The proposed Indigenous voice to government, outlined for the first time in an interim report on Saturday, is being viewed as a “a critical and positive next step” towards meaningful constitutional reform. Some of the most dedicated supporters of the movement to enshrine an Indigenous voice in the Australian constitution remain hopeful the Morrison government is moving towards, rather than away from, a model that could still ultimately receive constitutional protection.
Source: Paige Taylor, News Corp
Indigenous leaders upbeat on voice report
Key supporters of the landmark 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart’s call for a voice in the constitution have rejected Labor’s pessimism about cabinet-backed proposals for the voice.
Labor is highly critical of the Coalition for commissioning an interim report on the voice with no commitment to put it in the constitution.
“A voice must be able to provide full and frank advice. It must be secure and it should not be subject to the whims of the government of the day; this report fails in that context,” Labor said in a joint statement from opposition Indigenous Australians spokeswoman Linda Burney, senators Pat Dodson and Malarndirri McCarthy, and Northern Territory MP Warren Snowdon.
Labor is concerned that if the voice is merely legislated, it could be abolished by parliament, as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was in 2004.
But key Uluru supporters have characterised the voice proposals, published in the interim report, as progress. They do not believe the door is closed to a referendum on whether the voice should be enshrined in the constitution. In fact, the Coalition’s own 2019 election policy says that cannot be ruled in or out until after the final design of the voice is settled.
Empowered Communities national chairman Ian Trust, whose organisation comprises eight Indigenous leaders from across Australia, including Cape York Institute founder Noel Pearson, described the voice interim report as necessary preparation for a future referendum.
“The release of interim report is a critical and positive next step,” Mr Trust said.
“The co-design work has been crucial to fill in the details of the voice and how it could practically operate on the ground.
“That detail has not been available previously and it is essential to have it, and enable it to be discussed broadly, before going to a referendum to enshrine the voice in the constitution.“
“The government has said that it won’t move at this stage to constitutional enshrinement,” Mr Trust told The Australian on Monday. “Nevertheless, the work on detail needs to be completed so that the voice can be institutionalised in legislation and constitutionally enshrined at a point in the future.”
The voice proposals are the work of 52 Australians, most of them Indigenous. Empowered Communities could become part of a network of up to 35 local and regional voices suggested in the interim voice report. This is because the report suggests a national voice would engage with existing bodies, not undermine them. That national voice would then give advice to parliament and government.
Distinguished researcher Marcia Langton, who oversaw the voice report with former Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner Tom Calma, urges all Australians to look at what is proposed and help finalise the design.
The final proposal for the design of the voice is expected to be considered by the government in the middle of the year.
Eddie Synot, one of the Uluru statement’s prominent supporters and a researcher at the Indigenous Law Centre at the University of NSW, said the report was an interim step on the journey to recognising the voice in a referendum.
“This means that this interim report, and whatever it produces from consultation, should be sufficient information, on top of all of the work that has already be done and is represented by the Uluru Statement, for Australia to proceed to a referendum soon,” Mr Synot said.
It has been an eventful and at times confusing 2½ years for Australians interested in constitutional reform. Soon after the Uluru Statement was presented to the Australian people, it was rejected by then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull before a bipartisan joint select committee effectively put it back on the table by recommending work on what the voice would look like.
The Coalition accepted that, but there have been mixed messages about what will become of the voice once its design is finalised. Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt said in 2019 there would not be a referendum in this term of government on the question of whether to put the voice in the constitution. Then he said he wanted to legislate the voice before the next election.
Scott Morrison has said that whether or not the voice is constitutionally enshrined will be decided only after Australians have seen what it is.