It has taken too long to advance constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians

The Australian 7 January 2020

It has taken too long to advance constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians.

The culture of political assassinations of the past decade has slowed progress but so have changing views in the Indigenous community.

John Howard started the ball rolling in 2007.

Howard wanted to: “formally recognise Indigenous Australians in our Constitution, their history as the first inhabitants of our country, their unique heritage of language and culture…”

There has been little progress in the interceding 13 years.

2020 is the year in which we will take the biggest step forward on constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians. The development of a model is being led by Ken Wyatt – Australia’s first Minister for Indigenous Australians who is Indigenous.

The latest iteration in this long journey was the Uluru Statement of 2017, which proposed enshrining a “Voice” to Parliament in our Constitution. The Uluru Statement did not provide a clear definition of what a constitutional change would look like.

I am a supporter of a Voice, but I am not offering a blank cheque.   

In my First Speech in the Senate last year, I set out five principles which must be met to secure my support:

  1. Capture broad support of the Indigenous community
  2. Focus on community level improvements
  3. Maintain the supremacy of Parliament
  4. Maintain the value of equality
  5. Strengthen national unity

The Morrison Government is committed to both the development of a ‘voice’ for Indigenous Australians and constitutional recognition.  But they are two standalone processes, which while complimenting one another, will not result in a constitutionally enshrined “Voice”.  

As we kick off the co-design process, there are two primary reasons why these principles remain the key design parameters.

Firstly, consistent with principles one and two, it should be practical. It should be focused on community needs.

In my role as a Senator for New South Wales and member of the Parliamentarians Working Group supporting the Minister, I am meeting with Indigenous Australians.

I’ve met with Elders and community members in Kempsey and on the Central Coast.

When I meet with community members, it is very uncommon for people to have heard about the Uluru Statement or the “Voice”.

On the other hand, Indigenous leaders are often expert in the various models and ideas for constitutional recognition.

Most people on the ground are simply focused on the day to day. Getting the kids to the school, finding decent work and so on.

The constant theme that arises in the visits is a desire for more community-level control and decisions made closer to the ground.

Indigenous groups I have met want more community say on things like schools, health and community service provision. 

Decisions made by bureaucrats in Canberra or Sydney often do not work in Kempsey. It is that simple.

A model of community level decision making could actually be a big step forward for Indigenous Australians.

Accordingly, I am personally attracted to the “Speaking for Country” model developed by Warren Mundine.

Mundine’s bottom-up approach involves establishing local and regional bodies for the various Indigenous communities around Australia.

It would be for each of these communities to identify a structure that will enable a local or regional body to best represent its community. 

Indigenous communities around Australia are very different.  So their needs are different, and the kind of local or regional body that can help address these needs will be different.

Neither the Government nor anyone else should tell these people how to set up their local or regional body.  Once they have decided this for themselves, and providing an independent authority is satisfied that there are adequate governance structures in place, they should be ready to get going.

All around Australia, local and regional Indigenous communities will start developing their own bodies under this model.  These local and regional bodies will then voluntarily affiliate, to create a national body.

The Government and the Parliament will then have a one-stop-shop that they can go to in order to receive advice from Indigenous people.  The genius of this is that they will be able to hear directly from the local communities who will be affected by a proposed law or policy.

In this way, we’ll get a system through which local communities can be heard directly by the Parliament.

Secondly, consistent with principles three, four and five, there must be no third chamber.

I would never support a third chamber. Nor would millions of Australians. The Uluru Statement does not require an Indigenous body with the standing, scope or power of the Senate or the House of Representatives.

No one ever asked for a third chamber. It was misunderstood from the outset by the politicians.

To his great credit, former Nationals Leader Barnaby Joyce, who coined the “third chamber” misnomer in 2017, said late last year that: "I've now been reliably told that it's not a third chamber. If it's not a third chamber, I was wrong." 

John Howard’s Chief Justice Murray Gleeson put the legal question beyond doubt when he said of the Voice proposal:

“What is proposed is a voice to Parliament, not a voice in Parliament. It has the merit that it is substantive, and not merely ornamental.”

In the thirteen years since this was placed on the national agenda, much time has been lost.

The silver lining is the evolution from something ornamental into something substantial and practical.

The challenge before us is to connect a substantive proposal to community that delivers better lives for Indigenous Australians and a stronger nation.

- Andrew Bragg is a Liberal Senator for New South Wales