Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is proposing that an Indigenous Voice to Parliament could be enshrined in the constitution by adding three lines to Australia’s founding document, including the authority for the body to advise parliament and government but no requirement for consultation.
In a move designed to spark a more detailed national conversation ahead of a referendum to be held during this term of government, Albanese will detail the proposal in a speech to be delivered today at the Garma Festival of Traditional Culture in Arnhem Land. The prime minister will also suggest a simple referendum question that would ask only if voters “support an alteration to the constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice”.
The proposals underscore Albanese’s determination to seize what he believes is significant momentum towards implementing the five-year-old Uluru Statement from the Heart in full, and not to let it founder on fear – including fear of failure that might delay it – as well as confusion or squabbling over words and phrases.
Albanese will explain that the question he is suggesting – which is not meant to be prescriptive – is deliberately uncomplicated.
“A straightforward proposition, a simple principle – a question from the heart,” he will say, according to draft speech notes seen by The Saturday Paper. “We can use this question – and the provisions – as the basis for further consultation.”
Albanese is emphasising that both ideas are draft provisions – the starting point for discussion. “This may not be the final form of words,” he says of the proposed constitutional amendment. “But I think it’s how we can get to a final form of words.”
The proposed wording for the constitutional amendment is the result of extensive consultation. If accepted, it would leave parliament to determine the detailed structure and composition of the Voice.
The proposed amendment says that “there shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice”.
It continues: “The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to Parliament and the Executive Government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.” Finally: “The parliament shall, subject to this constitution, have power to make laws with respect to the composition, functions, powers and procedures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.”
It is notable that the proposed amendment contains no obligation for the Voice or its members to be consulted on government policy – something that has formed the basis of critics’ arguments that it could create a so-called third chamber of parliament. Drafters and proponents of the Uluru statement have rejected this assertion.
The Saturday Paper understands that choosing not to codify a consultation requirement is to avoid the legal quagmire that could be created should someone seek to challenge the level or extent of consultation.
The wording also does not oblige the Voice to make representations on every issue relating to Indigenous Australians, saying only that it “may make representations”.
“The Uluru statement is a hand outstretched, a moving show of faith in Australian decency and Australian fairness from people who have been given every reason to forsake their hope in both,” the prime minister’s draft speech says. Addressing Indigenous Australians directly, Albanese will declare: “I am determined, as a government, as a country, that we grasp that hand of healing, we repay that faith, we rise to the moment, to work with you in lifting the words off the page and putting them into action.”
Constitutional amendment is only possible through a referendum, supported by a majority of voters in a majority of states. The success rate for Australian referendums is low, with political unity seen as key.
Albanese’s speech at Garma includes a call to his political opponents. He invokes the 1967 referendum, which enshrined the power to make laws with respect to Indigenous Australians and to include First Nations people in the national census. That successful referendum saw a 94 per cent turnout and a national “Yes” vote of 91 per cent.
“Back in 1967, not a single member of the House of Representatives or the Senate voted against the referendum provisions,” his speech says. “In the same spirit, I hope that the opposition and the crossbench will support the proposal, join the campaign for a Yes vote and bring their supporters to the cause.”
The prime minister is seeking to allay the third-chamber concerns, saying the Voice would be based on principles of respect, consultation, strength and status.
“Writing the Voice into the constitution means a willingness to listen won’t depend on who is in government or who is prime minister,” Albanese will say. “The Voice will exist and endure outside of the ups and downs of election cycles and the weaknesses of short-term politics. It will be an unflinching source of advice and accountability. Not a third chamber, not a rolling veto, not a blank cheque.”
It is not clear whether the Coalition, as a whole, will support the proposed Indigenous Voice. There are strong advocates in its ranks, including shadow attorney-general Julian Leeser and New South Wales senator Andrew Bragg, but also critics, including former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton is among those who have previously espoused the “third chamber” theory but he has said more recently that he is reserving judgement.
“From day one, I’ve said we will consider what the government is putting forward,” Dutton said on gaining the opposition leadership after the May federal election. “I want to look at the detail and at the moment the detail is not available.”
