Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall speaks in support of proposed constitutional amendment (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice)

23 May 2023

I rise with pride on behalf of the people of Warringah to speak on the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023. First, I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we stand, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people. I would also like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land in Warringah and their incredible care of land and sea.

The need for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is unquestionable and it cannot wait any longer. In a few months Australians will be asked to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian Constitution by a voice to the parliament and the executive. This is a historic moment in Australia's history, and I call on everyone to look deep within their heart for the answer. Don't be distracted by those who don't have the generosity or vision, those who have politicised this question for their own perceived opportunity, seeking to spread fear, racism and division. This is a chance for Australia to reset. We cannot change the past, but we can write a better future, one where we acknowledge First Australians, from descendants of convicts and First Fleets to new Australians who, in taking Australian citizenship pledges and have pledged to contribute to Australia's future and to values of fairness and equity. For all Australians there is an inescapable fact: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were the first to inhabit this beautiful land. They are First Australians.

At a community forum we held recently in Warringah we were reminded by a First Nations panel member that the Uluru Statement wasn't issued to the PM or any future PM; it was issued to the Australian people. It was a statement of belief that the Australian people will set this right. So I look to the referendum with excitement and belief that the Australian people will rise to the invitation of First Nations people, providing genuine opportunity and optimism for all Australians—especially First Nations, their children and grandchildren—for a better future. Let the referendum speak for the kind of Australia that we want to be in the future.

Let's be real. Racism still runs deep in Australia, and this debate has brought out some of the best and worst of our country. Illustrious Australians like Adam Goodes and Stan Grant have been subject to abhorrent racism. In thinking about this question, we must look to our history. First Australians were dispossessed and massacred. Successive governments at state and federal levels discriminated an entrenched disadvantage. They were silenced and written out of our books. We were not taught our Indigenous history or culture in schools. In 1901 the Constitution did not recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as already being here, as having customs and laws. They were not consulted in any way. The only reference to First Nations people in the Australian Constitution was to specifically exclude them. Despite fighting for Australia's freedom in world wars, working in Australian fields and mines for years, and helping build our young nation, it was only in 1962 that the Electoral Act was amended to give them the right to vote. In 1967 the referendum acknowledged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as Australians and counted them in the census. In 1992, Eddie Mabo was successful in arguing for native title in the High Court of Australia, giving land rights to traditional owners. In 2008, Prime Minister Rudd apologised for much of the pain caused to First Nations Australians, particularly to the stolen generations.

And in 2016 the Uluru Dialogues commenced in Hobart, bringing together 250 delegates and consultation with 1,200 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders across the country, and culminating in the Uluru Dialogues in 2017. There, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples asked for constitutional recognition through something very practical and simple: a Voice to parliament enshrined in the Constitution, enabling them to have a say in matters that affect their lives and communities. The Uluru statement is a generous offer to walk with first Australians. It reads:

In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard … We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.

Finally, in 2023, all Australians will have the chance to officially declare whether they accept that generous invitation. The Albanese government have said they are committed to implementing the whole of the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart—voice, treaty and truth. The Voice is the first step.

Enshrining the Voice in the Constitution is important to prevent it being abolished by future governments. The Australian Constitution can't change without a referendum. A referendum is a national vote which allows the Australian people to approve the proposed amendments. The Constitution of Australia is a document of principle; it is not a document of detail. It sets out federal government structures and powers. Since Federation in 1901, there have been some 19 referendums, proposing 44 changes, but only eight of these changes have passed. The last referendum was in 1999. I am confident that the Voice will make a tangible difference to the lives of First Australians.

I've sat in this parliament for the last four years and listened to distressing reports on closing the gap. We are failing. Most gaps won't be closed in our lifetimes without a different approach. Policymakers in Canberra are not listening to communities and are not creating policies that work. Currently, First Nations Australian women have a life expectancy of 75, compared to 84 for non-Indigenous women. They face huge disadvantage in health and education. They are proportionally the most incarcerated people on the planet, and young Indigenous men have shocking rates of suicide—some 2½ times higher than non-Indigenous Australians.

The current system is broken. The Voice is a chance for Australia to take the next step towards reconciliation and to recognise the incredible cultural heritage the First Australians. Evidence shows that, when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people get to have a say over their lives and the policies that impact them—when they represent their communities on improving housing, health care and educational outcomes and on reducing rates of incarceration and children in out-of-home care—the results on the ground improve. When past solutions have been top-down and disempowering and have not taken into account the experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, they have failed. By enshrining the Voice in the Constitution, the advisory body won't be able to be abolished, like so many Indigenous advisory bodies before it.

