COMMITTEES - Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition Relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island - Report


I rise to take note of the interim report of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition Relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. The committee has been tasked with finding a way to advance the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in ways which could be supported by Australians from all walks of life and contribute to a more unified and reconciled nation. My co-chair, the member for Berowra, Mr Leeser, and I have taken on this responsibility with a shared commitment. We have listened carefully to the repeated ongoing calls for true recognition to empower First Nations communities. In our hearings, we have heard the deep level of frustration in the community about the length of time it has taken to deliver constitutional recognition of our First Nations peoples. We remain committed to working with our colleagues from across the political spectrum to help shape a way forward for the parliament and the Australian people to consider.

I thank my Senate colleagues Senator McCarthy, Senator Duniam, Senator Siewert and Senator Stoker for their contribution and also our colleagues in the other place Ms Ley, Mr Llew O'Brien and Independent member Cathy McGowan. The secretariat have been impressive, and their commitment and dedication is appreciated.

In my view, the interim report takes some small but important steps towards the greater recognition of First Nations peoples. It does three essential things. Firstly, the report highlights that the lack of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representative perspectives in policy and legislation formulation is undermining the good intentions aimed at improving education, health, economic and criminal justice outcomes. These persistent failures, highlighted in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, were termed 'the torment of our powerlessness'.

Secondly, it accepts the invitation articulated in the Uluru Statement from the Heart to work together towards the establishment of a First Nations voice to address the structural disempowerment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and enable them to have a greater say in their affairs.

Thirdly, it hears and considers the call to provide a constitutional guarantee by way of referendum to entrench an enabling power to establish a voice to the parliament.

It also outlines the committee's aspirations for our work during the second half of our inquiry and puts some important questions for consideration, particularly in chapter 7.

While the Uluru Statement from the Heart calls for a First Nations voice, it surprised many that it is in keeping with international movements by nation-states and First Nations peoples towards greater self-determination for indigenous populations, as agreed in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. International experience tells us that First Nations voices can be a form of recognition with a real potential to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and improve socioeconomic outcomes without challenging the primacy of parliament. In most cases it enhances its capacity and ability towards mutually beneficial outcomes for the nation.

With appropriate design, it would not be a third chamber of the parliament, as some have claimed. Instead, it may enable and empower First Nations peoples to have a chance to provide advice on policies and legislation that we make in this parliament and possibly create better outcomes for the future. It is clear that the effectiveness of and support for a First Nations voice will critically depend on its design and functions. Moving forward on these questions is a major task for our committee.

There is clear support in First Nations communities for a voice grounded in local representation, feeding up advice into regional and national elements. Many of the challenges faced by people in their day-to-day lives, however, do not fall within the jurisdiction of the Australian parliament. To be effective, a First Nations voice, we have been told, should operate at all three levels: local, state and territory, and national. The committee heard that a First Nations voice should be made up of elected representatives with a balance of gender. It should defer to cultural authority and also remain inclusive of those Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders displaced from their ancestral homes. The function and operation of the voice will require further fleshing out in the work of the committee.

The Referendum Council recommended that a First Nations voice should advise the parliament in relation to the heads of powers in section 51(xxvi) and section 122 of the Constitution—the race power and the territories power. Others sought a broader advice ambit to formally interact with the policymaking process as early as possible in the cycle. There are mixed views on how to make sure that governments give advice due consideration. They argue that it is not enough to have a voice if the governments continue not to listen. It is clear that the final design of any voice must be built through cooperative co-design.

Our committee have met with First Nations peoples in places across Australia in the last four months, and we have many places we wish to visit yet. In the central west of New South Wales in the town of Dubbo, we heard from Mr Des Jones from the Murdi Paaki Regional Assembly. When asked about the proposed voice, he said:

We have to have a representative body. The voice within that body must come from the people. It must be the people's voice.

One of the major issues facing the committee that we will need to work through over the next months is the question of constitutional entrenchment of the voice. Legislative advisory bodies have a chequered history, with the risk of being abolished should they fall foul of the government of the day. It was the strong view of the Uluru statement that any voice needed to be entrenched in our nation's founding documents through a change in the Constitution agreed through referendum. However, we need to work through the issue of what questions should be put to the people and whether, in order to build support, it would be sensible to legislate first and then, after experience shows the voice to be effective, put the question to the people. Others argued a different view and encouraged that the question of the voice should go to referendum now and be first in the order of things to do. This is an issue that we will continue to work through in the months ahead.

Our interim report also considers the Uluru Statement from the Heart's call for the establishment of a makarrata commission to oversee truth-telling and agreement-making. Such a proposal also has a long history. In 1983, the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs delivered the report Two hundred years later, which looked into the compact, or makarrata, between the Commonwealth government and Australian Aboriginals. I gave evidence to that committee 45 years ago, and we are still trying to achieve this goal.

We cannot honestly be celebrating our shared national history without also acknowledging the depth of our often tragic and bitterly contested past and working together to resolve the issues. The committee has more work to do over the next months. We will be undertaking further consultations and travelling to other parts of Australia to speak to both First Nations peoples and other Australians. In the Kimberley region, where I am from, we met with Neil Carter, from the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre. Neil's words were:

To move forward, we need to heal the past wrongs that have been done to our people and to have a voice in Canberra at the federal level so that we can deal with those past wrongs. That's what our elders are looking at. If you're going to have constitutional recognition of our voice in parliament, that's the sort of thing that can make us all a stronger people, white and black.

On behalf of the committee, I would like to acknowledge and thank everyone who's worked with us on this inquiry to this point and I encourage them to continue their contribution to the work of the committee. By working together, with our different starting points, we may, at long last, reach a landmark on a long and difficult road. I commend the interim report to the Senate.

Stay up to date by subscribing to my newsletter.