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The time for Constitutional Recognition and the Voice has come

Julian Leeser -

I love this country.

A country expansive, desolate, beautiful and yet at times, brutal.

A land of extremes - unlike any other place on earth. A land where you can have a cyclone and bushfires on the same day and not be surprised by it. 

Over thousands of years, Australia’s Indigenous peoples have made their peace with this land and it has become part of their soul. Lives infused by the land, the seasons and the stories of ancestors.

The 2021 Senior Australian of the Year, Dr Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr Baumann calls that  contemplation of this land, deep listening. Dadirri. The ability to stop, contemplate, and listen. To listen to the deep waters of our country - to the present as well as time’s past. To listen and to hear the beckoning of change.

This is such a moment for our country - and for this home we share - Indigenous and immigrant, drawn from every creed, and every corner of the world.

Today, we are seeking to put before the Australian people, a change to our shared national document, the Constitution. The document that belongs to all 25 million of us.

First and foremost, I recognise that the Constitution is the nation’s rule-book. This sparse document is so frugal with words that it can fit in your pocket. It is the invisible pillar that holds together the great national endeavour that we have the privilege of contributing to. 

Australia is one of the world's oldest continuous democracies and it is no small part due to the work done by the framers of our Constitution in the 1890s.

But it is more than a rule book. This Constitution was also the answer to the deeper challenge that tested minds in Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth, in the 1890s. It was the challenge of how to become one people.

To no longer define ourselves by the state we originated from, but to be part of a nation where others would also have a say.

The question of that time was: could we build a federation based on trust? Where every Australian, no matter where they lived, would have a seat at the table.

Through patience, listening, compromise and negotiation and finding common ground, the Constitution answered that question. And it can answer that question again in 2023.

Next week marks 125 years since the June referendum of 1898 - the first time that Australians went to the polls to vote on becoming one people.

And in a lovely coincidence, next week this House will have the opportunity to vote on the next step on that journey: to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peoples in the Constitution.

For a century, the question of constitutional recognition has been before us. It stood before us, on the day the First Parliament House in Canberra was opened when two Aboriginal men - Jimmy Clements and John Noble turned up uninvited. 

Think about that, the opening of the First Parliament House and not one Indigenous Australian invited - and yet they turned up. And despite half empty grandstands, the authorities tried to move them along. 

And the quest to participate in this democracy continued when the late great William Cooper, the son of the Yorta Yorta people, petitioned The King 90 years ago to have seats reserved in this chamber for Aboriginal Australians.

Australia can always delight - and I am sure William Cooper would have been amazed - that 11 Indigenous Australians currently sit in our national Parliament. Not as the result of a quota, but on their merits, leaders in their own right, and embodying the rich plurality of Australian life. 

They represent all of their constituents - of all races, religions and backgrounds. They are faithful representatives of their parties. They are Parliamentarians who happen to be Aboriginal not Representatives of the Aboriginal people of Australia. 

Still recognition in the Constitution, though talked about for decades, has been elusive.

In it the wonder and faith of Indigenous Australians, that even in times of disappointment, they have never given up on this democracy. Step by laboured step they have sought progress - the 1967 Referendum, the Bark Petitions, the breakthroughs of Neville Bonner and Ken Wyatt and Nova Peris and Linda Burney all speak to it.

And through it all - the frustrations, the failures, as well as the progress, the times and the seasons hadn’t aligned for constitutional recognition.

As Miriam-Rose might say, the time for ripening and gathering had not come. When it did, it was not what anyone expected, least of all me - and for that, I marvel at life’s mysteries and the extraordinary people that life has brought across my path.

It was about a decade ago that I sat down with a small group of constitutional conservatives and Indigenous leaders and worked on a proposal for constitutional recognition.

The flowery-words and symbolism-only approach taken for so long was neither attractive to Indigenous leaders or conservative thinkers.

So we started again. We talked and listened. And the idea we developed was different. It was organic, practical, consistent with our constitutional heritage, and a uniquely Australian idea built for Australian conditions. It was called the Voice. 

It was a way of giving recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who have loved this continent since time began.

