17 JULY 2023
Auntie Mary thank you for that beautiful welcome. For me one of the great joys of this referendum campaign so far has been getting to know you and your extended family.
I acknowledge the Wiradjuri people, traditional owners of the land we meet and pay my respects to them and their elders past, present and emerging.
I also acknowledge Wagga’s Civic leaders including Mayor Clr Dallas Tout – I thank him and the Council of the City of Wagga Wagga for engaging with this debate.
It’s also wonderful to acknowledge my friend Pro Vice Chancellor Professor Maree Meredith who is doing such an extraordinary job at the University of Canberra.
One of the statistics you will hear today and many times in this referendum campaign is that in Australia today, an Aboriginal boy is statistically more likely to end up in gaol than university.
It is a terrible statistic.
But we know so much changes if an Aboriginal boy or girl can get a university degree. It lifts them and in turn, their family and community.
It is the one indicator we know closes the gap. It’s the closest thing to a silver bullet.
So the University’s job, ably led by people like Professor Meredith, is to help ensure that as many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Students as possible finish their degree.
I pay tribute to the University of Canberra for its leadership and for its work encouraging debate and discussion about the Voice.
We need to have that discussion – because the outcome of this referendum is our choice – all of us – as Australians.
The wonderful thing about our Constitution is that the founding fathers did not leave the decision about changing the Constitution to politicians but instead they left the decision to the Australian people.
So today, the most important part of this gathering is not my speech, but your questions.
This referendum is different from an election campaign.
In elections, the effort is focused on those few seats most likely to change hands – the so-called marginal seats.
In a referendum there is no such thing as a marginal seat – because every vote matters and every part of Australia matters.
I am sure there will be many people from the YES case in Wagga putting the case for change over the coming months.
In this referendum, today is a landmark day.
Before midnight tonight, the YES campaign and the NO campaign must submit their written 2,000 word cases to the Australian Electoral Commission.
They will be published in a pamphlet by the Electoral Commission and distributed over the next few weeks to every Australian home.
Side by side you will be able to read the arguments.
I have seen the YES case that you will receive.
I am confident Australians will rally to the positive arguments being put forward.
It speaks of the practical results that will come from this change.
It puts the case, not only about why Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians matters, but also why the Voice will make a meaningful difference to the outcomes facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
This is a change that is safe – and a change that is about practical outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
The YES case is a united case.
The YES case has been signed off by people from all sides of politics.
I believe the strength of the YES case lies in the fact that it is offering a way forward on the vexed challenges of closing the gap.
Across almost every economic and social measure, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are lagging other Australians.
The difference is heartbreaking.
The life expectancy of an Indigenous Australian is eight years below that of other Australians. Eight years.
Even during 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.
And one in five Indigenous households are living in accommodation that does not meet an acceptable standard – lacking either a kitchen or sanitation.
And in income, the gap is horrendous.
We speak a great deal about the pressures on cost of living. Twelve interest rate increases, accelerating power bills and rising inflation. It’s a story common to all families. We all know that our ability to withstand such pressures depends first and foremost on our income.
Last week, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare released the latest figures for Indigenous income.
It found that 43% of Indigenous adults receive a total weekly pre-tax income – of $500 a week or less.
The poverty line in Australia is $489 a week for a single person.
Almost one in two Indigenous adults live on the poverty line.
Overall, 70 per cent of Indigenous adults have a pre-tax income of less than $1,000 a week.
For working Australians, average weekly total earnings is $1,878 a week.
As a country as wonderful and as prosperous as Australia, we are failing Indigenous Australians.
You will hear a lot of talk from the NO campaign about risk.
The big risk is that nothing changes.
The big risk is that another generation of Aboriginal people are held back from the opportunities of this country.
The No case argues that this referendum would create two classes of Australians.
My response to them is to look around Australia.
Whether it is in remote communities or in many parts of our capital cities – I can tell you there are already two classes of Australians – and the gap between them is not closing.
This is not about special privilege, this is not lifting up one group at the expense of another, this is about trying to make better public policy.
What is the Voice?
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.
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.
It is not Moses with the tablets of stone.
The Voice is an advisory body.
It does not make decisions and it will not administer funds, programs or land.
The Voice will advise government – just like DFAT, the Productivity Commission, the security agencies and the Chief Scientist and the Chief Medical Officer do every day.
It will be up to the government to weigh that advice. As they do now.
