A Voice to Parliament will Complete our Constitution - Speech

Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal And Torres Strait Islander Voice) Bill 2023
House of Representatives, Wednesday 24 May 2023

When this House sits at the beginning of each day we acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples. The stories of the Ngunnawal are fundamental to this great city. I've been privileged to learn from Tyronne Bell how to speak an acknowledgement of country in Ngunnawal language, and I use it when I'm giving public speeches on Ngunnawal land. I've been privileged too, to walk with Tyronne Bell around the hills of Mount Majura and Mount Ainslie, learning from him about how to understand the local environment. He's shown my kids and my wife Gweneth and I the scar trees and the bush tucker. When I was out running around Mount Majura and Mount Ainslie this morning with my headlamp on, I was thinking about Tyronne and how he helped me better understand the local landscape.

There is much to be ashamed of in the mistreatment of Indigenous Australians, but there's also a great deal to be proud of, in the strength, the resilience, the endurance and the history of Indigenous peoples whose link to the land goes back more than 60,000 years. When the civilisations of ancient Greece and ancient Rome were just getting going, Indigenous Australians had been walking these lands for tens of thousands of years. The book Stories of the Ngunnawal tells the tale of Dorothy Brown Dickson, an Indigenous Ngunnawal person who recounts her experience growing up: 'Even the shopkeepers were prejudiced. You had to wait until the white people were served first in the shops. When Aborigines went to the picture theatre they had to sit down the front by themselves, and the welfare would come up there all the time, checking on people.'

Another extraordinary Ngunnawal elder was Aunty Agnes Shea, who grew up in Yass at a time when discrimination was entrenched in many rural communities. Her first home was in Oak Hill, where there was no electricity or running water and where Agnes had to walk 10 kilometres each way from Oak Hill to the Hollywood Aboriginal reserve school. She recounts how Aboriginal children at the time were limited to certain parts of Yass township and forbidden to speak the Ngunnawal language in public under threat of removal by authorities. Aboriginal children were prohibited from using the school bus service and had to leave school at age 14. When her first baby was born in 1949, Aunty Agnes Shea was one of the first three Aboriginal women allowed to have their babies in Yass Hospital, and a yellow line painted across the corridor marked the boundary of where the Aboriginal women were permitted to walk. In 1949, that's within the lifetime of my own father. Auntie Agnes Shea died earlier this year, at age 91, and her legacy is remembered proudly here in the ACT.

Noel Pearson has noted that many Australians simply do not have Aboriginal people within their circles of family and fellowship with whom they can share fellow feeling. I have to say that one of the ways in which I have appreciated getting to know Indigenous Australians has been through Rob de Castella's Indigenous Marathon Foundation. The Speaker recently hosted an afternoon tea with the 2023 Indigenous Marathon Foundation's squad to hear their extraordinary stories.

Running also reminds me of Pat Farmer, who is currently running 14,000 kilometres around Australia, starting in Hobart and finishing in Uluru, in support of a Voice to Parliament—a former coalition member of this House who wants to put one foot after the other in order to ensure a Voice to Parliament.

I benefited, too, from having the Wreck Bay community—part of the Jervis Bay community—included as part of my electorate of Fenner. When I spoke to elders in that community last week I was proud to announce $44 million of new funding in the budget for housing and new investments in the Booderee National Park. I've learnt so much from those elders, and I thank them for the insights they've shared with me.

Here in the ACT we'll be holding a forum next Monday night with Linda Burney, Peter Yu and Aunty Violet Sheridan to discuss a Voice to Parliament, and I'd encourage those listening to this to tune in online to that forum. The in-person seats were snapped up quickly after we opened registrations, but there are still unlimited opportunities to join us online.

The notion of a voice goes back to the wrong that was done through the principle of terra nullius—the idea that Australia was an empty land, open to British settlers for the taking. The Voice is a response to the wrongs of frontier violence and dispossession. WEH Stanner's 1968 'After the Dreaming' lecture summed it up well:

What may well have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned under habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale.

Australia has shied too long from the truth. The Constitution is incomplete. Every Australia Day, when we have that discussion about 26 January, it is a reminder of the deeper unease that sits within our country about the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

I say to those opposite: don't make a mistake of being on the wrong side of history. I want to remind them of some of the moments in which their predecessors, as conservatives, have been on the wrong side of questions of reconciliation. In 1982, in response to planned peaceful Aboriginal protests for land and civil rights at the Commonwealth Games and proposals for land rights legislation, Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen and his police minister, Russ Hinze, claimed that 'a secret black army has been in training specifically to provoke violence in Brisbane,' and falsely claimed that 'Aborigines are presently in Libya undergoing guerrilla and terrorist training'. He said that they were aiming to create a ‘separate black nation’, a part of a ‘communist long-range plan to alienate Aboriginal lands from the Australian nation’.

