I begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land we are gathered on today, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples. I acknowledge traditional custodians of the lands across Australia, particularly the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, whose lands include Jagajaga.
The Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) Bill 2023 is an opportunity for our country. It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make Australia a better place by delivering constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through the Voice to Parliament. It comes after decades of work from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and also from others who have worked alongside them advocating for constitutional change.
Of course we know that constitutional change in our country isn’t easy. This will be our first referendum in 24 years, and it does seem a little daunting. But when we see past the fear of doing something differently we can see the opportunity that is there. I can see our country on the other side of this referendum, where we wake up, having successfully taken up the invitation that is in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. That statement was the work of First Nations people holding dialogues across the country culminating in a summit at Uluru on the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum. It called for the establishment of a First Nations voice to parliament and concludes with the invitation:
In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.
At its core, constitutional recognition through the Voice is about two key things: recognition and listening. It’s a recognition that after all this time Australia’s First Peoples should have a significant place in our 122-year-old Constitution. As Professor Megan Davis has said:
It’s a recognition of First Nations voices as being important to the nation. It’s recognition that the descendants of the ancient peoples who arrived here 60,000 to 70,000 years ago are still here, have survived and [are] speaking with their voice.
The concept of First Nations people having a place in the Constitution is not a new one. From the petitions of William Cooper to the Yirrkala bark petitions, the Barunga Statement and much more, First Nations people have long called for a greater say over their own lives. I was struck recently when I was reading Shireen Morris’s observation in Statements from the Soul that in fact the Australian Constitution is all about voices. Shireen writes:
… the federal system provides mechanisms for the historical political communities (the former colonies) to always be heard by the might of the majority.
Whilst the colonies or the states got provisions for their voices to be heard in the original drafting of our Constitution and the make-up of our Senate, First Nations people did not get that position in the original drafting of our Constitution. That’s the opportunity that is before us—to have their voice heard in our Constitution.
This is not a radical proposition. It is adding a voice to our Constitution—a voice that could have been included from the start—the inclusion of which now gives us a chance to address the injustices of the past and to create change that will make things better now and into the future. It is our country listening to First Nations people and their calls to have a real say over their own lives.
As I said, the proposal before us not a radical one. The Voice will not have veto power. It will be an advisory body. As the Attorney-General has set out, it creates an independent institution that speaks to the parliament and the executive government but does not replace, direct or impede the actions of either. The Voice will provide a path for the executive government and the parliament to consult with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It will create a link between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, the parliament and the executive government, and its members will be selected by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples based on the wishes of local communities. Putting the Voice in our Constitution ensures that this link I’ve been talking about is enduring. It ensures it is something that becomes part of the fabric of our country and how we do business going forward.
We need that because, despite the efforts of successive governments, our efforts to close the gap have not been successful: 11 of the 15 Closing the Gap targets are not on track. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are still locked up at a rate that makes them proportionally the most incarcerated people on the planet, and I note we had the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the report of which was released in 1991. It’s a long time ago. But many of its recommendations still haven’t been implemented, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to die in custody at unacceptable rates.
So when the Leader of the Opposition frames part of his opposition to the Voice around saying that he would rather have a royal commission, I have to ask: what does he think would be different about that process? When we have the example of the seminal royal commission that has still failed to change outcomes for people’s lives, when we have decades of failed approaches behind us, why would we keep using the same failed approaches over and over again? The proposal before us has the backing of some of the most senior constitutional experts in our country. It is consistent with the advice of the Solicitor-General. It is time for us to take a new approach.
We do have evidence that, when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people do have a say over their own lives and futures, when they’re involved in the design and implementation of policy and legislation that affect them, we get better outcomes. We see the results that come from things like Aboriginal community-controlled health services, which put Aboriginal health in Aboriginal hands. These are trusted services which are run with a real understanding of their communities. We see the Indigenous rangers programs, which not only protect country but also provide role models for people in their communities. They promote improved mental and physical health. They strengthen and enhance culture. They encourage more women into work. The Voice works on a similar principle—that, by giving people a direct say over their own lives, by giving people a direct say over how government works in their lives, we can improve their lives and those of the community they represent.
In my home state of Victoria we are already seeing some of this approach in important work initiated by the Andrews government, the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria. This is an independent body made up of traditional owners from across Victoria chosen by their communities to advance preparations for negotiations for treaties in Victoria. The assembly is advocating for a statewide treaty while also supporting and empowering traditional owner groups right across Victoria to negotiate specific treaties reflecting their priorities and wishes. Through a willingness to work together and to listen and engage in respectful discussion, the assembly has taken important steps forward. I look forward to the continued work of the First Peoples’ Assembly and their progress towards treaties. There are important lessons for us at a federal level from this. It’s an example of what we can achieve when we work together.
I began this speech with an acknowledgement of country. For me and those in my generation and older this is a practice that has only become widespread during our adult lifetimes, but for my five-year-old daughter it’s something she started doing at kindergarten. She already knows about the Wurundjeri people and their connection to this country. The members of her generation are already trying to take up the opportunity the Uluru Statement from the Heart offers us to walk together for a better future. They can’t vote yet, so they’re relying on those of us who can to seize the opportunity to say yes to constitutional recognition that makes a real difference and improves lives, to say yes to recognising the amazing 65,000 years of history and continuous connection to this land and to wake up the day after the referendum to an Australia that has said yes to a more reconciled nation that is committed to making sure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are heard so lives will be improved. We’re not there yet. We know there is a lot of work to do to get a successful referendum and, in fact, get this bill through the parliament.
I pay tribute to all the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have worked so hard just to get us to this point and who continue to campaign. In particular I note my colleagues in this parliament, including the father of reconciliation, Senator Patrick Dodson; the Minister for Indigenous Australians, the amazing Linda Burney; Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, the Assistant Minister for Indigenous Australians; and the First Nations members of our caucus. It’s a privilege to campaign alongside all of you.
I want to give the final word in this speech to one of my local Aboriginal leaders: Uncle Charles Pakana, the chair of the Barrbunin Beek Aboriginal Gathering Place in Heidelberg West, in my community. He’s a great guy and I’m very proud to know him and very pleased he has seen fit to share these words with me. I’m very grateful he has allowed me to share in this place why he is voting yes in this important referendum:
A First Nations Voice should not be feared, as some would have us believe.
A First Nations Voice should not be regarded as a mechanism devised to block parliamentary process, as some would have us believe.
A First Nations Voice should not be misrepresented as a racially divisive construct, as some would have us believe.
Rather, a First Nations Voice should be recognised for what it would be—a constitutionally protected means by which culturally and socially informed voices of our People lend their advice and support to government during the critical processes that will impact on the lives, wellbeing and future of all Australian First Nations people.
I urge those who currently advocate against the embedding of a Voice in our Constitution to instead turn their passion and efforts towards the work that will be required to establish the legislative and social foundations upon which the Voice will be built.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. I commend this bill to the House.