Julian Leeser MP
29 November 2018
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The Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Final Report

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This committee was asked to consider the work of the expert panel, the former joint select committee and the Statement from the Heart of the Referendum Council. The Statement from the Heart was a major turning point in the debate about constitutional recognition. Not only did it bring a new element—the voice—into the debate, but it rejected all previous proposals for constitutional recognition. This rejection was a shame because there were previous proposals which would command broad political support, but we acknowledge that at Uluru they were taken off the table.

At the centre of the Statement from the Heart is the voice. The voice is the matter on which we focused most of the efforts of the committee. In the interim report we flagged that the next step of process towards constitutional recognition would be co-design. That's what we promised in the interim report; that's what we've delivered in this final report. Ultimately, the form of the voice will emerge from the co-design process, but the key point is that the voice will be designed with government by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, adapted for local conditions right across the nation.

The voice will provide a mechanism for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to be consulted and engaged on the policies and laws that affect them and it will provide a forum for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to bring issues to government. Such a process has as its goals better social and economic policy outcomes for our First Nations peoples. After the co-design process is complete, the legal form of the voice can then be worked out. It will be easier to work out the legal form of the voice after we have clarity on what the voice looks like.

Since the interim report, a division of opinion has emerged as to the political tactics that should be used to achieve constitutional recognition. Some have argued there should be a referendum as the first step. Leaving aside any questions of the need to build further political consensus, it's difficult to proceed to a referendum today when this committee has received no fewer than 18 different versions of constitutional amendments without consensus. Our judgement, therefore, is that, before the voice proceeds to the next step, the co-design project must have been successfully completed.

I would like to pay tribute to my co-chair, Senator Dodson. The committee would not have functioned as well if the relationship between us had not been as open and cooperative as it was. It was a privilege to work with him as it was with all the other members of the committee, and I acknowledge the members for Indi, Lingiari and Barton, who are all in the chamber at the moment. While acknowledging we all came from very different perspectives, at all times the committee sought to focus on what we agreed on, not what we disagreed on.

During the life of this committee, my son James was born, and he's in the gallery today for the first time, with my family. I hope that, when he looks back on whatever his father achieves in this place, he will be proud of the efforts his dad made towards constitutional recognition of and reconciliation with our First Nations peoples. This remains one of Australia's great national goals.

I know our time is short today, and I intend to seek leave to make further remarks on this point when the matter goes to the Federation Chamber, and so I therefore move:

That the House take note of this report.

My personal involvement in this debate goes back to 2014 when Damien Freeman and I, as a private citizen, wrote a paper on the proposal to adopt an Australian declaration of recognition and launched an organisation called Uphold & Recognise to encourage constitutional conservatives to play a part in supporting the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I remain committed to constitutional recognition and I'm on record as being a supporter of the voice with a basis in the Constitution. There are some constitutional proposals I could support and others to which I remain opposed.

This committee is not about my personal views, though. As we know, constitutional change in Australia is difficult to achieve. In 117 years, only eight out of 44 proposed amendments have succeeded. To change the Constitution, the bar is rightly set high. A referendum must be passed by a majority of the Australian people and a majority of people in a majority of states. No proposal has ever succeeded without strong bipartisan support. The committee was asked to consider the work of the expert panel, the former joint select committee, and the Statement from the Heart of the Referendum Council.

As I said in the House, the Statement from the Heart was a major turning point in the debate. Not only did it bring the new element of the voice into the debate but it rejected all proposals for constitutional recognition that had gone before. The rejection of all the previous proposals was a shame because there were proposals that had previously been made that could, in my view, have commanded broad political support. But we acknowledge that at Uluru they seem to have been taken off the table. We note in chapter 4 of the report that the proposals relating to the repeal of section 25 of the Constitution and the rewording of section 51(xxvi) may command a high degree of cross-party support but that these matters were effectively taken out and ruled out at Uluru.

At the centre of the Statement from the Heart is the voice. The voice is the matter on which we focused most of the efforts of this committee. The recommendation of the report builds on the work of the interim report of this committee. In that report we raised 100 questions, to which there were some responses but unfortunately not as many as we'd hoped. In the interim report we flagged that the next step in the process towards constitutional recognition would be co-design of the voice, involving 'a process of deep consultations between the Australian government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in every community across the country in order to ensure that the detail of the voice and related proposals are authentic for each community across Australia.' That's what we promised in the interim report and that's what we've delivered in this final report.

