Submission To: Indigenous Voice Co-Design Process Interim Report to the Australian Government
From: Senator Andrew Bragg, Liberal Senator for New South Wales
Date: 25 March 2021
As a legislator in the Federal Parliament, I present a submission in support of the proposals that an Indigenous Voice has two complementary parts, Local and Regional Voices and a National Voice.
Following extensive travel throughout New South Wales, and after much consultation with Aboriginal people in those communities, I support the notion that there would be no one set structure for a Local and Regional Voice. Recently I have been to Kempsey, Nowra, Brewarrina, Bourke, Walgett, Coonamble and Redfern.
They are my constituents and I seek to represent their views without speaking on their behalf in any sort of paternalistic manner. I have a firm view that paternalistic policy in Indigenous affairs has been a disaster and that Indigenous centred policy making is essential if we are to close the significant gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
I have asked Indigenous Australians in all of these places about these proposals in broad terms. The feedback I have collected is from a range of people with diverse knowledge and experience. I have met with academics with extensive knowledge of the Australian constitution and I have met with people who mow lawns as part of their community service. All views are legitimate and representative of their own experiences and that of their peers.
At the outset, it is important to note that the Indigenous people of Australia are very diverse. Perhaps one of the biggest developments in recent years is the growth of the Indigenous middle class which Stan Grant has written about extensively.
Such diversity demands that different regions should have different structures, based on what works best for each community.
As a Liberal Senator I support the Interim Co-Design Report commissioned by the Minister for Indigenous Australians the Hon Ken Wyatt MP. I acknowledge the significant bipartisan work undertaken by the three co-design committees, led by co-chairs Professor Marcia Langton AM and Professor Tom Calma AO.
My submission is offered as part of the current public consultation process, as a contribution to the important work of the co-design committees and in support of the many voices of Indigenous people in this process.
I submit there are effectively three components required to deliver a Voice: first, a local or regional voice; second, a national voice; and third, legal and constitutional arrangements. I note that the constitutional arrangements are not dealt with in this particular process.
It concerns me that our country has not been able to reconcile with Indigenous Australians.
In my First Speech to the Australian Senate delivered on 24 July 2019 I quoted Noel Pearson and his Declaration of Recognition. In it he presents Australia as a unified nation drawing on three great heritages: the Indigenous as first peoples, the British as creators of institutions which underpin the nation and the multicultural gift that has enriched us all.
The Constitution succeeds in securing these institutions and the Uluru Statement seeks to strengthen our constitution.
The Uluru Statement says: “we seek Constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country.” Uluru calls on legislators to consult Indigenous people on the laws which are relevant to them which is a good and fair idea.
As I said in my First Speech I would not support Constitutional recognition at any price. I offered five principles if we are to succeed. Any proposal must:
- Capture broad support of the Indigenous community
- Focus on community level improvements
- Maintain the supremacy of Parliament
- Maintain the value of equality
- Strengthen national unity
Recognition should be a bottom up process. It must be a unifying project because the Australian Constitution belongs to all Australians. It must also be bipartisan.
I often quote the Minister for Indigenous Australians when he said: “Indigenous Australians (want) to be recognised on the birth certificate of our nation because we weren’t there when it was written but we were ensconced in it in two sections, 51-26 and 127.”
I do not believe an Indigenous Voice would be a third chamber. It wouldn’t have the standing, scope or power of the Senate or the House of Representatives.
All Australians will always be equal but we cannot have Indigenous people feel estranged in the land of their ancestors. Almost every comparable nation has landed some form of legal recognition of first peoples. It is my view we should not wait any longer. I therefore welcome the process the Minister for Indigenous Australians the Hon Ken Wyatt MP has commenced through co-design.
Local and Regional Voice
The Proposal is a regional level governance structure that:
- Be designed and led by communities
- Provide advice to all levels of government about what’s important in communities and in the region
- Work in partnership with all governments to make plans on how to meet community aspirations and deliver on local priorities
- Provide local views to the National Voice where this informs national issues
As I mentioned above, I have travelled extensively throughout rural Australia and sought the views of Indigenous Australians at many levels to form my understanding.
