I rise today to speak on the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023 bill. As the Member for Indi, I want to first acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands across my vast electorate—lands of the Bpangerang, Dhudhuroa, Waywurru, Jaitmatang, Taungurung and Yorta Yorta peoples. I honour the resilience, the wisdom, the dignity, the scientific knowledge, the stories and art of the world’s longest surviving culture, and I pay my respects.
I thank the member for Cowan for making it so profoundly clear what I mean when I say I pay my respects to their elders, past and present, and I give gratitude for the treasures of culture that have slowly been revealed to me through the generosity of Aboriginal people I have come to know. They are people like Aunty Valda and the Murray family who gifted to me a message stick when I ran for the seat of Indi in 2019. I carry that message stick with me as I travel across my vast electorate. They gave it to me to keep me safe. I travel with it here to Canberra, and I feel it does keep me safe.
This bill is one step towards accepting the generous invitation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which 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.
We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.
This is an invitation I accept. And I will walk with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that have called for the establishment of a voice, and I will walk with them to encourage people all over the nation to, like me, vote for yes. I do that with great humility but with enormous hope.
This bill proposes the words that would alter the Constitution. It has four key elements: (1) to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the First Peoples of Australia; (2) to establish an advisory body known as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice; (3) to provide that that voice may make representations to the parliament and the executive on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; (4) to give parliament the power to pass legislation with respect to matters relating to the Voice.
This bill’s proposal has a simple intention: to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to have a say in the policy and legislation that affects them. I wholeheartedly support this intention, and I am proud to take my place in this historic moment to embrace an Australia that reflects who we are as a modern nation—truly reflects who we are as a modern nation, one looking forward.
For a long time, before I came to this place, I felt that our country had failed our First Peoples. My awareness of this has only deepened over time. Where I live, in Wangaratta, the signs of the Bpangerang people abound. Ring trees, canoe trees and birthing trees signal that these lands are abundant in food and water and spirit. On nearby Mount Pilot we have ancient, sacred rock art. These custodians have protected our environment for tens of thousands of years. Yet, in this same area that we now know is abundant with cultural treasures, there were massacres of First Nations people—evidenced through the names given to localities hidden in plain sight, massacres where the colonial governments looked the other way. We had government policies of moving Aboriginal people onto missions and reserves, removing children from their families, and these policies have had devastating repercussions through our local communities for generations.
Since I came to this place, I have felt it was my responsibility to use my time here—my very privileged time here—to advocate for positive change, in partnership with First Nations Australians. In the last parliament, I worked with former minister Ken Wyatt as a member of his parliamentary working group. I hosted Professor Marcia Langton in Wodonga in 2021 as part of the consultation on the Indigenous Voice Co-design Process, which resulted in many submissions from the people of Indi.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should have a say about a law, policy or program that impacts them. Who could possibly dispute that? They have a right to participate in decisions that affect them and a right to have some power over their own destiny. A Voice will give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people this long-overdue opportunity to participate in the decisions that directly affect them, and it will require the rest of us to listen. The Voice will embed consultation in policymaking. This isn’t a new concept. It’s best practice. When you consult, the difference in outcomes is profound.
For example, when I worked for the Department of Rural Health at the University of Melbourne, I had the great privilege of working with First Nations people from the Rumbalara Aboriginal Co-operative in Shepparton. This organisation was founded by the extraordinary First Nations leaders from the Cummeragunja walk-off, which occurred in February 1939. It was the first Indigenous mass protest in Australia, and the elders who led the walk-off continued to fight for the rights of the Yorta Yorta community and led the way to the creation of the Rumbalara Aboriginal Co-operative. Their community-led services in health, welfare, disability, elder care, sport and education are highly successful and taught me what is really so obvious: when Aboriginal people have agency to determine their future and to respond to their needs in a culturally safe way, you see success, you see impact, you see empowerment and you see change. My former midwifery colleagues have shared with me the stories and evidence from highly successful Birthing on Country programs led by First Nations midwives and Aboriginal health workers. We saw during COVID the extraordinary success of ACCHOs and local leadership in keeping communities safe.
I am a practical person, I want to see programs that work, and I am confident that a Voice will see programs such as these that I have described as the rule, not the exception. What we’re doing now is not working. Nationally, we are failing our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. For too long First Nations people have experienced racism, exclusion and disadvantage. They face barriers in the most fundamental areas: housing, education, employment, justice and health. Successive Closing the gap reports show patchy improvement at best. Government initiatives over decades have done little more than entrench that disadvantage. Poorly designed yet expensive policies which miss the mark or sometimes actually make things up far worse are not good for First Nations people and they are not good for our country.
