INTRODUCTION AND DHUPUMA BARKER
It is wonderful to be here at Barker College to speak about the Voice.
In doing so, let me acknowledge the Dharug and Guringai people and pay my respect to elders past, present and emerging.
Barker College is one of Sydney’s most well-known and respected schools.
Let me make a bold prediction, in 20 years’ time, its reputation will be surpassed by its campuses outside Sydney.
And in particular, the work it is doing with Indigenous communities.
I pay tribute to Barker’s headmaster, Phillip Heath AM, one of Australia’s greatest educational leaders.
We were together only last week, up in East Arnhem Land.
With Mr Heath and some of your students, we visited the Dhupuma Barker School which is a genuine partnership with the Yothu Yindi Foundation.
You know the story of the school.
It is a school that brings together two worlds and destroys the barriers between them.
Let me give a simple example.
I know here in Sydney, and elsewhere, parents drop their children at school and then go for coffee nearby and catch-up.
They connect as parents.
As a parent of a five-year-old boy and a one-year-old daughter, I understand that unique time of life – and the importance of connections with other parents.
At the Dhupuma Barker School, the mothers have a place at the school – a veranda – where they can stay, sit and chat – little different from what parents do here in Sydney.
In big ways and little ways, the school is informed by local culture and community.
The children get breakfast and lunch.
They learn the local language Yolgnu mata and English – becoming literate in both.
Dhupuma Barker is doing something unique.
We are seeing signs of something wonderful happening in that school and community.
School has become somewhere the students want to be – even in school holidays.
School attendance is now above 80% every day.
The central ingredient to your success is one word: listening.
Listening with humility which is of course a form of learning.
Listening means not assuming what has worked here at Hornsby or at your campuses in Central Coast or in the Hunter would work in the Top End.
I have seen enough of your work to know you adapt and listen in each campus. You understand that a “Hornsby knows best” approach is no different than a “Canberra knows best” approach. You have learned that listening produces better results.
For me, when I think about this referendum, I think of your school.
I think of Dhupuma Barer and what can happen if we truly listen to each other.
Every time we vote – we face a choice.
At elections, it’s a choice between candidates and parties.
Here in Berowra – it is usually a choice between me and the Labor candidate and the Greens.
I am grateful that on three occasions, my community has voted for me to represent them.
A referendum is also a choice, but it’s different.
It’s not about candidates, it’s not about politicians or parties.
It’s not about me, not about Anthony Albanese or Peter Dutton.
It’s about the words on the ballot paper.
The choice is about changing the words in our Constitution.
I believe our Constitution is the invisible pillar of our democracy.
It is the result of great compromises and great trust.
And it had a mighty goal – to create one nation out of six separate peoples.
Because of the work of the Fathers of Federation, we don’t have six countries on this continent.
We don’t have six armies, six currencies, six sets of border controls.
And despite the massive distances, we are one people.
Their work was legal, but it was also a work of soul – a decision to belong to each other, to put differences aside, to care for each other and to share a future together.
And we saw a glimpse of what that truly means last Saturday night.
From our bases in the Antarctic and the fishing villages of Tassie, to the top end of this continent and the Torres Strait, and from Sydney to Perth, we cheered as one last Saturday night.
It’s because of our great founding document that we did so.
One country. One people.
But this magnificent document that has delivered one of the oldest continuous democracies in the world has always had something missing.
It doesn’t recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the first Australians.
And it’s a flaw that matters – because it reflects a mindset.
A mindset that persists to this day.
A mindset that says we don’t need the contributions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, that we can make decisions without them – or indeed for them.
In fact, up until 1967 we didn’t even count them in the census.
It’s a mindset that lives in the bones of government decision makers.
It says “we know best, they don’t.”
It’s a mindset that only weeks ago was condemned by the Productivity Commission when considering the failure to Close the Gap. The Productivity Commission said:
“There appears to be an assumption that ‘governments know best’,….. Too many government agencies are implementing versions of shared decision‑making that involve consulting with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on a pre‑determined solution, rather than collaborating on the problem and co‑designing a solution.”
That Productivity Commission Report is not from 1983, or 2003, but 2023.
This mindset that “we know better” persists.
It’s a mindset that has delivered incredibly poor outcomes.
Not just poor outcomes, but unacceptable outcomes.
