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Indigenous Voice to ParliamentPolitics

An Indigenous Voice to Parliament: if not now, never

By August 5, 2023December 4th, 2023No Comments

At its heart, the proposal to enshrine an Indigenous Voice to parliament in our constitution is about a desire to improve the social, health and economic outcomes of Indigenous Australians.

The Australian government has a long history of making laws, policies and decisions that directly impact the lives of Indigenous people without any consultation with Indigenous people.

What we witnessed recently in Alice Springs was a direct result of government decisions taken without consultation with Indigenous people. I saw this lack of consultation when I worked as a registered nurse on Palm Island in the late 1990s.

An Indigenous Voice to parliament is needed to end top-down government decision-making. It will enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in urban, rural and regional Australia to provide advice on policies and projects that impact their lives.

Evidence shows that outcomes are improved when governments work in partnership with Indigenous peoples.

Enshrining an Indigenous Voice to parliament in the constitution provides a way to improve policy and the accountability of future governments. It will make future governments and parliaments accountable to listening to the advice of Indigenous Australians.

In 2007, prime minister John Howard proposed a referendum on constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians. However, Yolngu leader Dr Galarrwuy Yunupingu asked for more than just symbolic recognition. He argued that constitutional reform should advance Indigenous rights and address Indigenous disadvantage.

Over the past sixteen years, governments have convened an expert panel, two parliamentary inquiries, and a Referendum Council.

In 2017, delegates to the First Nations National Constitutional Convention released the Uluru Statement of the Heart. The Uluru Statement of the Heart is a powerful call for Voice Treaty Truth. It was made in a spirit of generosity as the path forward on Indigenous reconciliation.

In 2019, Ken Wyatt AM, then Minister for Indigenous Australians in the Morrison government, announced the commencement of a detailed design of the potential national and regional structures for the Voice to parliament. Professors Tom Calma and Marcia Langton led a co-design process that engaged 9400 Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples and organisations.

The final report proposes a framework for local and regional voices across Australia. It provides flexibility to accommodate the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and communities. “Local and regional Voices would be community-led, community-designed and community-run.” (P 10, Indigenous Voice Co-design Process Final Report).

For those asking for “more details” about the Indigenous Voice to Parliament – or who incorrectly claim that “no national body can properly speak for hundreds of traditional owner groups each with their own distinct cultures and perspectives” – please read the 270-page Indigenous Voice Co-design Process Final Report, or at the very least read the 10-page executive summary.

Most importantly, the Voice proposal developed for the Morrison government recommends that advice would be provided transparently to all members of parliament and the executive. Transparency is key for accountability. It puts an end to advice that never sees the light of day. Governments can reject the Indigenous Voice to parliament’s advice. But they would need to give reasons.

After sixteen years of Indigenous people building trust with politicians and working in collaboration with governments led by John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Malcolm Turnbull, Scott Morrison, Anthony Albanese, our nation is on the cusp of a referendum.

The referendum proposes to reset the relationship between First Australians and the rest of Australia. As Julian Leeser said when he resigned as the shadow minister for Indigenous affairs: “The time has come” for an Indigenous Voice to parliament.

If not now, when?

It is up to Australian political leaders across the spectrum – federal, state and local – to now engage with the forthcoming referendum, and the generosity and goodwill that Indigenous leaders have shown.

It is also up to each of us to educate ourselves about exactly what is being proposed, and what is not being proposed. The current proposed wording of the referendum has the support of conservative constitutional experts. It also has the support of the solicitor general.

It is gobsmacking that the Australian Electoral Commission is not required to check truthfulness of the claims made in the Yes/No referendum pamphlet. Fortunately the ABC RMIT Fact Check is on the case. Their fact check found the Yes case is consistently truthful. In contrast, the No case peddles misinformation and untruths.

Bridget Archer, a liberal MP who represents the seat of Bass in Tasmania will campaign for a Yes vote. Jeremey Rockliff, the only remaining liberal premier, says he will “vigorously” campaign for the Yes vote. Julian Leeser resigned his position as the shadow minister for Indigenous affairs because he intends to campaign for a Yes vote.

People who live on the Mornington Peninsula deserve to be informed about both sides of the debate about an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. This will ensure we make an informed decision before we vote in the referendum.

According to George Brandis: “If this is to be an authentic national debate, both sides must be heard.” I agree. So I invited our federal MP, Zoe McKenzie, and our State MP, Chris Crewther, to a respectful public discussion about the forthcoming referendum. Unfortunately both Zoe McKenzie and Chris Crewther declined my invitation.


Although Zoe McKenzie and I do not share the same political views, my interactions with Zoe during the 2022 election campaign were always respectful. So, it came as a shock to learn that Zoe not only misrepresented Helen Bnads and Peter Aldenhoven from Willum Warrain, but she also allegedly misrepresented Kenneth Hayne, former Justice of the High Court of Australia when she spoke in parliament on 22 May against the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. In my view, Zoe should have apologised to Helen Bnads and Peter Aldenhoven and also the former High Court justice. Also she should have apologised to the House and corrected the record.

It is a disgrace that the referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament has become politicised when it is an issue that should unite all Australians. If Dutton’s Liberals’ campaign to lead a No Vote succeeds, there will be no second chance. Ever.

Australia is the only first world nation with a colonial history that doesn’t recognise its first people in its constitution. The forthcoming referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament is our nation’s opportunity to rectify this.

I encourage all of us on the Mornington Peninsula to accept the generous invitation to walk with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. As Kerry O’Brien said at the recent Sorrento Writers’ Festival: “Our country has everything to gain by voting Yes in the referendum and nothing to lose.”


Dr Sarah Russell is the Chair of Progressives of the Peninsula and a former Independent candidate for Flinders. This article was written in collaboration with Professor Ian Anderson, a Palawa doctor and academic who worked for Turnbull and Morrison governments.

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