And not just federally, but locally and regionally too.
The Voice gives local and regional communities an opportunity to speak about the issues directly affecting them.
To engage in local issues, such as a concern about school truancy rates, or advocating for more dialysis machines at a local hospital, or ensuring there’s the right help for new mums, or improving the relationship between local police and teenagers.
Its advice might help create stronger pathways for vocational skills and attending universities.
Or it might advise councils and local businesses on identifying opportunities to create more jobs for Indigenous people.
It could identify when services aren’t working and speak up when policies are failing.
I believe having the Voice will mean that governments become more effective, and we actually save money.
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.
This is about creating an institution, expanding participation in our democracy and strengthening what might be called our country’s “little platoons”.
These are all traditional and conservative ideas.
They should be welcomed and celebrated.
Addressing the arguments against change
As some of you may know, I have had a lifelong interest in the Constitution.
As a boy, I asked my parents for a copy of the Constitution for my 10th birthday. I was definitely a “Nerdus Maximus”.
At university I studied law, was an Associate to a High Court judge, I was elected to the 1998 Constitutional Convention and served on the National Committee for the No vote during the 1999 referendum. I have engaged in the debates about constitutional recognition, and served as Shadow Attorney-General.
Recently I have been re-reading some of the history of the debates that led to federation in 1901 when the six colonies agreed to become one country: Australia.
Then, as now, there were people opposed to constitutional change.
What was surprising as I re-read the debates was that some of the same arguments used against Federation are being used in this referendum as well
They said then that:
- Federation would abolish majority rule – by giving, say, Tasmania and NSW the same number of Senators despite their vastly different population sizes.
- They said then that the senate would be run by a “wealthy class” or to use a modern term “an elite”.
- They said then that colonies would lose their sovereignty and independence – somehow the new federation would seize control of everything.
- They said then that federation would bring about high administrative costs and complexity.
- They said then that referendum would result in the establishment of an unfair, but permanent Constitution.
Fortunately, the Australian people saw through the weakness of these arguments at Federation or there would be no Australian nation to speak of.
Today we are hearing the same arguments in this debate – about the end of democracy, more power going to so-called elites, the end of parliamentary sovereignty, with increased costs resulting from a dangerous, permanent change.
None of these arguments are true.
I have studied the Constitution over the course of my life.
Based on a lifetime of work, let me say this – this is a small change to the Constitution.
In 1999 the Republic Referendum proposed 69 separate changes to the Constitution.
By contrast this referendum adds only one new section to the Constitution – a section which mandates Parliament to create an advisory committee. A committee subject to parliament that will not up-end any part of our existing system of government.
A SAFE CHANGE
It is a safe change.
It is a small change that can make a big difference.
Some in the NO campaign say they want constitutional recognition but not this constitutional recognition.
I don’t accept that argument, because the foundation of constitution recognition starts with asking Aboriginal people what form of constitutional recognition they would like.
Over a ten year process Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have said they want a Voice.
A practical body that results in real change. They don’t want constitutional recognition which is just flowery language.
I know enough about human nature to know that some people arguing against this change would find a reason to vote to oppose any other model as well.
Today we have a model of constitutional recognition that is worth supporting.
It was developed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
They wanted constitutional recognition that ensured they could be heard on matters that directly affect them.
That’s not unreasonable.
And given our failure in terms of Indigenous health, education, housing, safety and economic advancement, I believe we can only benefit from consulting and involving Aboriginal people.
Change won’t be immediate.
Closing the gap won’t be easy, but with this change I believe Indigenous policy will be built on a better foundation.
The respectful conversation
Finally, can I say a few words about the tone and nature of this debate.
Tomorrow, the AEC will publish the YES and NO cases.
I believe this provides a moment to reset this debate.
I have been concerned over recent months about some of the ways this debate has been going.
A referendum is different from a general election.
At an election there are candidates on a ballot paper. At a referendum there is a question on a ballot paper.
Though politicians wish elections were about ideas, we know they are about the candidates as well.
In fact, elections are possibly the most personal thing anyone can endure in public life.
Your life, your decisions (both personal and professional) and your performance is judged by your community and your country.
Sometimes the judgments formed are right, other times they are downright unfair, but when your name is on the ballot paper, voters have a right to know who they are voting for and to decide what matters to them.
But a referendum is not about any one person. It is about a specific change to the Constitution.
