SUBJECTS: Government rejects proposal for constitutionally enshrined Indigenous voice to Parliament  

SABRA LANE: There is shock and deep anger over the Prime Minister's decision to walk away from a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous voice to Parliament.

That idea was the main recommendation put to the Federal Government earlier this year by the Referendum Council, based on its consultations around Australia.

Cape York leader Noel Pearson's described Malcolm Turnbull's statement on the issue as an egregious dog-whistle.

But the Federal Government says it's not dropping constitutional recognition altogether.

Two days ago Labor's Pat Dodson told this program he feared the idea of an Indigenous voice to Parliament would die on the vine; and it turns out the Senator was remarkably spot-on.

He's the shadow assistant minister for Indigenous affairs and I spoke to him a short time ago.

Senator, welcome back.

DODSON: Thank you very much.

LANE: Government frontbencher Ken Wyatt says that this was a pragmatic decision. He rejects criticism that it was cowardly. What do you think?

DODSON: Well, it wasn't honourable. It wasn't honourable because they didn't discuss any of this with their own advisory committee. They didn't discuss it with any of the Indigenous leadership.

They certainly didn't discuss this with the Opposition before they allowed a leak or a leak took place - and we wouldn't even be having the discussion if the leak hadn't taken place.

So there is nothing honourable about what's happened here. And certainly to then come back and say they made a judgement that a proposition that has been put by the First Nation's people would not pass the referendum test: now who knows that?

We've just spent $122 million surveying people on the question of same-sex marriage. Now that's a good thing to do and it's a necessary thing to do.

We could have taken the same approach here. There are innovative ways to deal with the complexities surrounding the question of entrenching a voice.

And I think to foreclose on that, having spent a lot of money, a lot of time, a lot of energy gone into this and to just simply reject it because the conservative element within the party of Mr Turnbull has rejected it.

LANE: You weren't a big fan of this idea when it came out. In July you said it was a bolt in the dark and puzzling. Did you change your mind?

DODSON: Well, the people, by that stage, people have clarified what their position is. You've got to recall that I was the co-chair of the expert panel committee, which had made recommendations to the substantive provisions of the constitution.

LANE: This is back in 2012?

DODSON: Back in 2012 and we made recommendations to Julia Gillard.

We proposed that race be taken out of the constitution, section 51-26 be amended and a new section 116A, a non-discrimination power, be put into the constitution.

Now, that's been treated as if they are symbolic matters and that's unfortunate in this discussion.

So when the report came out for a voice that would be advisory, that would have no real capacity except to provide advice to the Parliament - and that was the single option - it seemed to me not a very smart way to put propositions to governments; and in that sense I was somewhat dismayed by the proposition.

LANE: Is there any change of constitutional change under this Prime Minister?

DODSON: Well, you know, he is playing catch-up. He has written to my leader, Bill Shorten, after Bill had written to him back in August proposing a committee be set up under the terms of reference to try and work out ways through the complexities of all of these issues. We'll look at that seriously.

But the difficult thing now is: the expectations that Indigenous peoples have got that there be a voice entrenched and they see that in a dissimilar way to the way the Government is seeing it. They don't see it as a third chamber of Parliament.

LANE: Yet the Government described the idea as radical and incapable of getting a majority vote in a referendum. Was it a radical idea? And they were critical too, saying that there wasn't any sort of detail over how it would work?

DODSON: Well, I don't think it was a radical idea. I think an advisory entity, enshrined in the constitution, is not necessarily a radical idea from an intellectual point of view. And it would be still subject to the powers of the Parliament to decide what it would look like.

The detail was always to be negotiated with the First Nations People and to be worked out in a process. And that's where the legislation would have been determined, giving effect to what the powers, functions, representation et cetera of the voice would be.

So that part of the equation has been foreclosed upon, on the basis that they didn't provide detail at the start. But they did say there ought to be a negotiation to clarify that and it would be subject to legislation, so the Parliament has supremacy here.

LANE: Where to now? The Government is backing Labor's idea of a joint parliamentary committee now to reconsider all the previous enquiries, including the one that you talked about; the one that you were involved in. Is that the best way forward?

DODSON: Well, it at least is a way to try and salvage something about this. But it is disrespectful to the views of the Indigenous peoples because they have put a proposition.

They were asked to give their views. They put a proposition and that's been dismissed.

LANE: What is the danger now that anything that you do come up with under this process will be considered as minimalist change, or not something that the Indigenous community wanted and will be rejected outright?

DODSON: Well, certainly if the Government sticks to the position that they are afraid of institutionalising or entrenching a voice - or even afraid of legislating a voice - then that is an untenable position.

One of the propositions that has to be considered going forward is how to give effect to the First Nations Peoples' interface with the Parliament through an entity and that entity being legislated.

LANE: Mr Turnbull did say in his statement that he wants to see more Aboriginal voices in Parliament through elections. Is there any other way to increase the Aboriginal representation in Parliament? Should there be seats set aside to ensure representation?

DODSON: Well, these have been all propositions put in the past. The Maoris, of course, have got four seats, I think, reserved in their Parliament.

Look, that's one proposition. The argument against that has been to go down the mainstream, get endorsed by parties, make sure that people can get into electoral, you know, electorates that they'll be elected within in the mainstream.

In the longer term, that may be the better thing. But in this term there are unique things about the First Nations Peoples that we as a nation have got to accommodate - and we've been denying that accommodation for the last 200 years.

They've come to us with a proposition for a voice and we should honour that and we should respect it and we should find an innovative way to make that happen.

LANE: Senator Pat Dodson, thank you very much for joining AM this morning.

DODSON: Thank you.


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