After a moving swearing-in ceremony, Australia’s first indigenous cabinet minister, Ken Wyatt — who also becomes Minister for Indigenous Australians — has moved quickly to transform expectations and bring realism to the proposal for an indigenous Voice to Parliament.
Source: News Corp
A strong indigenous voice must have the support of the people
Wyatt, with his consultative style, has sent critical messages at the outset. He said the Morrison government is committed to constitutional recognition of the indigenous peoples and “will hold a referendum once we’ve settled on the model”. This has long been a Coalition commitment and Scott Morrison’s appointment of Wyatt testifies to this project.
Pivotal to this goal is a pledge to work in partnership with indigenous peoples with a new emphasis on local, community-based solutions. That the Liberals, not Labor, will govern for the next term changes the politics decisively. It could be fruitful in the end. Morrison is a prime minister interested in practical results, local solutions and bringing people together.
Morrison will not put any referendum unless he is confident that conservative Australia is persuadable — this is a non-negotiable stance and, to this point, the quiet Australians have not been engaged in this debate.
Wyatt has nominated the Voice to Parliament proposal as one option in what will become a revised strategic and consultative approach to constitutional recognition. He says “much more work” is required on the idea. He is reluctant to set a timetable for its conclusion. He has highlighted concerns “at the lack of definition” about what the voice involves. Wyatt believes the priority is getting a proposal that will be approved, not dashing ahead as fast as possible.
But Wyatt has laid down a fundamental marker: the notion recently advanced by Labor of a referendum before the voice was given specific form and definition is untenable. It will not happen; rejection of this option has been an essential step. Indeed, as Wyatt knows, this was a virtual guarantee of a calamitous defeat and he has warned that unless the final model is right then “we risk putting this issue on hold for another 30 or 40 years”.
If anyone doubts this, just look at the fate of the republic — going nowhere 20 years after the referendum defeat. The recent election proves, yet again, that Australia is a country sceptical of radical change. It is significant that one of the principal architects of the voice concept, indigenous leader Noel Pearson, has adjusted his position, called on people to participate in the debate and for a model to be agreed and defined before any referendum campaign. Pearson told The Weekend Australian of the election result: “The challenge now is much clearer. That’s because we are no longer holding on to the progressive hope of a 51 per cent result. This must now become a full 80 per cent bipartisan strategy with conservative voters. I am telling Aboriginal leaders our path is to make common cause with the conservatives if we are going to get a majority of voters in a majority of states.”
While the Morrison government has provided funding to pursue the idea of recognition — and Morrison wants an outcome — he does not support the voice as the solution in the way it has so far been proposed. Reservations within the Coalition run deep. This is a reality that needs to be addressed, not ignored or denounced. It highlights the vastness of the task facing Wyatt.
The November 29, 2018, final report of the joint select committee on constitutional recognition chaired jointly by Pat Dodson (Labor) and Julian Leeser (Liberal) is the latest essential reference point in a multitude of reports on the subject. The committee was favourably disposed with a recommendation that a “process of co-design” be established to sort out what a practical version of the voice might resemble.
The report showed the notion of the voice is evolving. A strong theme is the importance of local and regional decision-making, with the voice being applied in local communities that feel they have lost their way or are subject to top-down decision-making from afar. Not all communities have the same aspirations. The report wanted a model that considers “national, regional and local elements of the voice”.
Wyatt, as minister, has emphasised the regional dimension. This is the way Morrison is also thinking. Indigenous leader and Liberal candidate at the election Warren Mundine has advanced the notion of the voice operating at the local level. In a crucial comment, Leeser told The Weekend Australian: “Even at the time of the Uluru Statement there was a possibility of a local or regional focus, and this could be either distinct from or in addition to a national approach.”
The idea of the Voice to Parliament — an exclusively indigenous assembly to provide advice to parliament and reside forever in the Constitution next to the lower house and the Senate — will evolve as the political system begins to grapple with its meaning. That the Turnbull cabinet rejected the concept points to the need for substantial revision.
Constitutional recognition is an overdue and just cause. But that truth does not warrant false optimism. There has been no successful referendum passed since 1977. Parallels with the same-sex marriage plebiscite made by some are ludicrous. The voice proposal has much support — yet it is new, complex and contentious. Goodwill is vital but this proposal will not be carried on goodwill alone. It will be carried only if seen to be workable and justified.
Yet the committee report was heavy with warnings. It said: “At this stage of the committee’s deliberations, clear support for the concept of a voice has not yet extended to any accepted view on which the voice, or series of voice proposals, should look like; nor is there clarity on how such bodies should interact with each other or with the parliament and the executive.