The future of the voice after the Referendum Council's report was uncertain, but now this joint select committee has confirmed bipartisan support for the concept of the voice. If successfully co-designed, the voice should become a reality. The design of the voice is now a matter for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to work with government to achieve. Ultimately, the form of the voice will emerge from the co-design process, but the lead point is that the voice will be designed with government but by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and adapted for local conditions right across the country. The voice will provide a mechanism for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to be consulted and engaged on the policies and laws that affect them. It will provide a forum for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to bring issues to government. Such a process has as its goals better social and economic policy outcomes for our First Nations people.

In preparing for co-design, the government and Indigenous people should draw on the eight principles and 21 models of existing and proposed structures, which could form the basis for discussion about the co-design of the voice, which we divined from evidence presented to the committee. The commitment to the voice and the commitment to co-design of that voice are significant steps for the parliament to take. They're significant steps towards a bipartisan and agreed approach to advancing the cause of constitutional recognition. The co-design of the voice is covered in chapter 2 of the report.

After the co-design process is complete, the legal form of a voice can then be worked out. It will be much easier to work out the legal form the voice should take once there's clarity on what the voice looks like. Since the interim report, a division of opinion has emerged as to the political tactics that should be used to achieve constitutional recognition. Some have argued that there should be a referendum passed as the first step, while others consider that legislation should be developed to establish the voice by an act of parliament and that, once that's done, the government should proceed to a referendum to entrench the guarantee of a voice in the Constitution. Leaving aside any questions of the need to build further political consensus, it's difficult to proceed to any referendum today on the voice when this committee has received no fewer than 18 different versions of constitutional amendments which might be put at a referendum. Our judgement therefore is that, before the voice proceeds to the next step, the co-design process must successfully have been completed. These matters are discussed in chapter 3.

Since the interim report, the committee has heard significant evidence about truth-telling, a matter that was raised in the Statement from the Heart. I think this is perhaps an overlooked part of the report but a very important one. We believe that there's a strong desire among all Australians to know more about the history, traditions and culture of First Nations people and their contact with other Australians, both good and bad. A fuller understanding of our history, including the relationship between black and white Australia, will lead to a more reconciled nation. We've made some recommendations in chapter 6 about how this might be achieved.

Unusually for a parliamentary committee, this committee didn't have a chair and a deputy chair but rather was co-chaired by Senator Dodson and myself. As I said in the House, I wanted to take the opportunity to pay tribute to Senator Dodson. The committee wouldn't have functioned as well if the relationship between us hadn't been as open and cooperative as it was, and I want to acknowledge his generosity in sharing his knowledge of Indigenous culture and his experience of Indigenous affairs with me and the other members of the committee. It was a privilege to work with Senator Dodson, as it was with all the other members of the committee. I want to acknowledge the members for Barton, Indi, Groom, Farrer and Wide Bay as well as Senators Duniam, McCarthy, Stoker and Siewert. As my friend the member for Lingiari is in the Chamber, I might say something particularly about him. The member for Lingiari has a very deep knowledge and personal experience of Indigenous matters, right from the days when he sat at the feet of Nugget Coombs and assisted him. I learnt a great deal about a very interesting period in our history from talking to the member for Lingiari. More of us should spend time listening to his experience in these matters. I certainly benefited from his experience.

I'm sure I've ruined his preselection chances there! While acknowledging we all came from very different perspectives at all times, this committee sought to focus on what we agreed on, not what we disagreed on. On behalf of the committee I want to acknowledge and thank everyone who's worked with us, including those who made submissions and gave evidence. In particular, I'd like to thank the committee secretariat for their work on the report.

I also want to acknowledge Kevin Keeffe, from Senator Dodson's office, who played a terrific role in assisting Senator Dodson and members of the committee with the report, and Philippa Englund from my office. It's appropriate for me to acknowledge that Pip has been with me almost since I became a parliamentarian, and personal circumstances with her husband's work have now taken her interstate. She recently left my office, and that's left a big hole in my own office at the moment. We're missing her. The work that she did on this report was very useful. I'm grateful for the indulgence of the Federation Chamber to continue my remarks and I commend the report to the House.