“This is to make sure that First Nations people know that Labor is not just talking about a new relationship. We are going to do it. From day one, we will be creating assemblies through which they can speak to government,” he said.
He said the entities would allow for place-based solutions tailored to specific needs and the initiative might require cultural change in the public service.
“So there’s the social equity agenda and then there’s the systemic structure, political reform agenda, that may take a bit more time to get the public on board for a referendum,” he said.
Senator Dodson said the regional assemblies would be temporary measures as the consultation and “co-design” work on a constitutional “Voice to Parliament” progresses. The representative body would advise Parliament on matters affecting Indigenous people. It was the central recommendation of the 2017 “Uluru Statement from the Heart” and was subsequently adopted by the non-partisan Referendum Council.
Senator Dodson said the wording on a referendum had to be perfected and satisfy Indigenous people, the general public had to be convinced of the merits, and there needed to be widespread support in Parliament.
The Coalition government has been critical of the Voice idea but MPs from both sides backed further development of the model in a parliamentary committee report late last year. The April budget also allocated $7.3 million to investigating the model.
“There is a sense of common ground around regional Voice and assemblies,” Senator Dodson said. “I think it’s a question of how a national Voice interfaces with the Parliament and with the executive that people on the other side still need to be convinced about.”
“We have committed to the first term [of Parliament] and that’s what we will be working towards. When these things line up, we will put it to the Australian public.”
In the lead-up to the election, the Coalition has outlined measures to boost Indigenous educational attainment in Indigenous communities and address the youth suicide crisis. The government has also been pursuing a “refresh” of the Closing the Gap strategy, introducing greater consultation with Indigenous bodies after years of poor results.
Labor has announced a raft of measures, including large spending packages in health and justice and ending the Coalition’s approach to welfare payments. Labor will also pursue a Makarrata commission to oversee a truth-telling process and the creation of treaties.
Senator Dodson said Labor would initially keep in place a change made by the Abbott government that brought Indigenous affairs into the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
“The gravity of the prime minister’s department is a very important political position from which to take on these reforms,” he said.
Fergus Hunter is an education and communications reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.