And consistent with our Constitution - a rulebook which creates institutions of Government, the Voice was practical too. It was about creating a new structure to improve outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

In the years that followed those early gatherings at Greg Craven’s study at Australian Catholic University, the question was taken back to Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander Australians. On the way to Uluru and at Uluru, they were asked what they wanted from constitutional recognition?

They said they wanted a means to make a difference to life expectancy, educational attainment, job opportunities, incarceration rates, and in housing and safety too. They wanted a voice. Instead of rejecting the document that was silent about them for so long, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians embraced it.

As put so eloquently in the Uluru Statement from the Heart: 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. 

Empowerment, decision making, responsibility, accountability, giving back - these are conservative ideals.

The Voice is about Indigenous Australians seeking a greater stake in their own future - no different than any one of us in this chamber or in the communities that we represent seek - because it is only through empowerment and the responsibility that accompanies it, that a difference can be made.

That is why I am an enthusiastic supporter of the Voice - because it is about embracing our shared national project.

It’s about Indigenous people in local and regional communities and nationally, being consulted and getting involved in the issues that affect them - and making a difference on issues that have stubbornly not changed for far too long.

In a democracy it is right that every idea is tested and even contested. That is particularly so with the Constitution.

Free speech, freedom of expression, the involvement of citizens to make decisions, this is what we celebrate as citizens of the Commonwealth and as parliamentarians.

This proposed constitutional alteration has required us all to reflect.

In this debate, I believe that given that we are dealing with an amendment about our fellow citizens we all have a responsibility to engage in this debate respectfully, and I might add, gently.

We can’t let this debate become yet another place of cultural fraying. For about two decades our shared sense of belonging has been fraying. Our willingness to walk in another’s shoes is something few of us contemplate these days.

I believe we all have a responsibility to do so in this debate.

Those advocating for the yes case - like me - have a responsibility to engage with the legitimate questions and doubts that many Australians have. And those advocating for the no case have a responsibility to hear the aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians who believe the Voice will make a difference. And all of us have a responsibility to show goodwill to each other.

In my own case, as I made a decision to move from the frontbench to the backbench to prosecute this case, I want to acknowledge the generous personal support I have received from my parliamentary colleagues - from Peter Dutton and my old boss Tony Abbott, to so many in my local Berowra Liberal conference and so many of the men and women who sit on this side of the chamber - and indeed the kind words from the other side of the chamber too. 

I also want to acknowledge Warren Mundine - he is a passionate and committed leader of the no case, but Warren doesn’t miss a chance to send a kind word or encourage me.

You won’t read about any of that - because it doesn’t fit the narrative about Peter, Tony, Warren, Kerrynne, Jacinta and our party - but it is my experience. People of goodwill can disagree - and they do.

I believe we need more goodwill in all our public debates - here, in the media and online - because the strength of our country depends on the goodwill between all of us in public life.

It is in the spirit of respectful debate, I want to put the main arguments why Australians should vote yes at the referendum.

THE SYSTEM IS BROKEN

The first reason is that the current state of Indigenous affairs is not working. In most referendum debates, the argument is put, “if it aint broke don’t fix it”. Normally, that is a valid and compelling argument. But the system is broken.

And as a country, despite small progress on some fronts, Indigenous Australians are not enjoying the same opportunities as other Australians.

The life expectancy of an Indigenous Australian is eight years below that of other Australians.

One in two Indigenous Australians live in the most socially disadvantaged areas in Australia.

Infant mortality is 1.8 times higher for Indigenous Australians than other Australians.

The unemployment rate for Indigenous Australians is estimated to be 30% - about nine times higher than their fellow Australians.

The suicide rate for Indigenous Australians is almost two and half times that of other Australians.

One in five Indigenous households are living in accommodation that does not meet an acceptable standard.

This and so much more continues to be a shared national failure.

The Voice creates the frameworks and structures to make a difference at the local, regional and national level.

The Voice will be a place for Ministers to road test policy to ensure it has maximum effectiveness when translated to community.

The Voice will be a vital ingredient in helping to Close the Gap.

