7:30 - ABC

MONDAY, 17 JULY 2017




7:30 - ABC

MONDAY, 17 JULY 2017

Subjects: Referendum Council Report


LEIGH SALES: For years now there has been widespread agreement among politicians that our constitution should recognise Australia's First People. The question has been: how?

The body tasked with answering that question, the Referendum Council, today came up with a new plan.

It recommends putting to a referendum the prospect of an Indigenous advisory body to the Federal Parliament. The body would be included in the constitution, but its powers would be legislated.

The idea was first floated in May and straight away some politicians dismissed it as unworkable.

Pat Dodson is the shadow assistant minister for Indigenous Affairs. He has also campaigned for decades for Indigenous rights. He joined me earlier in the studio.

Senator Dodson, thanks very much for coming in.

DODSON: Thank you for having me.

SALES: What do you make of the recommendations that are in the report?

DODSON: Well, there is fundamentally one recommendation: and that is to have a voice entrenched in the constitution that can be a voice to the Parliament.

There is a secondary recommendation, but that is basically about a declaration outside of the constitution.

So it's pretty hard when you get one recommendation. There are many other recommendations, as most Australians would know, that were made by the expert panel and by the parliamentary committee, to deal with the principles or the heads of power in the constitution, particularly around race and removing that.

This is bit of a bolt in the dark, as it were.

SALES: Well, on that point: you know, when the Uluru statement came out and first raised the First People's voice forum, straight away there was political blow-back to it. And that makes it really hard in a referendum to get things through. How do you move it past that sort of a situation, so you can have some form of consensus?

DODSON: Well, I think it's really up for the - the message that, at least at this stage, both parties seem to be open to the discussion around this. There is a need for greater clarification about the detail and the means and methods by which this voice would be put into reality.

SALES: Do you have any thoughts as to how you would word a question in a referendum to get maximum support?

DODSON: I think it is relatively simple to get a set of words, but it's the functionality of what the voice would do and how it would go about its business and its interface with the Parliament that is not clear.

I think you could simply have a set of words that said, "There ought to be an Aboriginal voice to the Parliament. Do you agree?" But I think Australian voters would find that a bit difficult to - because they would want to know, well, what it is going to do? How is it going to be constituted? What's its functions going to be? And really, is it going to impact with the process of Parliament anyway?

SALES: But that presumably goes to my point, which is: that's presumably where a scare campaign could be mounted about how it would actually function and what its powers would be?

DODSON: Well, that's true. And I think at some point that has to be faced up to. And that is where the detail and the clarity around the nature, function and purpose of the entrenchment has to be clearly understood and explained to the public: that it has no veto capacity over the Parliament, it really doesn't have any binding capacity to the Parliament, it doesn't have a vote in the Parliament.

So it's a voice that simply reflects an opinion or a view that Indigenous people have strongly, particularly when there is an exercise of legislation under the race power, which is Section 51 (xxvi) (of the constitution) and when it affects the territory powers, which is Section 122.

So there is a real concern as to how that detail would nut out. And I don't think we are any the clearer today from the report we got. And certainly an appreciation, I think, by all there - and certainly by the Labor Party - that more work has to be done here.

SALES: Constitutional change, as we know, is difficult. Hammering out a treaty wouldn't require a referendum. It wouldn't require a constitutional change. It could be legislated. Is Australia better to have a stab at a treaty first and then attempt constitutional change?

DODSON: Well, I think that was one of the issues raised, not so much in the terms of which you do, but there are agreements making processes that happening most days of the week around Australia, under the Native Title Act.

There are some of the states, like Victoria and South Australia, that are now engaged with the Indigenous peoples there to negotiate a treaty arrangement with them. I think that it's at that regional, local level that some of those processes are best settled.

I didn't get the impression today that there was a notion of a national treaty agreement-making process that people were recommending in this report.

SALES: You have spent years - decades - working around Indigenous rights. Do you feel that we are actually moving forwards? Or are we going in circles?

DODSON: Unfortunately I think we are going in circles a bit at the moment. I don't think we have got a clear line of sight as to where any constitutional change is going - whether it is going to take place or not.




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