Outcomes that seem almost incomprehensible to people who live in our part of Australia.
In our country today, the life expectancy of an Indigenous Australian is eight years below that of other Australians. Eight years.
In a time of full employment, the unemployment rate for Indigenous Australians is estimated to be 30% – about 9 times higher than their fellow Australians.
One in two Indigenous Australians live in the most socially disadvantaged areas in Australia.
Nearly one in two Indigenous Australians live at or below the poverty line. According to government statistics, 43% of Indigenous adults receive a total weekly pre-tax income – of $500 a week or less.
That compares with the poverty line which is $489 a week.
One in five Indigenous households are living in accommodation that does not meet an acceptable standard – lacking either a kitchen or sanitation.
It’s also not safe to be an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander in our country.
Mark Speakman, SC, the NSW Liberal Leader and the former NSW Attorney-General has said that in NSW, an Indigenous woman is 35 times more likely to be assaulted than a non-Indigenous woman.
And if you are an Indigenous boy in this country, you are more likely to end up in jail than university.
The Gap is horrendous.
There is no shortage of money, no shortage of goodwill, no shortage of bipartisanship but the gap isn’t closing.
The answer to the gap is not being found in a hand out.
But it will be found in empowerment, in personal responsibility, in community building.
It was the poet Oodgeroo from the tribe Noonuccal who said it best: “make us equals not
The Costs of Action Versus the Cost of Inaction
Some opposed to the Voice believe it’s going to be a cost on the Budget.
The Government has set aside $20 million for the establishment of the local, regional bodies is $20 million.
Ultimately the total budget will be a matter for government, but what I do know is the upfront cost does not in any way compare to the potential long term savings.
Let’s unpack the statement I said a little earlier, that in Australia an Aboriginal boy is more likely to go to jail than to university.
According to the Federal Minister for Education, the average cost to the taxpayer of sending a young Australian to university is $11,000 every year. $11,000.
That compares to the average cost of incarceration which is $148,000 a year.
If it’s a juvenile being incarcerated that number rises to $1 million a year.
And those costs don’t consider the non quantifiable costs.
The actual cost of a crime.
The violence inflicted on the victim, the community that feels less safe, and the cost of a young person stumbling on a pathway that leads to ruin.
Let’s also consider the alternative, and that is what happens if an Indigenous Australian makes it to University.
A 2021 Department of Education, Skills and Employment study showed that on graduation – Indigenous graduates earned more than non-Indigenous graduates.
And in the 10 years that follow, the median income increases by an average of 76 per cent.
During the same period, non Indigenous graduate incomes rise by an average of 88 per cent.
In other words, after 10 years in the workforce Indigenous and non-Indigenous graduates levelled out to be the same.
Or to put it another way, the gap closes.
That’s the goal.
That’s the vital work you are doing by getting Aboriginal children to school, to complete school, and on to higher education. You are closing the gap.
The savings to Australia are phenomenal.
And the transformation of lives, incalculable.
HOW WILL THE VOICE MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
I have spoken a lot tonight about the value of listening.
I have done so, because that is at the heart of what the Voice is about.
The Voice will be a body of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians that will provide advice to the government.
It works like a committee.
The people on the Voice will be chosen by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
They will come from every state and territory.
The people on the national Voice will be drawn from local and regional bodies
Half will be men and half will be women – with spaces reserved for young people and people from remote areas.
They will have a fixed term.
The Voice is about advice so that governments can make better decisions – better decisions that come from listening to people. As you have demonstrated by partnering with the Yothu Yindi Foundation in Arnhem Land and the Darkinjung Land Council on the Central Coast and the local Aboriginal people in Cessnock, Maitland and Kurri Kurri.
It is about government consulting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians on the policies and laws that affect them.
It is almost a universal truth that you make better policy when you consult the people directly affected.
The Voice does not direct the government.
The Voice is an advisory body.
As an advisory body – its advice can be accepted, rejected, or cherry-picked and accepted in part. This is no different than what happens every day with councils and community associations.
It does not make decisions and it will not administer funds, programs or land.
There is nothing scary about an advisory body.
In fact, government gets advice all the time and it improves decision making.
The Voice will advise the government – just like DFAT, the Treasury, the security agencies and the Chief Scientist and the Chief Medical Officer do every day.
And just like Councils get advice from resident groups, progress associations and precinct committees.
