This is our best chance to deliver the promise of an Indigenous Voice
In my first speech to Parliament, I argued Australia should finally deliver constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians. I said: “I would walk with Indigenous Australians on this journey.” A key element of this is the development of an Indigenous voice to government.
With Wednesday's announcement, we finally have a process to be optimistic about.
Indigenous leaders want recognition to be coupled with a tangible mechanism to improve the lives of Indigenous Australians. The Uluru Statement from the Heart sought a voice for Indigenous Australians – a say on issues directly relevant to them.
The Uluru Statement is not a detailed statement. It does not go into detail as to how a voice could be achieved. But the principle is clear: consultation as a precondition to legislating on Indigenous matters.
A former chief justice of Australia, Murray Gleeson, has said of this 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.”
This really is a good and fair idea. I am on the record as stating this mechanism would ideally have constitutional backing.
But if it did not, it would still be a very substantial reform which would improve Indigenous lives. I know there are mixed views within the community and the Parliament on the form this body should take. Our co-design process should mould the various views into cogent options for reform.
In my first speech I said I would support this reform but not at any cost. I outlined five principles if we are to be successful.
“Any proposal must: 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.”
Wednesday's announcement of the co-design process for an Indigenous voice presents the nation’s best shot for getting this done. There are two reasons to be optimistic.
First, we are in a unique position. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has appointed Ken Wyatt as the nation’s first Indigenous Minister for Indigenous Australians. Ken brings with him a lifetime of knowledge of working with Indigenous communities and his own personal experiences and connections. He is is respected and supported on the ground.
This body of work was flagged by our Prime Minister at the beginning of this Parliament as a priority, rather than tacked on as a leader’s priority at the end of a parliamentary term as has happened before. This has often set the initiative back. It has never really had a chance to be progressed as elections have consumed the agenda.
Indeed, the Governor-General said in the opening of this Parliament, we should “develop ground up governance models for enhanced, inclusive and local decision-making on issues impacting the lives of Indigenous Australians.”
Second, we are taking a genuine bi-partisan approach to advancing this important issue. With this week's announcement, we have shown fidelity to the bi-partisan first recommendation of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition as follows:
“In order to achieve a design for The Voice that best suits the needs and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the committee recommends that the Australian government initiate a process of co-design with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”
This was the recommendation of the bi-partisan committee co-chaired by the Liberal member for Berowra, Julian Leeser, and the Indigenous Labor senator Pat Dodson.
We are simply doing what we said we’d do and the next step in this journey should be no surprise. The Morrison government has already committed $7.3 million for this process. Ken Wyatt has also established a parliamentarians' working group to allow all political parties to come to the table.
All voices will be given an opportunity to be heard.
No one is saying this will be easy. It will be challenging. But it is surely Australia’s best chance to deliver on a long-held promise. We ought to be optimistic.
Andrew Bragg is a Liberal senator for NSW.