I want to begin this speech by quoting the foreword to the final co-design report on the Voice. I do so to address the loss of facts in the national conversation about the Voice. I do so because in a month’s time we will have an opportunity, and my firm view is that it’s a chance that will not come again any time soon. The foreword to the co-design report reads as follows: Over 9,400 people and organisations participated in a consultation process led by co-design members. This marks one of the most significant engagements with the Australian community on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs in recent history.
Over 4 months, we had conversations with people and organisations across urban, regional and remote Australia. As a group, we were fortunate to engage with people through 115 community consultation sessions in 67 diverse communities and more than 120 stakeholder meetings around the country. We also gathered feedback online, with more than 4,000 submissions and survey responses put forward by both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous individuals, communities and organisations.
The feedback provided tremendous support for an Indigenous Voice at the local and regional, and national levels. In fact, the Voice proposal was the only unanimous outcome from all of that consultation. The foreword continues: We propose a strong, resilient and flexible system in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and our communities will be part of genuine shared decision-making with governments at the local and regional level and have our voices heard by the Australian Parliament and Government in policy and law making. A voice to the Australian Parliament and Government would complement and amplify existing structures, and would not replace the role for these structures to continue to work with Government within their mandates. An Indigenous Voice will provide the right mechanism, working with and strengthening existing arrangements, for the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to be heard on issues that affect us. The consideration of our vast experiences and diverse perspectives will lead to better policy outcomes, strengthen legislation and programs and, importantly, achieve better outcomes for our people.
The foreword concludes: Now, what lies before us could be the most significant reform in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs for generations. … … … It is very clear that an Indigenous Voice is a necessary, pragmatic and natural step for our country as we work towards creating a better shared future for all Australians. If only this document, which also outlines how rural and regional Voice representatives could be elected, had been the central reference point in the national conversation about the Voice. Unfortunately, fear via disinformation, misinformation and manipulation is easy to mobilise. But we can choose not to give into it.
As Chris Kenny has written—and, with respect, it’s not often I quote Chris, but on the Voice he has been an unapologetic advocate and I applaud him for that: The No campaign is designed to generate anxiety. Without fear, they have no persuasive arguments, especially given that the Coalition has long argued a voice is worthwhile (the only proviso that it is not mandated in the Constitution). This referendum should, and still could be, a unifying and uplifting moment. Remember all the discussion about division in the lead-up to the national apology, and John Howard’s argument that the current generation should not be held to account for the behaviour of previous generations. But the apology happened, and has anyone’s life suffered as a result? Quite the opposite, as the smiles and tears on the faces of the thousands of Indigenous Australians who sat in the galleries of this place and on the lawns to the front of this place testified. This ought, and still can be, a similar moment.
A moment to make us proud, not frightened. A moment to be honest and brave. I accept that saying yes is harder than saying no, but no is the status quo. No is more of the same, and the same is not enough for Indigenous Australians or our nation as a whole. Another with whom I don’t often agree is Joe Hildebrand. He is right when he says that the Voice is not the most important issue for most Australians who are grappling with their own issues. But he’s also right, and importantly so, when he writes: for the three per cent or so Indigenous Australians—especially those in remote and regional communities—this is probably the single most important issue in their lives… These are people often living in third world conditions, with diseases unheard of elsewhere in the western world, with appalling education and employment outcomes and levels of violence and deprivation few of us in the suburbs could survive, let alone tolerate. If there was one stark fact that argues for the Voice, it is this: an Indigenous man is more likely to end up in prison than at university.
Why have we failed? The Indigenous leaders who crafted the Uluru Statement from the Heart in 2017, after years of consultation with thousands of members of their communities, concluded that with the best of intentions one government after another had made policy for Indigenous Australians, not with them. What they came up with was a mechanism to ensure the parliament and the government of the day would listen to what Indigenous Australia has to say, not for the parliament or the government to be directed by the Voice but to take advice. The referendum question is as simple as it is respectful. It asks, firstly, for us to recognise Indigenous Australians as the original custodians of this continent, and, secondly, to give them a voice. It provides the framework for an advisory body that will make it easier for the parliament and government to produce results for our Indigenous citizens, results where all efforts in the past have failed.
Too often, Indigenous representatives say, bodies have been created and abolished at the stroke of a pen—four of them since 1973! Whitlam’s National Aboriginal Consultative Committee, Fraser’s National Aboriginal Conference, Hawke’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and, finally, the National Congress of Australia’s First People—all came; all gone. A key aim of this referendum is to enshrine the Voice in the Constitution so it’s not subject to party politics. But I believe that one key factor has not been well aired: the debate about the form that the Voice will take and the desire for detail has not made clear that the structure of the Voice will be legislated, which means it can be changed. It can be improved over time to make sure it’s delivering. That’s the role of the government of the day.
The form of the Voice itself is, therefore, not rigid. My electorate of Goldstein sits on the shores of Nerm, what we now call Port Phillip Bay. The traditional custodians are the Bunurong and Boonwurrung people of the Kulin nation. I acknowledge and pay my respect to them, as I do the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples on whose ancestral lands we meet. The Boonwurrung dreaming is told through Bunjil, the eagle, as the creator of the Kulin people.
Across Goldstein, especially along the bay, there are signs of the thousands of years of Indigenous history, with shell middens spreading along the coast in all directions, from Dendy Street through Sandringham to Ricketts Point and beyond. Confronting though, this history also reflects the fact that the Boonwurrung were almost wiped out by European settlement. Conflict with sealers and the disease that they brought to our shores devastated these First Nations coastal communities to the extent that there may have been less than 100 Boonwurrung people left by the 1840s. In 1788, we didn’t seek their permission to move in. In fact, we denied their millennia of stewardship. The vote on 14 October will allow us to recognise First Nations people in our Constitution and then to give them a say in the formulation of the policies and laws that affect them. It’s as simple as that. If not us, who? If not now, when?