A flexible principles-based framework would guide and support all Local and Regional Voices.
For example, in Western New South Wales, Murdi Paaki allows Aboriginal people living in the region to attend meetings of the local community working groups, becoming voting members and elect a chairperson. In some communities it is supported, in other towns it hasn’t worked. Bourke is a good example. Bourke pulled out of Murdi Paaki to establish its own organisation called Maranguka.
A model suggested to me was that two members from each of these groups (preferably one male one female) would be appointed to a state body. This would deal with advice on service delivery and engagement with local and state government.
There are similar models across the country, some are set up by communities, others have been established under statute. For example, the Torres Strait Regional Authority exists under a law of the Commonwealth. It has 20 board members who are each elected to represent a ward, an island or a discrete community. It supports economic development, protection of cultural heritage, and health and community services. The view on the ground is clear about the concept.
I contend this is about community advice on service delivery. It’s about getting children on the bus or providing antenatal services to pregnant women with community input and control.
From the bottom up, a voice can deliver a form of community decision making.
I concur with Wangkumarra man, Brad Gordon from Brewarrina who told me: “Our people are suffering, our despair is real, our disparity is measurable and unacceptable. It is time to give rise to a model that gives voice to our people on the ground to develop our own solutions based on our own traditional practices.”
The Proposal is a national body made up of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that:
- Could provide advice to the Australian Parliament and Government on relevant laws, policies and programs
- Could engage early on with the Australian Parliament and Government in the development of relevant policies and laws
I support the notion that membership for the National Voice could happen in two different ways:
- Structurally linked: Members selected from Local and Regional Voices.
- Elections held for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to elect National Voice members directly.
I agree that either membership option would have a two-way advice link to Local and Regional Voices. Members would represent their state or territory as well as the Torres Strait Islands.
There are at least four things a National Voice could do tomorrow.
First, it could advise on legislation which is made specifically for Indigenous Australians - such as the Native Title Act. This is a gap in our legislative arrangements which I notice as a legislator.
Secondly, it could take custody and control of the Aboriginal flag, assuming at some stage the Commonwealth is able to agree with Harold Thomas to acquire the flag, and give it an appropriate home.
Thirdly, it could fulfill the role of cultural advisor. As the Australia Council for the Arts has set out: “there is no national peak body working across art forms to promote the rights of First Nations artists and cultural custodians to champion First Nations arts and cultures.”
And fourthly, it would be a collector, aggregator and analyst of data. It could provide advice to the government about expenditure generally in the Indigenous portfolio but it could also offer a view on the success and failures of the local and regional Voice programs.
To keep faith with the Uluru Statement, the principle of consultation on laws and policies affecting Indigenous people should be embedded in the Constitution for permanence.
The question is whether it would be in statute or in the Constitution. There are at least three models in circulation being considered:
- Detailed Voice set out in the constitution
- Constitutional obligation for a Voice, Voice legislated
- No Constitutional reference or change, Voice legislated
While I understand that this element is beyond the scope of this discussion paper, I contend there must be a constitutional guarantee for the Voice. To do otherwise is to undermine the Uluru Statement and the commitments made by successive governments dating back to 2007.
I appreciate the opportunity to present this submission and I commend you on this very important piece of work to reshape the landscape for Indigenous Australians. The COVID-19 crisis has shown how Indigenous centric policymaking can deliver better outcomes. Aboriginal medical services have been at the centre of the pandemic response.
As Fiona Stanley and James Ward said in the Australian: “(Indigenous people) comprise 3 per cent of the population, (and) we would have expected at least 3 per cent of Australia’s 27,750 (COVID) cases i.e. 850, would have been in First Nations populations. As of January 2021, there have only been 148 cases nationwide, 15 per cent of these hospitalised, one in intensive care and no deaths.”
This is the model for the future. I feel confident you will take constructive and positive final recommendations to the Australian Government and we will take this policy response seriously.
I am available should you wish to call on me.