Private Members’ Business – First Nations Voice

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 I’m sad to say I think this motion is misplaced. It’s a case of premature congratulations when the government needs to do so much more work. I’m a supporter of the Voice. I have been since before I was elected to parliament. There’s a lot of talk about the Voice. There’s a lot of emotive language. There’s a lot of moralising. What there isn’t a lot of is detail. In fact, the government doesn’t seem to want to provide detail, so opponents of the Voice are filling the vacuum before the debate has begun. The government’s starting point should not be a pipedream for activists but what proposal might actually succeed in a referendum. Unfortunately, the government is mishandling the issue.

The motion talks about the role of local leaders and organisations in assisting communities to prepare for the Voice. I’ve had Probus clubs, church groups, schools and businesses contact me to ask what the Voice is and how it will work. What frustrates me is that the lack of details means I can answer very few of their questions. As Megan Davis told RN Breakfast today:

I think the detail point is a legitimate one. People want to see more detail about what it looks like

But the government continues to spend its energy congratulating itself or dealing with side issues instead of developing a model for the national Voice and providing a process for engagement of the broader Australian community ahead of the referendum.

Let’s recap the government’s work on the Voice to date. Before coming to office. Labor’s promise to implement the Voice was part of practically every speech given by the Prime Minister. Since coming to government, it has become an addition to the government members’ acknowledgement of country. So it’s reasonable to think that the government would have had a detailed plan for what a national body might look like and a strategy to roll out the referendum.

Unfortunately, it seems they did not. Labor keeps telling Australians the referendum is a fait accompli, despite most Australians having no idea what it is they will have to vote on. Labor’s recklessness risks the entire reconciliation project and the social cohesion of the country. The minister knows these risks, she told the Herald yesterday. Back in July the Prime Minister made a speech at Garma outlining a question and some possible words for constitutional amendment, but with no plan about how we would get there. Then we had the government calling in the American celebrity Shaquille O’Neal, with the most superficial connection to our country, to endorse the Voice. None of this helped build confidence. Labor is more interested in side issues like setting a date or playing with the referendum rules than explaining how the body will work. While Labor pat themselves on the back for having made a speech and establishing a couple of consultative groups and undertaking a photo shoot, Aboriginal leaders across the country asked me what the Voice is about and whether it will make any difference to their people.

I’m concerned about Labor’s desire to turn this into a legacy moment, instead of answering the public’s questions about how the Voice would work. It’s now over 100 days since the Prime Minister announced draft sentences to add to the Constitution. The Prime Minister said that those words would be the basis for consultation. But how do people provide feedback on this? What process will the government establish? Is this the only form of words they are willing to entertain? Why did he choose this form of words given that the joint select committee in 2018 received 18 different versions of how this might be done, and more have been put out since? What is the government doing to respond to the issues being raised by commentators about the Prime Minister’s proposal?

The government has also not been clear about what it will do with the co-design report led by Tom Calma and Marcia Langdon, which recommended the roll-out of local and regional bodies first. Why hasn’t it supported the roll-out of these bodies first, which will ground any advice that any national body might be provided on the experience of local communities? I want to be able to have serious discussions with colleagues and constituents about what the Voice might mean for our country, but until the government gives us a plan and a roadmap that isn’t possible.

I went to Garma with no idea what the Prime Minister was going to announce, and today I stand with no idea what the plan is to move forward. I support the Voice, and I have done so for many years, but I will continue to ask questions that Australians have every right to know the answer to: questions like who will be on the Voice? How will these people be chosen? What powers and functions will it have? How will it represent the diverse communities that make up our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples? How will it address the real issues that impact people’s lives every day in communities? Will regional and local bodies exist? How will the government ensure that the body hears from voices who don’t already have a platform in Australian public life?

These are serious questions. They’re questions that the government is failing to answer. But they are questions that are very important to Australians in making a decision as to how they will vote on this and in making a decision as to what role the Voice might play in our Parliament moving forward.

So my message to the government today is: no more of these self-congratulatory motions. Instead, let us get out there and do some of the hard work, providing people with an opportunity to provide feedback on the sentences that the government has put forward in relation to amending the Constitution, and providing a process where people can actually engage understanding in full detail how this body will work. People have the right to know the details about what the Voice body will do and how it will work before people go to vote on it. I call on Labor to stop talking about how admirable they are for announcing the referendum and to start responding to the reasonable questions that all Australians have.

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