Indigenous ‘Voice to Parliament’ vote needed: Referendum Council

In its final meeting in Sydney with the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader, the Referendum Council revealed it had made just a single recommendation on constitutional change.

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It says the creation of a parliamentary body, through which Indigenous Australians can have a voice on laws that affect them, is the only way ahead.

In a rare show of bipartisanship, both leaders agreed in part on the way forward for Indigenous Australians.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says while it is a bold idea, the report is short on detail.

“We do not want to embark, I’m sure none of us do, in some sort of exercise in heroic failure. I have some considerable experience in trying to change the constitution and know better than most how hard it is. We need to ensure that any changes that are proposed are ones that meet both the expectations of first Australians but will also bring together all Australians.”

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten says the idea is not impossible and his party is ready to work with all political parties and the community.

“These are legitimate aspirations. It is the key recommendation of this report and we can’t shy away from that fact. They’re big changes, as the Prime Minister has said. I do not believe they are beyond us. My party is ready to work with all the political parties, Indigneous leaders and the broader community in terms of final proposals for constitutional change. As I said at the start, the delegates at Uluru said that in 1967 we were counted and now in 2017 we are set to be heard.”

The Council, which was tasked in 2015 with finding a way forward on constitutional recognition of Indigenous people, is warning if the project is not chosen it might as well go on the backburner for 20 years.

The report follows months of consultation, which culminated in a summit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders at Uluru in May.

It did not recommend any other change be made to the constitution but the Council said a Declaration of Recognition should be drafted, containing inspiring and unifying words articulating Australia’s shared history, heritage and aspirations.

This declaration should then be legislated by all Australian parliaments.

The report also calls for the establishment of a Makarrata, or agreement-making Commission, and a process to facilitate what it calls Truth-Telling.

Referendum Council co-chair Pat Anderson says the parliamentary body will recognise the status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the first peoples of Australia.

“Our report is about redistributing power and resetting for once and for all. God, let’s do it this time, resetting the relationship between us all. This in our view is substantive change and it also meaningfully recognises us. We have to fix this. We just can’t go on like this.”

Labour Senator Patrick Dodson says a referendum would be easy but the Government needs to fully support the proposition before any plans can move forward.

“I think you could simply have a set of words that said, “There ought to be an Aboriginal voice to the Parliament. Do you agree?” But I think Australian voters would find that a bit difficult because they would want to know what it is going to do, how’s it going to be constituted, what’s its functions going to be, and really is it going to impact with the process of Parliament anyway? Unfortunately I think we are going in circles a bit at the moment. I don’t think we have a clear line of sight as to where any constitutional change is going and whether it is going to take place or not.”

The next step is to outline a plan for how to achieve the aims set out in the meeting.