Parliament – Voice to Parliament

Wednesday, 24 May 2023

Ms RISHWORTH (Kingston—Minister for Social Services) (21:10): I am very pleased to rise to support the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023. In doing so, I would like to acknowledge that we are meeting on the lands of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, and I pay my respect to elders past and present. I also want to touch on the contribution that the Kaurna people make. I’m from the Adelaide Plains, which is where my electorate is. The Kaurna people have a proud connection to the Adelaide Plains. They continue to make a huge contribution to our community and our culture. I particularly want to acknowledge the passing of Aunty Georgina Williams. She has passed away, but her contribution still lives on in my electorate in the southern suburbs of Adelaide.

Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have 65,000-plus years of history and continuous connection with and contribution to this land, and yet their connection to this land is not recognised in our Constitution. This is an anomaly we must fix. This bill provides us with the opportunity to come together to fix this. In this debate, I have heard a number of comments about, ‘Why couldn’t there be a change of a few words here or there?’ The truth of the matter is that there has been a debate for a long time in this country about what a preamble could look like, what words we could put into the Constitution to finally recognise our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. But the truth is that, when Aboriginal people sat down together at Uluru, they put forward a suggestion of recognition that perhaps hadn’t necessarily been canvassed widely before. They put forward their voice about how we could work in partnership together, how we could move forward together.

Today, this bill is about taking up that generous offer of how we can walk together in reconciliation in putting this important question to the people. Despite the fractious debate that has happened, this is not a Canberra voice. This is not a Labor voice. This is not a Labor or Albanese voice, as so many of those commentators opposite have said. This is a suggestion. This is a proposal put forward by First Nations people themselves. If we are truly serious about reconciliation then we have to let go of telling Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people what is best for them. If we really want to work in partnership, we have to listen, we have to be generous and we have to walk together. This bill is about reconciliation. This bill is about listening. This bill is about uniting our country and actually recognising our First Nations people in the constitution.

Taking steps forward to better reconcile with our past, to better recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history in this country, is always met with resistance. If I think back, one of the first experiences I had after being elected a member of parliament was the national apology, and that had been resisted for many, many years. For many years the national apology had been resisted, but actually having that apology delivered in this parliament was more powerful than I could ever have imagined. The criticism that it was symbolic was just not right, and it has not stood the test of time. In fact, it led to many practical changes, it led to many advances, but it also led to a real reckoning for this country and a real understanding. It was much more than symbolism. I think, looking back now, many people would be thinking, ‘Why were we so scared of that apology?’

Think back to native title claims, the Mabo decision and so many other struggles that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been through to get recognised and take forward some of their issues and some of their rights. Native title—it’s not such a scary thing. There was a big scare campaign put against it; the sky was going to fall down. What we see now is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people keeping that continuing connection with the land, which is so important, as a result of native title.

This Voice to parliament is the next step in that. It is the next step. And this is not about symbolism. This is actually about listening to the voices of First Nations people because that’s good not just for First Nations people; that is good for our country. It is good because we might start to see the outcomes that we need to see when it comes to things like closing the gap. We have continued to fall short of our closing the gap targets. We continue to not achieve some of the critical—critical—things, like reducing the life expectancy gap between First Nations people and other citizens of this country. We do have to look through a lens of not everyone being individual and not everyone having the same opportunities, because that doesn’t happen for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters. So we do need to look at new ways of working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, listening to their voice, working alongside them and in partnership, and the Voice delivers just that.

For those people who are talking about the irreparable damage that this might cause to our Constitution, just listen to the words in this constitutional change:

In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia … there shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice …

That is a simple, generous proposition. It goes on:

… the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples …

I want to speak about this point for a moment because, as a minister that makes decisions on things that particularly affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, I don’t see this as a hindrance; I see this as a real opportunity. It’s an opportunity to gather the voices, concerns and issues, and to be able to listen to those— because at the moment a lot of people claim to speak on behalf of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but they don’t always get it right. So I see this as not something to be scared of, not something to be fearful of, but something that will be really useful and that can be really powerful in helping me and the government of the day make really good decisions in the areas that affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

There are concerns about this Voice that are being put out in the public domain about it somehow affecting the parliament’s operations. Part (iii) deals very clearly with that:

The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.

There is no veto power here. There is no third chamber. This is a simple proposition, a relatively modest proposition, that was put to us by First Nations people as the way they would like to be recognised in our Constitution, and it is very important that we listen.

Of course, this bill is about putting the question to the Australian people. This bill does offer that choice, and ultimately the Australian people will decide. But I have no doubt in the conversations that I have had that Australians want to see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people not only recognised but listened to. And, in my conversations with people, there is no doubt that the overwhelming belief is we need to do things better for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but we need to do it with them. We also, of course, importantly, need to listen. So this is an important proposal.

In closing, I have to say, I was given a moment to reflect, because my son came home the other day and told me that in choir they were learning ‘From little things big things grow’, a very iconic Australian song. We were listening to it together, and there’s a little bit of that story where Vincent Lingiari sits down with politicians:

And Vincent sat down with big politicians

This affair they told him is a matter of state

Let us sort it out, your people are hungry

Vincent said no thanks, we know how to wait

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have waited long enough. They’ve waited patiently over time, particularly since the Uluru Statement of the Heart to say: ‘We’ve told you the way forward. We’re asking you to come with us.’ The time for waiting is over. We will be putting this question to the Australian people, and I have no doubt that we will see a ‘yes’ vote in the coming referendum because this is the right thing to do to bring our country together.

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