My Daily Advertiser Op Ed column for Tuesday 30 July 2019

by ray goodlass

An indigenous voice to Parliament can be established

In his National Press Club speech to mark NAIDOC Week, Indigenous Australians minister Ken Wyatt announced his support for a process to co-design a Voice to Parliament, as called for in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. His words were cautious, did not over-promise and emphasised the imperative of bringing everyone along in developing a consensus approach to recognising Indigenous Australians in the Constitution.

As with any political process, a range of views were aired in the following days.

The mainstream political response was predictable. PM Scott Morrison was quick to say that he wouldn’t countenance a third chamber in our national parliament, and arch-conservative Liberal back-bencher MP Craig Kelly said that if the proposal included an idea like a “First Nations voice to Parliament” it would be unacceptable.

Labor’s Pat Dodson said the Uluru Statement needed to be delivered in full, though the ALP itself could only manage to say that it would try and deliver bipartisan support for whatever the outcome of the process begun by Mr Wyatt.

There was, thankfully, no equivocation from the Greens Rachael Siewert, who quickly wrote “We support the call for a First Nations’ Voice to Parliament to be enshrined in the Constitution”.

Let’s look beyond such disparate voices to see if what Mr Wyatt’s Press Club speech called for can be realised.

For some, it seems there is not yet enough detail around the composition and the role of the Voice, but the Uluru Statement itself did not prescribe just how the Voice would look or work, and Wyatt’s speech recognises that there remains work to be done.

It is especially important that this work keeps the faith of the communities that participated in the Uluru Statement. In emphasising the importance of Indigenous communities’ engagement in the process Ken Wyatt highlighted the goal of enhancing “local and regional decision-making through expanding empowered communities and other regional governance models” as a means of realising better outcomes for Indigenous Australians.

Some have suggested that Indigenous Australians are already heard in parliament through Indigenous members, and Barnaby Joyce opined that the solution to boosting Indigenous representation is to give more Senate representation to regional Australia. These kinds of proposals don’t however answer the question of how we can enhance government’s capacity to make a real difference for Indigenous communities, which is the purpose of the Voice.

Others have indeed loudly shouted their belief that a Voice to Parliament will not fix social issues. The PM has also said he wishes to focus on Indigenous health outcomes and education. All these issues certainly need ‘fixing’, but such statements ignore the fact that government has been attempting to “fix” these issues for decades, without success.

In his speech, Wyatt addressed the co-design process independently of constitutional recognition. Indeed, there are two components to establishing the Voice. The first is a referendum to create the institution within the Constitution. The second is the already mentioned co-design process.

Although 70 per cent of Australians support constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians, there are of course dissenting views. Constitutional law scholars however, not known for radical inclinations, have confirmed that the change needed to establish the Voice is a conservative one, as it would not be a chamber of parliament in any sense.

One proposed method to introduce the change would be to insert a new section right at the end of the Constitution, section 129, well away from Chapter I, which concerns the parliament.

Instituted this way the Voice need not frighten the conservatives. It would have no power to introduce legislation, or to veto it. It would not affect our parliamentary system. Like other agencies and institutions, it would simply provide a considered opinion. Imagine having such a resource available to legislators and policymakers as they implement laws and policy affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

It would though establish the institution of the Voice in our Constitution, so that a future parliament could not abolish it, and though it would be symbolic, thankfully it would most certainly not be merely so. It would recognise the place of Indigenous Australians within the Australian pollical landscape. It is not a divisive action. Rather, it is inclusive. And put like this it looks so do-able, so let’s do it.