Albanese has referred to, and endorsed, the Uluru statement repeatedly, both before the election and since winning office, including at the beginning of his victory speech on election night.
In Parliament House’s Great Hall on Tuesday, following the formal Indigenous welcome that now precedes the opening of every new parliament, he became emotional as he spoke of what he saw as the opportunity presented by this moment.
“I say to all of my parliamentary colleagues, don’t miss your chance,” Albanese said. “Because you’re not here for that long. None of us will be. And when you’re sitting on the porch, thinking about what you did, you can either have a source of pride or a source of regret. No middle path, no middle path, make it a source of pride.”
The statement was met with applause.
In his Garma speech, he also addresses the argument that practical measures to improve the lives of First Nations people should take precedence over so-called symbolism.
“Australia does not have to choose between improving people’s lives and amending the constitution,” he says. “We can do both and we have to.”
He presents it as “a unifying moment”.
“Fundamentally, this is a reform I believe every Australian can embrace, from all walks of life, in every part of the country, from every faith and background and tradition,” his draft speech says. “Because it speaks to values we all share and honour – fairness, respect, decency. Enshrining a Voice will be a national achievement. It will be above politics.”
But others in politics see it differently, including one of the newest parliamentarians of Indigenous heritage.
In her first speech to parliament on Wednesday, new Country Liberal Party Northern Territory senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price condemned what she called “pointless virtue signalling” on symbolic issues in Indigenous Affairs and assumptions that Indigenous Australians should always be more aligned with the Labor Party.
Price accused Albanese of “platitudes” and “motherhood statements” on the Voice. “This government has yet to demonstrate how this proposed Voice will deliver practical outcomes and unite rather than drive a wedge further between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia,” she said. “And, no, prime minister, we don’t need another handout, as you have described the Uluru statement to be. No, we Indigenous Australians have not come to agreement on this statement, as you have also claimed. It would be far more dignifying if we were recognised and respected as individuals in our own right who are not simply defined by our racial heritage but by the content of our character.”
Victorian Labor senator Jana Stewart, a Mutthi Mutthi and Wemba Wemba woman from the Murray River region, took a different view in her first speech. “A treaty will deliver genuine self-determination for our communities and for First Nations groups,” she said. “Voice, treaty and truth is our ask. Meet us in the moment and walk with us.”
Stewart said Australians were building a nation defined by opportunity for all, whether they were “born here, drawn here” or had “called it home for tens of thousands of years”.
“We are building a nation that protects and invests in its children and grandchildren; a nation that is grounded in truth, integrity, equality, fairness, compassion and action; a nation courageous enough to recognise its past and determined enough to change its future; a nation that we can all be proud of.”
New Labor member for Lingiari, Tiwi woman Marion Scrymgour, was a facilitator in the Indigenous dialogues that led to the Uluru statement.
“I know full well that the initiative is not mere symbolism,” Scrymgour told parliament. “I am proud to be part of an Albanese Labor government which is going to take long-overdue action on this front.”
Delivered in the Northern Territory, Albanese’s statement of optimism on the Voice comes as the Territory government overturns longstanding alcohol bans in Indigenous communities, introduced under the Howard government.
Scrymgour said she did not believe the 15-year-old bans could continue but that they also should not have been removed without careful transition planning.
“When a government puts in a protective regime of that kind and leaves it in place for that long, you can’t just suddenly pull the pin on it without any protection, sanctuary or plan for the vulnerable women and children whom the original measure was supposed to protect,” she said. “To do that is more negligent – at the level of impact on actual lives it is tantamount to causing injury by omission.”
Price said the move would fuel already high rates of family violence.
The Uluru statement also addresses high incarceration rates, particularly among young Indigenous people.
“They should be our hope for the future…” it says. “We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny, our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.”
The statement’s drafters call for the Voice, followed by a treaty and a truth-telling process, and for all Australians to journey with them.
Albanese is confident the country is ready to take the first step.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on
July 30, 2022 as “‘A hand outstretched’: Albanese proposes way forward on Voice”.
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