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Australia: Referendum Council endorses Uluru call for Indigenous voice to parliament

An Indigenous representative voice should be enshrined in the constitution, the prime minister’s Referendum Council has recommended, largely accepting the calls of the Uluru “statement from the heart”.

Amid divided reactions to the report, the co-chairs of the council urged federal parliament to act on their recommendations or drop Indigenous constitutional recognition entirely.

The final report, delivered to Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten on Monday afternoon, recommended a referendum asking that a representative body giving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander First Nations a voice to the Commonwealth parliament be included in the constitution.

“The proposed Voice would not interfere with parliamentary supremacy, it would not be justiciable, and the details of its structure and functions would be established by Parliament through legislation that could be altered by Parliament,” the report said. “This is modest.

“It would place into the supreme law of our Commonwealth, a Voice that will enable the First Peoples of Australia to speak to the Parliament and to the nation about the laws and policies that concern them. This is substantive.”

The “Voice” was one of two substantive proposals, along with a protection against adverse discrimination. The council said delegates felt the latter was a shield, the former a sword, “enabling First Peoples to advocate directly to the Parliament”.

It also recommended all Australian parliaments concurrently pass a “declaration of recognition” to articulate a symbolic statement of recognition. “The declaration should bring together the three parts of our Australian story: our ancient First Peoples’ heritage and culture, our British institutions, and our multicultural unity.”

One council member, former Liberal minister Amanda Vanstone, did not endorse the recommendations and wrote a dissenting report, potentially signifying the difficulty Turnbull will have in bringing Coalition members on board.

The report rejected earlier proposals for constitutional change and unequivocally endorsed the Uluru statement.

“As a nation, we either follow the path set out in the Council’s report or we remove constitutional recognition of our First Peoples from the current agenda,” co-chair Mark Leibler said.

No inquiry into constitutional recognition had consulted as comprehensively with Indigenous people as this one, Leibler said. He acknowledged there was little detail on how the Voice would operate, but urged people to embrace it as “simple, moderate and unifying”.

His fellow co-chair Pat Anderson said the recommendation should be viewed as “a positive, inspiring reflection of people’s aspiration for something better, something which is shaped by First Nations peoples for First Nations peoples”.

Megan Davis, a member of the council and a constitutional legal expert, said after the dialogues and Uluru summit there was now “the clearest determination we’ve had in 10 years of what meaningful recognition means to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”.

The council recommended one of the Voice’s functions would be to monitor the use of section 51 (xxvi), the so called race powers, and section 122, which relates to the Commonwealth’s power to make laws over territories.

“This means that discriminatory legislation like the Northern Territory Emergency Response would be contested before it originates,” the report said.

The Uluru “statement from the heart” was the result of nationwide dialogues with Indigenous groups, leading to a three-day summit of 250 representatives, who ultimately rejected the symbolic idea of constitutional recognition.

Instead they called for a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous voice in parliament, and a Makarrata commission – using the Yolngu word for coming together after a struggle – to lead to a treaty. The report acknowledged the importance of the call for a Makarrata, but ruled it was outside the council’s scope of inquiry into constitutional change.

Turnbull will now have to decide whether to accept the recommendations of the council, which he and Shorten set up in 2015 and which has now disbanded.

Vanstone said the proposal meant despite all the effort over previous years Australia was at a new starting point.

“Exhausting as that may seem to some, that’s where we are. The newness of the idea in broad public debate means there is a tremendous amount of work to be done before Parliament and the broader community will consider this proposal’s time has come.”

The Uluru statement prompted rebukes from some conservative commentators and politicians, including the deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, who initially said it wasn’t “saleable” to the Australian public.

The Sydney Liberal MP Craig Kelly told Guardian Australia on Monday the detail of the representative body proposal would be important to government MPs, and would “sway views”.

“I understand Indigenous people need representation, but I’m not sure the [council’s] idea holds,” Kelly said.

“If there were no Indigenous representatives in the federal parliament, then there might be an argument for a separate body, but we’ve got good Indigenous representatives in the parliament.”

The Queensland Liberal MP George Christensen has also criticised the proposal, and vowed to vote against it. However the minister for Indigenous health, Ken Wyatt, said in May he was confident the Uluru talks would lead to a referendum next year.

At the start of Monday’s meeting Turnbull said participants were not there to make a decision. He said no one wanted to embark on an “exercise in heroic failure”, and he knew “better than most” how hard it was to change the constitution.

“We need to ensure any changes that are proposed need to meet the expectations of first Australians, but also will bring together all Australians. We look forward to having a frank discussion about that now,” he said.

He noted that the council – like the Uluru summit – had rejected the five options for constitutional recognition which had previously been on the table, and instead brought “a relatively new concept into the Australian debate about recognition”.

“I understand Indigenous people need representation, but I’m not sure the [council’s] idea holds,” Kelly said.

“If there were no Indigenous representatives in the federal parliament, then there might be an argument for a separate body, but we’ve got good Indigenous representatives in the parliament.”

The Queensland Liberal MP George Christensen has also criticised the proposal, and vowed to vote against it. However the minister for Indigenous health, Ken Wyatt, said in May he was confident the Uluru talks would lead to a referendum next year.

At the start of Monday’s meeting Turnbull said participants were not there to make a decision. He said no one wanted to embark on an “exercise in heroic failure”, and he knew “better than most” how hard it was to change the constitution.

“We need to ensure any changes that are proposed need to meet the expectations of first Australians, but also will bring together all Australians. We look forward to having a frank discussion about that now,” he said.

He noted that the council – like the Uluru summit – had rejected the five options for constitutional recognition which had previously been on the table, and instead brought “a relatively new concept into the Australian debate about recognition”.

Source: The Guardian 

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