“The success of the voice depends on its relationship with the parliament and the executive. More fundamentally, the existence of the voice depends on its acceptance among the broader Australian community. Shared understanding and ownership of a First Nations voice is critical.”
That is, there must be wider public involvement and a sense of ownership about the idea. So far, that sense of ownership does not exist in the Coalition or in most of the Australian community. The committee said “the parliament should have an active role in determining the detail” of any final voice proposal. It warned there remained “a lack of consensus on how to give effect to the proposal in practical terms”. It said further that refinement of the concept in detail was essential if any referendum was to succeed. This gives more context to the Turnbull cabinet decision that rejected the voice as proposed at the time.
Pearson embraces the Dodson-Leeser report. “This is about designing the voice and getting it right. In my view we need a bill. We are going to need a bill to be drafted that sets out in detail how the voice would operate.” Pearson says the essential task remains the same whether Labor or Liberal governs — it is to carry the people behind a defined concept.
History tells us the Australian public will not vote for any proposal that is seen to create division or separation in the community. The task is to devise a proposal where an indigenous advisory assembly or body — an institution that has a racial basis — becomes acceptable in constitutional terms to the public. This is a daunting challenge.
Anybody who doubts this should read the media release this week from the Institute of Public Affairs, which has a strong following in conservative ranks. IPA research director Daniel Wild says: “Calls to insert race into our nation’s founding document are retrograde, divisive and illiberal. Race has no place in Australia’s Constitution. Indigenous Australians and non-indigenous Australians are all first and foremost Australians who share a common country, legal system and destiny.” The IPA says the dignity of all Australians means they must be treated on an equal constitutional basis.
This is a script for a powerful No campaign. Several commentators, business and elite bodies have offered strong endorsements of the voice, yet virtually none of them has addressed how to combat the arguments that will be made by the No case. They seem to operate in a dream world devoid from the reality of this contest and appear clueless about the deep and contentious issues the concept raises.
The need for the model to be defined first is a no-brainer. To draw an imperfect parallel for illustrative purposes only — it would have been inconceivable to vote on a republic referendum without knowing the model. To draw another, sometimes drawn by Coalition MPs, the lesson from Brexit is that the public must be informed of the real nature and consequences of any referendum proposal on which they are voting. Wyatt told The Australian this week that “nobody has really defined what a voice is”.
There are numerous issues to resolve. How is the voice to be constituted? Does it advise the executive as well as the parliament? If so, does it have a role in policymaking as well as a formal role in advising on bills before the parliament. What is the scope of the voice? Does it offer opinions on bills dealing solely with the indigenous peoples or on bills that deal with indigenous peoples as part of the wider national community? Or should the voice have its own discretion to decide when and where it gives advice?
The purpose is to give indigenous Australians direct access to decision-making. This is meaningless unless the voice has real influence on outcomes and laws. The voice will add another layer to parliamentary decision-making. The Turnbull government was wrong to say it constituted a third chamber of the parliament. But it was not wrong to imply the voice, in practice, would have a veto on certain proposals because of its moral standing.
How could the parliament possibly proceed with a law if a representative indigenous advisory assembly openly advised against it amid huge media coverage? This leads to another crucial issue raised in the select committee report. Should the voice be established first by legislation so indigenous peoples, the politicians and the public can test its workability? If it functions well that would assist a referendum passage. But if the model was seen to be unsatisfactory that would doom any referendum or, alternatively, lead to a revised model.
The bottom line is the workability of the model for better government and for improving the lives and outcomes for indigenous peoples, thereby helping to “close the gap” across a range of issues. One option certain to be canvassed within Coalition ranks is whether local and regional bodies should become the priority rather than a national body as originally proposed.
In the coming debate it will be crucial to appreciate the argument for indigenous constitutional recognition. As Tony Abbott said, its purpose is to “complete” the Constitution. The indigenous peoples have lived on this continent for more than 60,000 years and hold a unique place in our story. Australia will remain defective until that heritage is recognised in highest institutions of governance.
Morrison should embrace Pearson’s framework of national identity. Under this concept, Australia exists as a unified project drawing on three great heritages: the indigenous as first peoples, the British whose 1788 arrival laid the basis for the nation that exists today and the multicultural heritage that has enriched the culture. This locates the indigenous story in the heart of the nation and explains indigenous constitutional recognition as a necessity that is ultimately unifying.