The Voice will result in more efficient use of the Indigenous affairs budget. Professor Langton, on the Voice co-design proposal, said that it is about efficiency and outcomes. The current system is wasting money on bureaucracy with no system of transparency and accountability and no monitoring or evaluation of outcomes for money spent on the ground. Consulting First Nations people at the beginning of the designing of programs that affect them will help fix mismanagement and social issues and stop programs failing. Finally, to formally recognise First Nations people puts Australia in step with other democracies around the world.

There has been a rigorous consultation process on the Voice. The past two decades have seen consultations, reviews, inquiries and processes to develop a model for recognition that both is acceptable to Indigenous Australians and works within the framework of Australian public law and governance. Support for this constitutional change started in 2017. The bill was then developed by members of the Referendum Working Group, the Referendum Engagement Group and the Constitutional Expert Group.

In March 2023, this bill was referred to the Joint Select Committee on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice Referendum. The inquiry received hundreds of submissions, in addition to thousands of documents in correspondence. Eminent constitutional experts, former High Court justices and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community leaders gave evidence to the inquiry during hearings in Canberra, Orange, Cairns and Perth. The recently released report recommends that the constitutional alteration bill be passed unamended. The committee was satisfied that the proposed constitution alteration is fit for purpose and will enhance Australia's system of governance and laws.

A January 2023 poll by global market researchers Ipsos found that 80 per cent of First Nations Australians support the Voice. A growing number of sporting codes are backing the Voice. The AFL, Rugby Australia, Tennis Australia, the Australian Olympic Committee and the NRL have come out in full support of the Voice. It certainly feels like a long time since Australia united behind Cathy Freeman as she sprinted for gold. For migrant Australians and new Australians, the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia said that there is a risk that newcomers aren't aware of the conditions and history of First Nations rights in this country. But, despite this, there is broad support for the Voice and it is important to acknowledge this history and bring all Australians on this journey.

There has been a great deal of misinformation in this debate by the Coalition and, sadly, the government did not elect to establish fact-checking or truth-in-referendum-advertising protections, as I proposed. The Leader of the Opposition's speech in this place was shameful—full of misinformation and fearmongering. So the Australian people must be discerning and inoculate themselves against misinformation and racism.

To cut through all the noise, let's be clear what a voice will and won't do. Will a voice make a practical difference in the lives of First Nations people? Yes, I believe that it will. Will it help 'close the gap' targets? Yes. Is it consistent with international human rights obligations? Yes. Is it what the majority of Indigenous people want? Yes. Has consultation been extensive? Yes. Will the Voice committee be made up of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people chosen and based on the wishes of local communities? Yes. Has the wording of the proposed Constitution alteration been approved by the Solicitor-General? Yes. The Solicitor-General has released a written legal opinion to that effect. Is there enough detail? Yes, absolutely. Should 'executive government' remain in the wording of the amendment? Yes. It is practical and very important that the Voice be able to advise the executive as policies are being developed.

It is so important that the Voice be able to speak to both the parliament and the executive. They must be at the table when government is developing policies. I wholeheartedly agree. Policies are developed by the executive and departments, so it is essential that that is the point at which advice may be given.

I'd like to end with the words of some of the First Nations representatives that spoke to the forum I hosted in Warringah. Tony McAvoy SC is Australia's first Indigenous Senior Counsel, a constituent of Warringah and a member of the reference group. He said: 'We are not at the table. The Voice is not about being separate; it is about being involved. It's about trying to win the policy debate as it's happening, instead of being subject to the outcome.'

Dean Parkin explained the gravity and the privilege of the opportunity in the referendum. He said, 'This is a moment for all Australians, because when we make the very simple acknowledgement of Indigenous peoples as a First Peoples of this country, we are saying we can connect our story as Australians to that Indigenous story. Every single Australian, if you know no other place on earth, this is your home. You get to connect your story of what it is to be Australian to 65,000 years of history.'

Samara Jose, a First Nations woman from North Queensland who worked with disadvantaged youth on the street, said, 'Think about my nieces and nephews and how I explain a choice and decision that was made by all Australians about their future, about what their future may look like. Consider it. Think about it. Dream on it. But whichever way you vote, know that it matters.' I agree. Your decision, all Australians' decision, will determine your legacy.

It's rare to be tapped on the shoulder for such a moment in time in our country's history. While most young people are strongly in support, some older Australians are hesitant, afraid of change. Put your reservations aside. I've spoken to many in Warringah and will continue to do so over the coming months. Thank you to the amazing team of volunteers for Warringah for the Voice. Together we will work tirelessly to achieve a loud and proud yes.