At this referendum, it’s about an idea put in the form of a question: effectively shall we recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in the Constitution and create an advisory body called the Voice? That’s what we have to decide.
My name isn’t on the ballot paper, nor is the name of any politician and nor are any names of anyone else who we might like or dislike.
Equally, this is not a ballot about the worthiness of Aboriginal People – or about what you might think about an individual Aboriginal person.
Half a century ago, Neville Bonner was regularly told by people he shouldn’t be a Liberal.
He was accused of not being what others expected of him. He was effectively accused of being a sell out.
Sadly, having seen much of what is directed to Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, Senator Kerrynne Liddle and Warren Mundine, I don’t think our discourse has improved much.
No one should question their right to speak, or their connection to Indigenous community, or to argue their achievements are not on merit, or worse, to suggest somehow that they are acting as a front for racists.
They have every right to argue for their beliefs – and frankly, it’s a reflection of the diversity and breadth of Indigenous experience that they do so.
Likewise, it seems like some of the videos and memes put forward by some opponents of this referendum are about demonising individual Aboriginal people.
The social media campaign of the NO case has all too often sought to focus on and target a small number of high profile Aboriginal people.
They are not on the referendum ballot paper.
The referendum is about a technical change to the Constitution.
It’s not about any person.
It is worth thinking about the videos you might have seen on social media which demonstrate the point.
Last week, for example, there was a small argument between two Aboriginal men in Perth. It was an argument over who should give the ‘welcome to country’. As arguments go, it was pretty pedestrian, no punches were thrown, no ‘f-bombs’ appeared to drop, and no charges were laid.
All that happened was that two men argued. No different than any one of the many thousands of arguments that happen every day. Yet, it was covered nationally and repeatedly linked to the Voice.
Likewise, we’ve seen the centrality of Thomas Mayo to the No campaign.
Let me be clear, Thomas Mayo and I vote for different things.
He has been a union organiser for the MUA and I have been an adviser to Tony Abbott.
He’s a Labor Party member and I’m a Liberal Party member.
I suspect there is little in life that Thomas Mayo and I agree on other than the Voice.
But Thomas Mayo is not on the ballot paper.
However, Thomas Mayo is central to the NO campaign because Thomas Mayo is being made a trope for the “angry Aboriginal man” who wants to tear down the country.
The spliced videos of the NO case using Thomas Mayo’s words are meant to get you angry, and get you voting against a person, even though this person is not on the ballot paper.
Likewise, we see the argument against the “privileged’ Linda Burney.
Linda Burney comes from a different political tradition to me and we disagree about many things.
And Linda Burney, as a minister, should be held to account for her decisions and be questioned accordingly.
Scrutiny matters in a democracy. No arguments from me there.
But we are seeing deeply personal characterisations made about her that would not be made about federal ministers such as Jason Clare, Chris Bowen, or Richard Marles.
I can’t remember the last time they were called privileged and challenged for somehow rising about their station in life.
The reality is Linda has not had a privileged life.
Linda Burney was born to a single mum during a time when such births were a cause of shame. She was raised by an aunty and uncle in country NSW. She didn’t meet her brothers and sisters til she was older and she did not meet her own father until she was an adult. Linda attended a state school and was the first Indigenous teacher to graduate from her teacher’s college.
Linda has had more than a fair share of pain thrown her way. She has been widowed and lost her son to the heartbreak of mental illness.
Like so many Australians who withstand so much, she still gets up and goes to work every day no matter how painful it is.
No, Linda Burney is not privileged, on the contrary she is a reminder of the challenges and difficulties many indigenous Australians have to overcome every day. And she is a reminder of what can be achieved too.
This is an important moment for our country with an important question before it.
It’s a serious moment in our history.
We have to lift the debate. All of us do.
It’s too important to be a “politics as usual” moment. We have to listen to each other respectfully – and not resort to personality politics.
And I pledge at my end, to do what I can.
Let’s have the debate around the goal that matters – and that’s about closing the gap.
I believe the Voice will result in better decisions.
I believe it will, over time, deliver improved outcomes and results and also provide better value for taxpayers.
I am confident about this for one reason – and that is because listening works.
We all make better decisions when we listen to people affected by our decisions. All of us – and we know that from our own lives.
This is a change we do not need to fear.
It is a small change that can deliver so much.
This is a once in a generation moment.
I encourage you to join with me in voting YES.