The government should support establishing an Indigenous advisory body to parliament, despite two Liberal prime ministers rejecting the concept, a parliamentary committee has found.
- A bipartisan committee recommends government reconsider supporting an Indigenous voice to parliament, despite Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull rejecting the idea
- Labor MP Linda Burney says “the resounding message” is Indigenous people “want to have a say on things that affect them”
- The committee’s final report, including four recommendations, is being tabled in Parliament today
This is one of four recommendations from the parliamentary committee that has spent months travelling around the country to find a way forward on constitutional reform. It is tabling its final report in Parliament today.
How did we get here?
For years, there has been debate about how to recognise Indigenous Australians in the nation’s founding document.
Last year, the Turnbull government rejected the recommendation of its own Referendum Council to establish a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous advisory body — known as a voice to parliament.
This concept came from the historic gathering of hundreds of Indigenous delegates at the Uluru Convention last year.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart was presented and it called for a new representative body.
But the idea was also rejected by the Morrison Government, which echoed Mr Turnbull’s view it would become a “third chamber of parliament” and never gain the support of the public.
Now, this parliamentary committee, established after Malcolm Turnbull’s rejection, is calling on both sides of Parliament to reconsider the concept.
The committee’s four recommendations are:
- Australian government initiate a co-design process to consider a model for “the voice” within the next term of parliament.
- Following co-design, the government consider “deliberate and timely” legislative, executive or constitutional options to establish the voice.
- The Australian government support the concept of “truth-telling.”
- Australian government consider establishing a “National Resting Place” for Indigenous remains in Canberra.
‘Recommendations both sides could support’
Labor MP and committee member Linda Burney said the bipartisan view of the committee was that Indigenous Australians should have greater say in the issues affecting their lives.
“The resounding message is that the people want a voice to the parliament,” she said.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people want to have a say on things that affect them.”
Liberal MP and co-chair of the committee Julian Leeser said despite rejection of the voice from two Liberal leaders, he hoped these recommendations would be adopted.
“We have designed our recommendations in a way that we believe they will have broad support, and I believe we’ve come up with recommendations both sides of parliament could support,” he said.
“What we’ve said in the report is that we need people to focus on this in the life of the next parliament.”
Earlier this week, the Labor Party said it would take the concept of a voice to parliament to a referendum as its “first constitutional change”.
Committee makes no mention of referendum
The recommendations in this report do not clearly outline the voice must be constitutionally enshrined and could instead be legislated, which concerns some Indigenous leaders.
“It (the report) looks very good until you come to this landmine,” University of Melbourne’s head of Indigenous studies Marcia Langton said.
She said a legislated voice would be at risk of being removed at a later date, just as other Indigenous bodies like the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) were in the past.
“We saw what happened to ATSIC, and several other bodies before it, going right back to the 70s … all of these bodies can be dismissed by the government of the day.”
She said it was vitally important the views of Indigenous Australians were heard in law-making processes moving forward.
“Our concerns will be lost as Australia grows into a much larger nation,” Ms Langton said.
“If Australians feel that they want Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, cultures, and languages to survive, they must support the referendum.”
She said the next government must not legislate for the voice “without legislating for the referendum”.
‘More support’ needed for public vote
Ms Langton said she was confident a referendum would be successful.
“I believe the Australian people will vote for an Indigenous voice in a referendum,” she said.
“I see what people are supporting and who is supporting it — I’m absolutely convinced.”
But both members of the parliamentary committee questioned the level of public support.
“It was really interesting. People in some places … assume everyone knows about the [the voice] but some places we went people were not aware,” Ms Burney said.
“I think there’s good support for people who are engaged in the process, but I’ve been engaged in debates about the constitution for a long time.
“Some places we went people were not aware of the national conversation going on about constitutional reforms.”
Ms Leeser also had concerns about the level of support or the public’s understanding of the issue.
“What we know is changing it (the constitution) is very hard,” he said.
“It’s never succeeded without bipartisan support — and without strong bipartisan support — so I think we do need to build some more support.”
In October, three of the country’s most influential Aboriginal leaders told the committee a public vote on a voice to parliament would be a guaranteed failure if it was held too soon.
On the final day of hearings, past and present Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioners Dr June Oscar, Mick Gooda and Professor Tom Calma told the committee more work was needed to convince Australians.
“At the moment there’s no model, and we’ve got a whole lot of people proposing you go to a referendum, and from our understanding, and we’ve discussed this, we don’t support that proposition to go now, with an open-ended referendum question,” Mr Calma said at the time.
On Thursday, Ms Oscar gave an address at the Healing Our Spirit conference in Sydney.
“It is well and truly time our governments are held to account in realising our rights and respond to us by using this report so we have a way forward to reconcile and be recognised,” she said.
“We must be heard with equal weight and consequence in determining the future of this nation together.”
Mr Leeser said the most important step in gaining support was establishing what model the voice should take, as there were more than 15 models presented to the committee.
He said the Coalition was more likely to support local decision-making bodies, as opposed to a national one.
“What the Government said is that while it didn’t support an Indigenous-only body in the constitution, it was looking for ways to give local people a say in their own affairs and in local decision making,” Mr Leeser said.