PROVIDING ADVICE

The Voice has been called many things by its opponents - a third chamber of parliament, a fourth layer of government, and a new house of lords. I prefer to call it what it is: an advisory body of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians trying to better direct Federal Government funds to achieve better outcomes.

The Voice is advisory. It won’t be Moses handing down the tablets from the mountain. The Parliament will still be the democratic centre of our national life. The Parliament will still be supreme in matters of policy and law. The Voice will advise. Just like the security services, the Chief Medical Officer, Chief Scientist, DFAT and so many agencies advise.

And it remains with the parliament, and the executive to weigh that advice.

To consider and reflect on it - and sometimes to reject it - because our duty is to consider the national perspective and the national interest.

The same will apply to local and regional voices - advice will always be weighed.

In fact, the words the amendment uses are “make representations” a more modest term than 
advice - advice implies mandatory consideration, whereas representation merely implies receipt. 

The voice in its different forms will advise on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait 
Islander peoples.

They will have no interest in where the Department of Finance purchases its paper clips or 
recycled paper, as some have claimed.

It will not run programmes or dish out grants.

And it will have no interest in submarines as some no advocates suggest - as if our subs are going 
to be painted with Indigenous designs like the fuselage of Qantas planes! And if the Voice wants to lambast the RBA on interest rates - I say join the queue!

WHAT THE VOICE WILL DO

Rather, the Voice will work on making our remote communities safer. It will work to rid communities of addictions from nicotine and alcohol to ice. It will work to get children in school and keep them there. It will work to address the terrible rates of infant mortality and renal failure in many Indigenous communities.

And it will work to create local jobs and industries so that we can break a culture of welfare dependency. 

Frankly, it will have too much real work on its hands to worry about the boring culture wars of Twitter.

THE SPECIAL PRIVILEGE ARGUMENT

The Voice is not about two classes of Australians, it is about eliminating the differences in economic and social outcomes that separate Indigenous Australians from other Australians. Some say the Voice will give indigenous Australians a place of privilege. 

Does anyone really believe that Indigenous Australians occupy a place of privilege? 

Because if they do, let them go to Alice Springs, Ceduna, Laverton, Leonora, Palm Island or Aurukun.

There and in hundreds of communities around Australia, Indigenous people are burnt out from generations of government policy failure.

I honour those Indigenous people seeking to make a difference in their communities as well as - nurses, paramedics, police, community workers, teachers and public servants, working every day simply for the hope of a better day.

The idea of special privilege is nonsense - because in too many places it is simply about survival.

MY MESSAGE TO LIBERAL AND NATIONAL VOTERS

I know there are many Liberal and National voters wrestling with how to vote at the referendum. To them I say I believe what the Voice is seeking to accomplish is in accordance with our values and history. We might not trumpet our virtue as others do, but we have always been on this journey.

Robert Menzies gave Aboriginal people the right to vote in Commonwealth and Territory elections and established AIATSIS, the natural treasure that seeks to preserve Indigenous language and culture.

Harold Holt brought the 1967 referendum to a successful conclusion. John Gorton appointed the first Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. Malcolm Fraser passed the first land rights act John Howard made the first attempt at a referendum for Constitutional Recognition. And Scott Morrison secured the National Resting Place and built a historic partnership with the Coalition of Peaks.

In the months ahead, many in this debate will deploy the names of Anthony Albanese, Peter Dutton, and others, trying to make this referendum an extension of our day-to-day political debates. It’s not. 

This is not the choice of politicians - this choice is given to all of us as citizens. At the referendum, the burden and responsibility rests on all of us.

For me, I am looking forward to supporting the yes campaign. It will be a journey that I hope to share with Australians from all walks of life - and particularly from my community.

And on referendum day, my wife Joanna and I will walk down the end of our street to the local school - where we will help set up and work on a booth.

On that day, we are going to bring biscuits, sandwiches and drinks for the workers on both sides - because no matter what side you are on, all of us are Australians who love this country and want  the best for it.

I believe in the Voice. I will campaign for it and vote yes for it - because the time for Constitutional Recognition and the Voice has come


Julian Leeser is the Member for Berowra and the former Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians.

This speech was delivered in the House of Representatives on Wednesday 24 May, 2023.




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