An Indigenous voice can unite Australians

By Shireen Morris | 07 Nov 17
Tchami / Flickr

The Turnbull Government’s rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the recommendations in the Referendum Council’s report is not only unfair to Indigenous Australians – it’s unfair to all Australians.

The rejection underestimates the intelligence and goodwill of the Australian people; the majority of whom are tired of empty symbolic gestures and want to see real change in Indigenous affairs.

The government’s pre-emptive claim that Australians would not accept the proposal in a referendum is not supported by any evidence. When asked on ABC National’s RN Drive, Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said, “I don’t need evidence,” and revealed that the government had done no polling on the model.

The claim has now been discredited by UNSW research showing a majority of Australians agree with the inclusion of an Indigenous advisory body in the Constitution. The rejection of the proposal demonstrates that the Government is out of touch with the Australian people.

An Indigenous voice to Parliament

The Referendum Council and the Uluru Statement from the Heart put forward a simple and modest proposal. They recommend a single constitutional reform: a constitutionally enshrined First Nations voice to Parliament – a representative body to guarantee Indigenous peoples a fairer say in laws and policies with respect to Indigenous affairs. As Alan Jones said on Q and A this week: “What’s so hard about that?”

The government’s claim that the proposal would be a “third chamber of Parliament” is deliberately mischievous and incorrect.

This would be an external Indigenous body, legislated by Parliament. It would offer advice, but would have no veto power. It would have no parliamentary voting rights and would not alter the make-up of the Houses of Parliament. It’s even intended to be non-justiciable, so as not to empower the High Court. It’s the only constitutional recognition proposal that avoids High Court uncertainty.

This is a concept that can unite Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Australia’s top lawyers back the model and have dismissed the deceiving “third chamber of Parliament” description being propagated by the government. The model is advocated by eminent constitutional experts like Professor Anne Twomey, who drafted a robust constitutional amendment intended to uphold parliamentary supremacy.

The government’s criticism that the proposal lacks detail is also misplaced: it is Parliament’s job to flesh out the detail and legislate the body. Professor Rosalind Dixon says such deferral to Parliament is entirely appropriate and aligned with Australia’s constitutional norms – the Constitution contains many provisions that leave Parliament to flesh out the details of Australian institutions.

Correctly understood, an Indigenous voice to Parliament is a modest-yet-profound proposal. It is constitutionally sensible yet empowering for First Nations people, who for decades have advocated for greater participation and self-determination in their affairs. This middle ground “radical centre” reform has proven capacity to bring Australians from across the political spectrum together.

That the government had assumed the pessimistic view that Australians would reject this reform, before they’d even asked Australians what they thought, and then maintained that view despite evidence to the contrary, is deeply troubling and must be called out.

An Indigenous voice is gaining support across the political spectrum

Following a number of First Nations regional dialogues around the country, an Indigenous voice to Parliament won Indigenous support. Through the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the First Nations formed an historic, unprecedented consensus and asked for a First Nations voice in the Constitution. It was also the most popular reform advocated in submissions from the wider public.

This is a concept that can unite Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

And it’s not just progressive Australians who support it. The Indigenous body proposal is backed by constitutional conservatives. Conservative organisation Uphold & Recognise has been successfully rallying support on the political right. Advocates for the model include former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett; former Aboriginal Affairs Minister for the Liberal Party, Fred Chaney, Liberal MP Julian Leeser who has run every referendum ‘no case’ in the past, but on this proposal is on team ‘yes’; conservatives Sir Angus Houston and Major General Michael Jeffrey; constitutional conservative Professor Greg Craven; monarchist Damien Freeman; and young Aboriginal Liberal Party advocate Geoffrey Winters, among many others.

At the conservative-leaning newspaper, The Australian, journalist Chris Kenny has passionately argued in favour of an Indigenous constitutional body, as has legal reporter, Chris Merritt, and, often, the paper’s editors. Even conservative radio host, Alan Jones, this week stated he supports the proposal.

On the progressive side there is equally strong and growing support. Labor and the Greens have declared that they fully back the reform and it’s been pushed by prominent commentators like author Thomas Keneally, former NSW Labor Premier Kristina Keneally, prominent lawyer Danny Gilbert and now, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Not to mention the masses of Australians now rallying behind the First Nations to decry the government’s unfair rejection of the proposal.

An Indigenous voice can unite Australians

The proposal for an Indigenous voice to Parliament unites Australians because it’s a fair and modest idea. It’s a concept based on inclusive dialogue and partnership in Indigenous affairs – itself a unifying concept. As Professor Craven has identified, it is a sound proposal that is likely to build support over time.

The reform has even brought together Australians who are usually ideologically opposed, creating unexpected agreement across left and right.

It’s not Australians who are rejecting the modest reform requested in the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the Referendum Council’s report, and it’s dishonest to claim they are.

On Sky News, Labor-aligned Kristina Kenneally marvelled at the oddity of being in passionate concurrence with right-wing commentator, Chris Kenny, in support of the Indigenous body. Likewise, former Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, noted on Q&A this week his unexpected “unity ticket” with Alan Jones. Though at opposite ends of the political spectrum, both were strongly in favour of an Indigenous voice and critical of the government’s rejection.

An Indigenous voice to Parliament can unify left and right, as well as Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Imagine what could happen if there was political leadership.

Australians must demand justice

The Turnbull Government’s claim that the modest idea of an Indigenous voice in Indigenous affairs will not be accepted by the Australian people lacks evidence. To the contrary, there is strong evidence indicating Australians of all persuasions can, and will, see the fundamental fairness of ensuring Indigenous people a voice in decisions made about them.

Australians are fair-minded people. It’s only fair that Indigenous people should have genuine input into laws and policies made about them and their rights. Malcolm Turnbull needs to stop verballing Australians. He needs to stop underestimating our intelligence.

It’s not Australians who are rejecting the modest reform requested in the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the Referendum Council’s report, and it’s dishonest to claim they are.

It’s the politicians who are blocking national progress in Indigenous affairs. They have actively tried to kill this sensible reform.

Australians must not let them. We must make all our voices heard.