Too much at stake to falter over next step for change

Monday, 05 June 2023

We became a step closer to a referendum on a Voice to Parliament on Wednesday with the passing of the Bill through the Lower House.

Most Australians know that the referendum is about recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the Constitution and most would agree that it is long overdue.

Not everyone has the same level of certainty about the Voice and why it’s so necessary for it to be written into the Constitution.

After all, South Australia has a Voice to Parliament that gives Aboriginal people a say in matters that affect them without voters going to a referendum. Let me clear that up.

Changing the Constitution to recognise Aboriginal people is a symbolic gesture, but the addition of the Voice to Parliament brings our commitment to life, backing up our words with action for Aboriginal people across the nation.

By enshrining the Voice in the Constitution, it has a guaranteed future.

It won’t be the victim to the political whim of the day, operating under the shadow that it could be abolished at any time. It isn’t about more bureaucracy, it’s about making sure voices in remote communities are heard.

The Voice is not a veto, not a third chamber. It’s a body to allow Indigenous people from all across the nation to come together and put forward formal advice to the government of the day. It is the result of a long process of consultation, debateand discussion informed by legal advice from the most prominent constitutional experts in the country.

It’s a simple proposition, but it offers us a new way of policymaking. As the Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, said: “We’ve tried it our way for 120 years and the status quo has resulted in a growing chasm between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.”

As Douglas Smith wrote in his opinion piece for The Advertiser, people need to ask themselves: “Has the government for too long made the wrong decisions for Indigenous people and why is there such a large gap between Indigenous and non- Indigenous people in all aspects?” If we are truly serious about reconciliation and closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, then we have to listen rather than telling Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people what is best for them.

As a minister who creates legislation that affects the lives of First Nations people, I welcome the expertise, knowledge and lived experience that the Voice will bring.

Last year, the Closing the Gap report revealed that Aboriginal children are more likely to be taken into out-ofhome care than they were in 2019 and it is well known Aboriginal women are 34 times more likely to suffer domestic violence than non-Indigenous women.

Being able to consult with a Voice to Parliament on these matters and consider the advice given would be invaluable for decision-making, because all the evidence shows that when Aboriginal people have a say in the programs and policies that affect their lives, we get better outcomes.

A national Voice is another step in the journey we are taking to reconcile with our past. And like each of the other steps it will be met with resistance.

Not long after I was elected as an MP, I was invited to attend the National Apology. Another change resisted for many years, but it was more powerful than anyone ever imagined.

It has stood the test of time and allowed us to move forward. Let’s not miss out on this opportunity to cement this change. There’s too much at stake to falter over the next step.

This opinion piece was first published in The Advertiser on Monday 5th June 2023. 

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