Tim Fischer said in the Mabo debate that 'rightly or wrongly, dispossession of Aboriginal civilisation was always going to happen.' He referred to what he described as the 'guilt industry'. Speaking about the impact of the Mabo judgement, then Victorian Premier, Jeff Kennett, suggested that suburban backyards would be under threat. He said recently that he regretted that comment, saying, 'I think that, like many others I was trying to deal with something that was new, that was undefined.'

Speaking about the proposed Native Title Bill introduced by the Keating government, then opposition leader John Hewson said 'this is a day of shame for Australia that will haunt the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) and his government every hour of every day between now and the next election'. John Hewson has since expressed support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Indeed,the coalition, under Indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion, has professed strong support for the benefits that Native Title can bring to Indigenous Australians, a far cry from the coalition's approach in refusing to negotiate with the Keating government over the native title bill.

It was Prime Minister John Howard who went on the 7:30 Report and held up a picture which showed Australia with 78 per cent of its land mass coloured brown. He said, 'Let me just show you a view of it. This shows 78 per cent of the land mass of Australia covered in brown in this map. Now the Labor Party and the Democrats are effectively saying that the Aboriginal people of Australia should have the potential right of veto over further development of 78 per cent of the landmass of Australia.' That fear mongering was of a piece with John Howard's inability to say 'sorry' to the Stolen Generation, a wrong that awaited Kevin Rudd's election as Prime Minister to set it right.

Amanda Vanstone has said it was probably a mistake to dismantle the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, ATSIC. Tony Abbott has said that it was a mistake of the Howard government to phase out the Community Development Employment Program, the CDEP. The opposition leader, Peter Dutton, walked out of the House of Representatives chamber during the apology to the Stolen Generations and has later acknowledged that he made a mistake.

I say to those opposite: do not be on the wrong side of history. Look to people like the member for Berowra, Ken Wyatt, Mark Textor, Tony Nutt, the member for Bass, and indeed the member for Calare, who gave an extraordinarily powerful speech just now, having moved to the crossbench, and warned against those who would play a spoiling game in trying to stymie a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament.

A constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament has support from across sporting codes—the AFL, the NRL, Cricket Australia, Football Australia, Netball Australia, Tennis Australia and the Australian Olympic Committee. It has been extensively debated; indeed, none of the previous 44 referendums have been preceded by more debate, more engagement with parliamentarians, legal experts and community members than this one. There have been extensive reports, an extensive codesign process, First Nations dialogues, and a joint select committee, which made a single recommendation—that the bill be passed without amendment.

To those opposite who say that this is a ‘Canberra voice’, I offer the words of Auntie Pat Anderson, who says of the Uluru Dialogue delegates, 'What they asked for was a voice to Canberra, not a Canberra voice.' She pointed out that the Uluru dialogue process didn't belong to political parties. They didn't want to be going to Canberra as politicians. They were extraordinary men and women, who, in Pat Anderson's words, have ‘lived their whole lives in their communities helping their own mobs’. They want a Voice to Parliament and to Canberra. That simple request, that modest request, represents an outstretched hand of Indigenous Australians.

As Roy Ah-See has noted, 'I think it is critical and essential that this voice has direct communications to the executive—that being, the government and the bureaucrats—because they are the ones that make the decisions.' The Voice should be able to make representations to the executive government.

Australia has changed much in Indigenous affairs over my lifetime. The acknowledgement of country and welcome to country ceremonies were unknown when I was a child and are now a normal part of the way in which life is lived. We look across the ditch to see New Zealand, a country which has Indigenous ceremonies as part of the welcome of foreign leaders, with the dual naming of cities. Canberran Anna Howe argues, that maybe Australia could just start with the airports.

We need to move on in that celebratory journey with the same spirit that caused Australian hearts to swell with pride when Cathy Freeman carried the flag at the Sydney 2000 games and went on to win the gold medal in the 400 metres. We look to AFL heroes like Adam Goodes and we look to extraordinarily articulate leaders such as Noel Pearson, who describes a Voice to Parliament as being a matter of building the greatest bridge, bringing together what he describes as the three strands of Australia—our First Peoples, our British institutional inheritance, and our multicultural achievements. As Noel Pearson puts it:

We wait the final stretch. Since we left Uluru on 27 May 2017, millions of Australians have joined the journey. We are excited but anxious. Our hearts are warm and legs wearied, but our eyes are ever searching over those blue mountains for the great emerald city beyond.

A Voice to Parliament will face the truth. It will complete the Constitution. Without our First Nations people in the Constitution, it is a document that fails to capture the totality of Australia today. Just as Pat Farmer will be putting foot after foot on the journey to support a Voice to Parliament, I hope Australians will step up to support the referendum later this year. This can be a powerful, unifying moment for our nation, a nation for which our hearts swell with pride when we take a larger step on the world stage as we continue to advance that journey towards reconciliation that is fundamental to the Australian national project.

Showing 2 reactions

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.
  • Bee Jon
    commented 2023-06-15 18:21:47 +1000
    Bee 🐝 Jon Long overdue !!👍
  • Andrew Leigh Mp
    published this page in What's New 2023-05-25 16:05:15 +1000

Stay in touch

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter


Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.