Australia has arrived at this juncture in our quest for constitutional recognition thanks to the labour, vision, and tales of many first nations Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I’m aware of them, and I’m grateful.
I want to recognize and thank the Minister for Indigenous Australians in particular. I am honoured to collaborate with the Member for Barton on this significant national issue as we are both members of the same caucus and cabinet.
Additionally, I want to thank Senator Patrick Dodson of the other place for the years of work he has put into promoting reconciliation, including his work during this legislative session as Special Envoy for Reconciliation as well as the Implementation of Uluru Statement from the Heart.
To meet the first demand stated in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, it is imperative that this Bill be passed.
Four short lines will be placed into the Constitution if the referendum is successful.
After over 120 years of exclusion and omission, those lines will acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as Australia’s first peoples in our foundational legal instrument.
Thanks to those clauses, the Constitution will have a voice for Aboriginal as well as Torres Strait Islander people.
And those clauses will guarantee that the Voice can speak out in favour of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples before the Parliament and the Executive Government while giving the Parliament the flexibility to act as the Voice changes and the needs of First Nations peoples change.
The Uluru Statement’s demand for constitutional recognition by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates is known as “The Voice.”
Throughout this discussion, opponents of the Bill brought forward three points that I would want to address.
The first is the Leader of the Opposition’s absurd claim that the Voice would somehow incorporate race into the Constitution. That contribution by the Leader of the Opposition was wholly unbecoming of the alternate Prime Minister of our country, the Prime Minister said in his Second Reading Speech.
I applaud parts of the Opposition, notably the Leader of the National Party, for denouncing the deceptive remarks made by the Leader of the Opposition.
The Constitution would not be amended to include ‘race’ under this Bill.
According to the former Chief Justice of the High Court, Robert French, the proposed constitutional amendment contained in the Bill would mark “a significant shift away from the existing race-based legislative power that the Commonwealth has with respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”
And the reason is that the proposed change would recognize Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First People of Australia rather than as a race.
How on earth can anyone claim that this is a racial issue?
The Aboriginal as well as Torres Strait Islander peoples, who have lived on the Australian continent for almost 60,000 years, are the oldest continuously existing cultures in human history, as I stated in my speech for the second reading.
The unique status of Aboriginal as well as Torres Strait Islander peoples as this nation’s First Peoples has never been acknowledged by the Australian Constitution. That is what the Voice would accomplish, and this Bill does.
In Uluru Statement from the Heart, Aboriginal as well as Torres Strait Islander peoples called for this constitutional recognition.
That brings me to the second objection made by those opposed to the Bill, namely the recommendation that the Government seek a different, purely symbolic form of constitutional recognition.
The history of the constitutional recognition dispute reveals two major issues with this proposition.
First, Australians already rejected symbolic recognition—through a constitutional preamble—in a referendum on November 6, 1999. This proposed preamble would have acknowledged, among other things, the unique status of First Nations people due to (I quote) “their deep kinship with their lands as well as for their ancient and continuing cultures.”
The preamble received less than 40% of the vote overall, and it failed to win the support of the majority in any state or territory.
The Uluru Statement from Heart was result of consultation processes, which led to the deliberate rejection of the concept of symbolic recognition, which led to the second issue with the idea. The First Nations population has categorically rejected mere symbolic acknowledgement.
An approach to recognition centred on a preamble would not be acceptable to Aboriginal as well as Torres Strait Islander people, it was made crystal clear in the Kirribilli Statement, which 39 Indigenous leaders presented to then-prime minister Tony Abbott and opposition leader Bill Shorten. This was a crucial step leading to the Referendum Council and its consultations.
The First Nations Regional Dialogues, which took place over a six-month period beginning in late 2016 in 12 locations across Australia, produced the same conclusion. The Dialogues were held in an effort to bring First Nations people together in order to discuss whether and how they would wish to be recognized in the Australian Constitution.
The conclusions from those Dialogues and the National Constitutional Convention are amply reflected in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The Statement humbly demands, and I quote, “substantive constitutional change and structural reform,” which would give Aboriginal as well as Torres Strait Islander people a voice in shaping their own fate, so easing “the torment of powerlessness” they experience. The only means of doing this is symbolic acknowledgement.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart’s phrasing is stunning. Additionally, it is a reflection of the thorough process that went before it, including the Regional Dialogues and the National Constitutional Convention at Uluru.
