ownership and engagement.

SPEERS: So, to be clear, there won't be the full detail every i dotted and t crossed on how the thing will work?

PRIME MINISTER: There is debate now, David.

SPEERS: From you? From your Government?

PRIME MINISTER: There is a document.

SPEERS: A very lengthy document.

PRIME MINISTER: There is a document out there that goes to many pages, as you know.

SPEERS: The Marcia Langton and Tom Calma co-design process. This was under the last Parliament. Is that the sort of model?

PRIME MINISTER: There will be ongoing discussion about these.

SPEERS: You refer to that document. Do you support that document?

PRIME MINISTER: What I am not going to do, David, is to go down the cul-de-sac of getting into every detail. Because that is not a recipe for success.

SPEERS: But some greater detail.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, there will be a debate, David. There will be. And you're raising it here now, about what form it takes in terms of local representation, in terms of all of those issues. But that will be dynamic. And that will be a living process that changes and evolves over time.

SPEERS: Will you enter that debate, though?

PRIME MINISTER: The key question here is, David, and what I won't be distracted from, is do people want an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice enshrined in the Constitution? Is that a positive step forward? Will it achieve greater outcomes? I believe the answer to that is clearly yes. I think there's momentum from the Australian people to give support to that.

SPEERS: Okay. So, the debate is going to happen, and you welcome that, obviously. But will you make clear what you support in this debate?

PRIME MINISTER: David, that is a matter for consultation, and the process particularly with First Nations people themselves. One of the things that I haven't done here, I didn't come up with these words by myself. This isn't something that's occurred in a vacuum. This has occurred over a decade. And the argument was, and it was put to me before I made the decision that I have, that you should wait until there's an absolute consensus, that you should get every level of detail clarified and worked out. That ignores what this is. What this is, is very simple - an acknowledgement that our history didn't begin in 1788 and that should be a source of great national pride, an acknowledgement that the debate over practical versus constitutional recognition is a false one because constitutional recognition will lead to better practical outcomes.

SPEERS: Let me ask you just a couple of the detailed questions that do surround this whole debate. Will it be elected, the body, the Voice?

PRIME MINISTER: That is up to First Nations people to go through that process, for the Parliament to engage on those debates. The legislation of the structure of the Voice won't happen before the referendum. The referendum will need to be put, or else you'll have potentially, what some people are arguing for is having a debate about the consequences of a constitutional change before you have any idea of whether the constitutional change should happen or not.

SPEERS: So, these details will follow the referendum?

PRIME MINISTER: Of course they will. And what's made clear in the third of the points is that this isn't a body that is on top of the Parliament, it's not even at the side of the Parliament. It doesn't seek to usurp the power of the Parliament. What it seeks to do, though, is to break with what I call the tyranny of powerlessness that First Nations people have suffered from over 121 years of the Commonwealth making decisions in Canberra without having respect and without having consultation with First Nations people themselves.

SPEERS: One of the concerns that's often raised, and I think you've kind of addressed it in your speech and also in this interview, is that it won't deliver a practical difference. You've argued that it clearly will, with greater input from Indigenous Australians. Let me ask you, I guess, in a practical, real-life example, if the Voice to Parliament were to say these grog bans that have come to an end in a lot of remote communities here in the Northern Territory, that they should be maintained, would that happen?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it would be a very brave government that said it shouldn't. The thing about the Voice and consulting people directly is that you will have a clear process whereby people can have input to matters that affect them directly. So, to take that as an example, at the moment I've had discussions with Chief Minister Natasha Fyles and we've had discussions with Linda Burney about how to progress to make sure that communities are kept safe.

SPEERS: Do you reckon the grog ban should be put back in?

PRIME MINISTER: We're having those discussions with communities.

SPEERS: What do you think?

PRIME MINISTER: What I think is that we should listen to those communities. That's what I think. Where it hasn't worked, David, is, you know, with respect, two fellows sitting here making decisions for First Nations people when they're just over there, they're all around.

SPEERS: I certainly won't be making a decision.

PRIME MINISTER: And you know what they want? They want the common courtesy and respect of being asked their view. That's what this is about.

SPEERS: When will a referendum be held?

PRIME MINISTER: We haven't made a decision about that. I've reached out, very clearly. And I take as a positive sign the fact that Julian Leeser, the Shadow Minister, is here and came up with me to Garma. I want to reach out across the Parliament, I want to reach out across society. I'm very heartened, though, by the significant support that is there from the business leaders that I've spoken to, from the ACTU and the trade union movement, from churches who are very supportive of this.

SPEERS: Is there a danger that the momentum might stall? If you wait until late next year, you might miss the window?

PRIME MINISTER: You can chew gum and walk at the same time. This is something that people have been waiting for a long time. And one of the reasons why I put out the potential question and the potential constitutional alteration for debate is to give the process that momentum.

SPEERS: And if you don't have bipartisan support, that won't stop you?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the problem here is it's a bit like you're in a grand final and you say, ‘Oh, well, if we just don't run on the field and forfeit, it will mean we don't lose’. Well, not really. The point is, if you don't try to get this change, and I recognise that it's a risk, but if you don't try, then you have already not succeeded. And we have waited a long period of time. It's five years since the Uluru Statement from the Heart. We have a three-year term. I'm nine weeks into it, nine weeks into it. No one can say we haven't hit the ground running. We've done this with that timetable in mind. I very clearly made the decision before the election to come to Garma. I knew that this was the appropriate venue to make such a declaration.

SPEERS: So, you've obviously come here and made that declaration here at Garma. You can obviously sense the optimism surrounding what you've brought to this gathering, that there may finally be some recognition in the form of a Voice to Parliament in the Constitution. Do you feel that weight of expectation?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it's not about me. It's about giving people who haven't had that sense of power over their own lives, in controlling their own destiny, a greater say, a voice. But it's also about uplifting our entire nation, not just in ourselves, but I think Australians who travel know that this is an issue in the way that Australia is seen as well. This is an opportunity for us to demonstrate our maturity as a nation, to uplift our whole nation. And I'm very hopeful that we can do so.

SPEERS: Prime Minister, thanks for joining us.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks very much, David.