In May 2017, First Nations leaders across the country met at the base of Uluru on the country of the Anangu people. The meeting convened as part of the Referendum Council’s First Nations National Constitutional Convention focused discussion on the place of Indigenous people and how we may achieve a real and lasting political voice. The result was the mutual creation of the “Uluru Statement from the Heart” calling for Indigenous seats in Parliament to enshrine our Indigenous voice and a Makarrata Commission to oversee the process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history – in short a layered process to establish treaties.
Both Parties quickly jumped into positions, the Coalition under then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull rejected the Referendum Council’s call insisting that it was too ambitious with overstretch by Indigenous people that would ultimately be unsuccessful in a referendum setting back “Reconciliation and Recognition” in the process.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten stated Federal Labor’s position that an Indigenous voice should be pursued although stating that it should be bipartisan and that “Labor supports a voice for Aboriginal people in our constitution, we support a declaration by all parliaments, we support a truth-telling commission, we are not confronted by the notion of treaties with our First Australians.”
A solution that provides nothing less than true representation as equals in Parliament will not and cannot be accepted by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Former Prime Minister Turnbull was partially correct in his interpretation that an alternate representation group risked becoming a quasi third chamber, effectively acting as a Black Senate which would depending on its electoral process be almost certainly made up of Labor inclined representatives.
I propose a different solution that provides a mandated representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Parliament without the risk of creating chaos to the current working framework.
As a two-house political system any introduction of an additional house real or perceived will in my opinion create an “isolated” voice in parliament, seen or interpreted as separate to the ordinary business of government; sometimes convenient and at other times painful to the government of the day.
It is proposed the Senate is the best place to create the First Nations representation, creating not just a voice but the ability to be involved in the check and balance of legislation that impacts our people. Through the creation of up to additional 8 spots (or 10%) in the Senate designated to First Nations people, will ensure the enshrined voice of First Australians that signatories of the “Uluru Statement from the Heart” (and this writer) seek.
As Senators, First Nations people will provide an Indigenous check and balance of legislation and during this current climate of controversy, idiocy and shenanigans in the ranks of the red seats, some good old fashion common sense and respectful behaviour.
The creation of the additional Senate seats will work within the existing process of a general election whereby Parties achieve a Senate quota by the number of votes they receive per state.
Once Senate results are ratified, every 7 Senate seats will equate to a quota for a First Nations Senate seat. Based on today’s senate, Labor with 26 Senators would have quota for 3 First Nations Senate seats (21 senators), with the option to work with the cross-bench parties to coalesce a 4th quota (Labor’s remaining 5 with 2 additional Cross bench Senators).
The Coalition with 31 Senate spots would qualify with a quota for 4 First Nations Senate seats and with their remaining 3 Senators seek an additional 5th quota from the cross bench i.e. achieving 35 Senators.
On the cross bench the Greens would qualify for 1 First Nations Senate seat and could seek to build support with other cross bench Senators to gain a second quota.
This proposal will not impede the will of the Australian voter on their chosen government, it will translate into a slightly larger Senate, but a Senate that maintains the representation of the voting public. It should also be a proposal accepted in a bipartisan manner if both the Coalition and Labor are truly dedicated to a Reconciliation and a First Nations voice and not political gamesmanship wagered on the backs of Indigenous peoples.
Each Party may determine the internal election process of their First Nations representatives.
The First Nations Senators will sit as a caucus in the chamber to reinforce that they are representatives of First Nations people and communities, not simply a base extension of Labor, Liberal or Greens. The Indigenous Caucus will meet, overseeing a Senate estimate Committee on Indigenous Affairs including Health, Housing, Education and Indigenous Economic Development (ILC, IPP, ORIC and Employment) with a Senate committee of up to 8 sitting members (instead of the regular 6) and an additional two members; the sitting Indigenous Affairs Minister and her/his Shadow counterpart.
The First Nations Senate Committee will oversee all aspects of the current Closing the Gap Strategy providing oversight and ownership of these issues.
This model provides for the desired voice without throwing out or creating structurally complicated approaches on the Parliament. It is at present the only viable practical solution to achieve the desires of the “Uluru Statement from the Heart”.
By Sean Armistead