A large majority of First Nations people are in favour of constitutional recognition via a Voice. It is a thoughtful and kind request that is the outcome of extensive research and a thorough, inclusive deliberate process.
The Referendum Council came to the conclusion that an incomplete preamble could not adequately acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. According to the Council, a Voice offers acknowledgement that would “have both substantive and symbolic value.”
The Administration concurs.
The third concern brought up by some members of this House during this debate is whether or not subsection 129(ii) would require the Executive Government to take the Voice’s opinions into account or consult the Voice before making decisions. It was questioned whether this could result in protracted High Court litigation.
The Voice is ensured to exist by Section 129(i).
The Voice’s fundamental function of making representations is ensured by Section 129(ii).
Without compromising the protections provided by subsections 129(i) and (ii), subsection 129(iii) grants the Parliament extensive authority to enact laws pertaining to the Voice.
Under subsection 129(iii), the Parliament will have the authority to enact laws dictating when and how the Executive Government must take into account the Voice’s representations.
Following careful study, the Government purposefully changed the draft provision’s subsection 129(iii) to emphasize the Parliament’s supremacy.
The view of the Solicitor-General on proposed section 129 was included in my statement to the Joint Select Committee on Aboriginal as well as Torres Strait Islander Voice Referendum.
The Solicitor-General advised that the proposed section 129 would give the Parliament the authority to specify in legislation whether, and if so, how, Executive Government decision-makers are required to take into account pertinent representations of the Voice. This advice is in line with the opinions of the vast majority of constitutional experts.
In conclusion, Australians can have faith in this constitutional change and that a Voice will effectively implement constitutional recognition.
All Aboriginal as well as Torres Strait Islander peoples’ voices would be amplified by The Voice, as it is described in this Bill. If the referendum is successful, a public consultation procedure will be used to decide the Voice’s design, including how it will interact with communities and collaborate with current organizations. To the national Parliament and Government, The Voice will represent the variety of perspectives and concerns of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
The Voice’s design would build on how far the States and Territories have come in terms of paying attention to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The design work of Professors Calma and Langton, which emphasized the value of local and regional voices, would be built upon. The Uluru Dialogues’ work would be expanded upon. It would expand upon the Referendum Working Group’s adopted Voice design principles.
The development, adoption, and implementation of laws and policies will be better targeted from the outset and result in better outcomes if the Parliament and the Executive Government take into account the opinions of communities.
The Voice would encourage change in order to reduce the gap in this way.
This Bill is the result of a thorough and protracted process that lasted more than ten years in order to find the best method of constitutional recognition for Aboriginal as well as Torres Strait Islander peoples. This covers the Regional Dialogues of the Referendum Council and the National Constitutional Convention, both of which I’ve already mentioned.
Before this Bill was introduced, the Government formed the Referendum Working Group, the Referendum Engagement Group, and the Constitutional Expert Group to offer input on the proposed constitutional provision.
The proposal put forth by Australian Prime Minister at the Garma Festival last year was thoroughly evaluated by the Constitutional Expert Group, which determined that it would make a strong foundation for the constitutional amendment.
Along with intense public scrutiny and debate, the Bill has also been the focus of an investigation by the Joint Select Committee. The vast majority of legal professionals have come to the conclusion that it is constitutionally sound. The Committee recommended that the Bill be enacted without amendment after carefully considering the substantial evidence presented in hearings and submissions. The Government expresses gratitude to everyone who provided input into the Committee inquiry by written submissions or oral testimony, as well as to the Committee members for their in-depth and considerate deliberation of the issues.
More than 250 Aboriginal as well as Torres Strait Islander representatives came together at Uluru ‘from all points of the Southern Sky’ just over six years ago to make this pleading for Voice, Treaty, and Truth.
The Australian people will have to seize the chance presented by the Uluru Statement from the Heart in 2017, a chance for our country to do better, to unite, and to move toward a better future.