It will be up to the government to weigh that advice. As they do now.
The Voice gives local and regional communities an opportunity to speak about the issues directly affecting them and through the national Voice to bring those issues to the attention of decision makers in Canberra.
Those issues could be everything from how to reduce smoking rates, to improving support to young mums, or finding ways to improve the relationship between local police and teenagers.
One of the great things we are witnessing over recent years, is the emergence of a new generation of Indigenous leaders.
We now have 11 members and senators in Parliament – from my friends and colleagues on my side of the House Senator Kerrynne Liddle and Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price whose lived experiences add so much to our party room and the senate to my friend the Labor Member for Robertson Dr Gordon Reid whose electorate is a stone’s throw from here.
We are witnessing this new generation in this campaign – and my hope is that we will see a new generation of leadership in the local and regional voices. Leadership that takes responsibility, that focuses on solutions and that shakes things up and closes the gap.
I believe we will see the Voice working with government on ways to create more jobs for Indigenous people.
I want to see the Voice speaking up when services aren’t working or policies are failing.
And to be solution focused. So that we actually change the status quo.
The Voice is an exercise in democracy – an exercise in community engagement and making the table bigger.
It’s an invitation for local Indigenous communities to have a say – and take greater responsibility in the issues that directly affect them.
It’s about having an empowered citizenship – recognising that the strength of our country is found in empowered and participating citizens.
Just like your participation tonight.
I was visiting another school in our community on the weekend. It was Hornsby Girls High School and I reflected on what makes a good school. I said: its parental involvement, enthusiastic teachers, happy students and a school that’s outward looking.
Involvement, being outward looking, taking responsibility. They are the same attributes that I believe we will see in the Voice.
It’s the tool by which we provide both constitutional recognition and by which he empower a new generation to tackle long-standing problems.
Referendum campaigns involve a choice.
A choice between two different sets of arguments.
The YES campaign arguments are about past, present and future.
Past – completing our Constitution by formally recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians as our nation’s first peoples.
Present – creating the Voice – a committee which is about listening and consulting Aboriginal people about the decisions that affect them.
Future – closing the gap and changing our trajectory on Indigenous health, education, housing and employment.
It’s about the narrow, safe provision in the Constitution that will be added if Australians vote yes.
It’s not about the many and varied issues the No campaign raises: It’s not about WA heritage laws, treaty, reparations. It’s not about submarines or parking tickets. It’s not about individual Aboriginal leaders or parliamentarians.
Nor is it about creating two classes of people under the law.
Most of the laws that the federal Parliament makes are laws that apply to everyone.
The Constitution already provides for the Parliament to make special laws for Aboriginal people.
Indeed, they are the only people we have ever made special laws about. We have never made special laws for Greek Australians or Italian Australians or for Christian, Jewish, Hindu or Muslim Australians.
But since 1967 we have made special laws for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
This constitutional change will simply mean that the Parliament will consult with the people for whom they are making special laws.
There will be no override, no right of veto. Just a mechanism to allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians to make representations.
I know in recent days that some No proponents have argued we can create a legislated voice not a constitutional one.
The problem with this approach is that Indigenous Australians are asking for something more permanent.
There have been multiple Aboriginal bodies created by parliament or the executive and they have then been abolished – not reformed but abolished.
A constitutionally enshrined voice is simply a guarantee that a body of some sort will exist.
The No case wants to debate every issue imaginable.
I believe we need to recentre this debate on the actual constitutional change being proposed.
What’s on offer in this referendum is a question of 29 words and one new section of the Constitution.
Let me read them:
The question: “A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of
Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this
A straightforward question.
It is the question you will see on your ballot paper. And your job will be to write Yes if you support it or No if you oppose it.
The framers of the Constitution wisely left this decision not to parliamentarians but to all of us as Australians.
And behind it a small amendment to the Constitution.
Let me read it to you:
Chapter IX Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples
129 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice
In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia:
There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice;
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;
The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.”
It’s a simple change.
A safe change.
A change that is as much about listening as it is creating a voice.
A change that provides constitutional recognition.
A change that continues and recognises the supremacy of Parliament.
A change that creates an advisory body that will play a part in helping us close the gap.
And it is a change that I am proud to support because it will complete our Constitution – and give our wonderful country an opportunity to be even better.