It’s important to be clear: positive impact cannot happen overnight. But I am confident the Voice will bring about positive change on the ground. I support the Voice because it is a considered proposal backed by cultural authority. It’s not a new idea. It’s not a rushed idea. This idea gained support from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the country after the detailed grassroots dialogues in 2017 that crystallised in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Over 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives issued the statement calling for this constitutional reform.
Politicians didn’t come up with the Voice. This is not what the Leader of the Opposition so disingenuously refers to as a so-called Canberra voice. This is not the government’s or the Prime Minister’s idea. Some in this place like to use tricky language to pretend that this proposition is elitist. This is wrong. This is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, a simple proposition. The Voice will incorporate local and regional voices, as was intended in the lead-up to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, including in the Indigenous Voice Co-design Process. This will ensure that the interests of diverse communities are represented where it counts.
I’ve reached out and spoken to First Nations people about the Voice to gauge their perspectives and inform how I support the proposal, and I heard two main things. First, this was a fight that Australians from all walks of life need to carry forward. It does not rest alone on the shoulders of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Second, we must pursue this reform with the dignity and respect with which it was offered. I am not interested in merely voting for symbolic change, because that is not what is being asked of us. The Uluru dialogues reflected opinion polls, which have shown time and time again that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people do not support minimalist or symbolic constitutional recognition. It is not enough to amend the Constitution to simply recognise that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are the first peoples of Australia. A preamble is not enough. A statement of recognition alone is not enough. Over the course of two decades, it has become clear that any constitutional change must provide meaningful, substantive change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. A voice to parliament and government is simple but it is meaningful. To seek to spread misinformation and to deliberately sow seeds of doubt is both dangerous and disappointing. I implore those participating in this debate: do not seek to divide through your language or through your actions. Do not seek to engender fear.
This bill does not set out the details of the Voice. Purely, it states that an advisory body known as the Voice will be established. This is deliberate and important. Former High Court justices Kenneth Hayne and Robert French, and constitutional law expert Anne Twomey agree with this flexible approach because, again, this is not a new concept. Our Constitution provides a framework for the lawmaking powers of parliament and the organisation of the branches of government—a framework only. This is how our Constitution was first drafted, to give the democratically elected parliament the power to make decisions on the detail. The model for the Voice is no different. It is the right process for Australians to be asked to vote now on the principle, the goal, the aspiration of a voice to parliament and for parliament to make decisions on the detail.
If the referendum succeeds, and I believe it will, I will welcome more discussions about what this detail should look like. I also support the current wording of the bill that says the Voice may make representations to the parliament and the executives. I have listened to and read about the concerns about this wording, and I have again listened to constitutional legal experts. I have met with the expert working group and listened carefully to their recommendations and rationale. I do not have reservations about the wording of the current bill. I encourage those that do to listen to the legal experts.
I have had many conversations with constituents across Indi about the Voice. Without exception, they are respectful, thoughtful and considered conversations. We start with an open mind, we listen, we ask questions, we search for common ground and shared values and we walk away having connected with each other, even if we might not completely agree. Voting for constitutional change is an important moment, and it’s natural that people want to understand what they are supporting. My constituents might tell me that they still have questions about the detail or that they’re worried a voice will create no practical change to improve lives. These are valid concerns, and it’s our job as parliamentarians to share reliable information to make sure that every Australian is making a truly informed decision. Whether we agree with the Voice or not, we can all agree on that part. I’m so heartened by the conversations I have with people in Indi. I truly believe that, if Australians can approach the referendum with good intentions and an open mind, we will be better off as a nation. I encourage those people that still have questions about the Voice to have a conversation with other people, to listen and to understand.
The Victorian Women’s Trust and their Together, Yes campaign are a fantastic forum to have a discussion. Join in the conversation. In my electorate, towns like Euroa and Violet Town have dedicated groups of people who are more than willing to have a chat. Reach out to them if you have questions. Gunditjmara woman Judy Ahmat, who has supported me, taught me and led me since I decided to run for Indi in 2019, says that the national apology was a turning point for many Indigenous people in our path towards reconciliation. This referendum is another turning point towards a better way of doing things, of listening, of walking together.
On referendum day, the votes of all members in this place will hold the same value as those of every other Australian. With the Uluru Statement from the Heart, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have invited all of Australia to walk with them, to achieve a voice. I embrace that offer, and I call on all Australians to do the same. Do not lose this moment.