Mr RAMSEY (Grey—Opposition Whip) (19:08): Here in Australia we’re about to have a referendum: not one just recognising Indigenous Australians as the first inhabitants of the continent—a proposition that almost everyone would support, and certainly I would—but a referendum which is proposing a new chapter in our Constitution to ensure one racial grouping has more access to and more influence on our government and parliament than any other group, and entrenching that power in the Constitution. The proposal is a fundamental change to our democracy. It directly undermines the premise that we are all equal and every vote has the same value.
Winston Churchill is well quoted, and he once said this: ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.’ Democracy has its foundation in the Judeo-Christian principles. I’m indebted here to Paul Kelly for pointing out:
Human universalism is the heart of liberalism. It comes from the Jewish and Christian traditions. Recall St Paul: There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female but you are all one in Christ Jesus.
On the basis that democracy was formed on these values, we are all equal in the eyes of the laws and institutions, and it must remain so.
The referendum proposal does not target need or disadvantage—far from it. It instead seeks to provide special advantage to a racial group determined by who their ancestors are, above all else, regardless of their circumstances. It inserts races and race in the Constitution in a completely new chapter. This is the principal reason why I’ll be voting no when the referendum is staged.
In fact, while I’m sure it’s not intending to be, the proposal itself is inherently racist, because it is saying that Indigenous Australians can expect to be marginalised forever, that those of Aboriginal descent should never expect to be able to compete in a modern Australia without ongoing, permanent assistance and that they will always need extra help. I reject that premise entirely, and this place, with no fewer than 11 directly elected representatives with acknowledged Indigenous ancestry here on their own merit, proves that not to be the case.
It is interesting that one of the Voice’s champions today, Marcia Langton, wrote on his issue a decade ago:
This is why I hope a robust but intelligent debate on the issues I have raised will begin. And it begins with imagining that an Aboriginal man or woman is not some version of the ‘noble savage’, but a person who should have the opportunity to fulfill her potential. Removing the barriers to that aspiration means ending the colonial commitment to ‘race’ and the era of indigenous exceptionalism. It also requires imagining the Australian society in which we see each other as individuals—each unique and with a multitude of characteristics. Being Aboriginal in that circumstance would not be extraordinary or contentious or reason for hatefulness. Our status as the first peoples would be a simple acknowledgement of historical fact …
Marcia Langton, you elucidated that in a far more erudite manner than I could ever hope to do, and you were right. I’m not sure what, if anything, has changed since then, but you were absolutely right. Only by addressing disadvantage on a needs basis and removing race as a factor will we ever rid ourselves of racism.
Even if the proposal is wrong in principle—and it is—we need also to focus on how the Voice would work in practice. If Australia isn’t troubled by the principles at play, it should be by the lack of clarity around the mechanisms. The reach and the powers of his body are far from clear, and it seems likely they would be determined by the High Court on a case-by-case basis. Mr Albanese tells us it is a moderate change and it will be subservient to parliament and simply good manners, but he declines to provide any detail on how the body would be appointed or would operate, saying that it will be for parliament to determine if the referendum should pass.
But here’s the rub. Given the Labor Party has complete control of the lower house and, on this subject at least, effective control of the upper house, the Prime Minister should be able to tell us right now how the operating rules for the Voice will be drawn up. The government are unlikely to have to compromise at all should the referendum be successful, and they almost certainly will have considered how they will formulate the legislation in that event. If they have not, they are incompetent and a danger to the country. If they have—and we should assume they have—we can only reason that they think that Australia will be so alarmed by what they intend to do—what they intend to legislate—that in the end it will not vote ‘yes’. This would make the government devious and dishonest. You can take your pick. There is no excuse for this complete snow job. Where is the transparency, Prime Minister? What are you hiding?
Additionally, the Prime Minister has loudly proclaimed that he is fully committed to delivering the Uluru Statement from the Heart in its three-step process of voice, treaty and truth. I can understand why the government may not have fully developed proposals for these next steps, but they must have thought it through. What kinds of things do they propose to have covered by the treaty? Will it grant extra powers, levels of consultation and restrictions in determining land use? Will the treaty challenge the sovereign rights of Australian governments, who act as the democratically elected representatives of the nation’s owners, its people, in an equal manner?
In this space, New Zealand is often promoted as a positive example. They have had a treaty for more than 180 years and a model that we can follow. However, despite the treaty stretching back to the time of Queen Victoria, in 1975 they decided to establish the Waitangi Tribunal, which was to be an advisory body designed to interpret the Treaty of Waitangi for the modern world and to be predominantly focused on land access and rights. It was to be an advisory body only—make note of that. However, over the years, its powers and reach have been redefined by the High Court of New Zealand, to the point where they now control a portion of the health budget, allocated on the basis of race, not need; where the New Zealand government has recently preferenced Maoris as a racial group for the distribution of vaccines; and where, following pressure from the tribunal, they have been granted the right of consultation in international trade agreements. Certainly these agreements affect Maoris, just as they affect all other New Zealanders, but the argument that they impact singularly on Maoris is a stretch. How different are we and the Voice proposal, here in Australia, to that New Zealand experience?
We are being assured by the Prime Minister that the Voice will be able only to make representation on issues specifically affecting Indigenous peoples and that it will be subservient to the parliament, advisory only, and, as I said earlier, simply a matter of good manners. But will it? While there are a range of constitutional experts who assure us that will be the case, there are at least an equal number who say that it will not and the Voice will be justiciable, open to having its powers reinterpreted by the courts. Who to believe? This is no simple question for Australians. It is complex and opaque. We should be able to believe our Prime Minister, but his assurances that change is minimalist are undermined by those around him. For instance, Professor Megan Davis, the chair of his working group, said in February:
There is a misconception that it will have no power and it will have no influence. … it will have a lot of power because it’s a constitutional voice that is mandated by the Australian people and that gives it a lot of power.
Former High Court Judge Ian Callinan says:
… I would foresee a decade or more of constitutional and administrative law litigation arising out of a voice …
Professor Greg Craven, a member of the government’s working group and personally in favour of recognition, says the proposal is ‘far worse’ than he had contemplated. We’re even told that Mr Albanese’s Attorney-General tried to convince the working group to remove the clauses around executive government.
One thing we do know is that the government no longer proposes the Voice be directly elected by Indigenous people. This is, after all, hardly surprising, given that there is not a legal definition in Australia of what it is to be Indigenous that you couldn’t drive a truck through. Maybe the government is wise not to be opening that particular can of worms. But at this stage it’s true the government is sharing precious little detail. At best, we know the government is planning to ask existing peak Indigenous bodies to appoint representatives. Mr Albanese refuses to formally adopt the Calma-Langton model. It’s little wonder we are all confused.
The best most can surmise, using that model as a guide, is that there will be 23 or 24 appointed representatives, which is likely to dictate that in South Australia we would have possibly three representatives. A few weeks back, I spent four days on the APY Lands and visited every community, speaking to all and sundry. None raised the issue of the referendum on the Voice with me, so it became my job to try and find out what they were thinking. Four days and probably a hundred conversations later, I had not found a single supporter among either the local population or the non-Indigenous workers. I’m not saying they don’t exist—I’m not that silly—but they didn’t speak to me. Many knew nothing of the proposal. Of the locals that did, the first reaction was: ‘How could they ever expect us to get one person to represent all of us here, in all of our different communities, with the different families within?’ Indeed. But if there are only 23 representatives Australia wide, then they would be lucky if they got one that lived remotely, and it would certainly be a stretch to think they might come from the APY Lands.
It should be important for those with a little experience in this area to understand that Indigenous groupings in remote Australia are not naturally trusting of those outside their direct family groupings and that their representative bodies are often far from reaching mutual agreement and understanding. An issue I raised with Marcia Langton, Tom Calma and Ken Wyatt is that the most difficult part of establishing the Voice will be the establishment of the local and regional voices. It is also the most important step, and it should be done before any attempt to establish the national voice. It is, in fact, what the Calma and Langton report recommended. Despite a last-minute dip of the lid from the government to a local voice, saying that it will now be part of the overall architecture, they are pushing ahead with the national voice first and attempting to put the cart before the horse.
The second concern of the people on the APY Lands was that it will be run by people in the city, whom they do not know and do not trust. They’re probably right, but, of course, the Prime Minister is choosing not to share that detail with us.
The next point I make is that the Voice is to be made up of representatives of the most powerful existing bodies. How does the government think that will come up with different answers to the ones the representative bodies are already providing to government? After all, they are the same people. The premise that somehow Indigenous people are not consulted by governments when it comes to policies that affect them could not be more wrong. The remnant proof of policy decisions that have given in to local wishes are littered across the length and breadth of our remote Indigenous communities.
People of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent make up 3.3 per cent of Australia’s population, but that percentage mix is far higher in the regions, and obviously lower in the cities. In my own electorate of Grey, the last census tells me that 7.4 per cent of my constituents are Indigenous. It stands to reason, then, that those of us in this place who have the highest numbers, those of us who are the members representing the remote Indigenous communities and work with our Indigenous groupings on a day-to-day, week-by-week and ongoing basis, might have a little more insight into the challenges, aspirations, successes and failures of programs and of our Indigenous constituents’ distrust of the mob in the city, both the Indigenous and the non-Indigenous. However, it is this grouping, those of us who know more about Indigenous people on a personal basis and deal with their issues every day, that almost to the person are opposed to the proposal. Certainly, from my own experience, I have had more Indigenous constituents tell me they will vote no than yes.
The referendum should be a unifying event. The Prime Minister says it will be. But I remind the House that in 1967 the referendum was supported by 90.7 per cent of the population, and the referendum loudly declared that all Australians were equal. Regardless of where you came from and who your ancestors were, it was a unifying moment for the nation. This referendum is likely to be greatly different. It is dividing the nation as we speak. The signs of acrimonious division are already with us, particularly for those who support the no case, and more so if they are Indigenous. The attacks on Jacinta Price, Warren Mundine and Mick Goode are absolutely disgraceful and a blight on our society. Surely we are mature enough to discuss this issue in a civil manner and appreciate that if someone has a different view to ours it does not make them or their view invalid.
Every vote in Australia will be of the same value on referendum day. That is the sign of a true democracy like Australia’s. For others who may hear or read this speech, I say: be on the right side of history by refusing to vote for something that will divide our nation on racial grounds and runs the risk of hurting the people we’re trying to help.