Government shuts down calls to enshrine Indigenous ‘voice’ in constitution


Illustration: Matt GoldingCredit:

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s office has relayed the message to colleagues after an outcry from Liberal and Nationals MPs over the idea of a new provision of the constitution that might gain more power over time through the courts.

The government’s position slams the door on Indigenous leaders who called two years ago for the establishment of a “First Nations Voice enshrined in the constitution” to rectify decades of powerlessness.

Liberal and Nationals MPs have been told there has been no change in Mr Morrison’s position since he first expressed doubts over the new body as a potential “third chamber” of Parliament.

Indigenous leaders have dismissed the idea that the new body would be a third chamber with separate authority, but Coalition MPs remain concerned about changing the constitution in ways that could lead to unintended consequences over time.

Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt said he wanted “all options” to remain on the table but said the new voice would not be a third chamber of Parliament.

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“It never was a third chamber,” he said in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

“It is about people, communities wanting to be heard.”

Mr Wyatt used a major address to the National Press Club on Wednesday to commit to a referendum in this term of Parliament as long as there was a consensus for change, but he chose not to rule out options while at an early stage of consultations.

Asked if the First Nations Voice would have structural power rather than symbolic power, Mr Wyatt signalled it could be given authority by the Parliament rather than the constitution.

“It may not be power by the constitution but it may be power by legislation,” Mr Wyatt said.

“We have to keep all those options open.”

Asked if this would disappoint Indigenous leaders, he said all sides had to be careful not to put forward a proposal that would fail at a referendum.

“Indigenous leaders, including myself, have to accept that if we can’t put a question that Australians support then it is better to take a step forward than to shut off all options,” he said.

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“We cannot tolerate the levels of disadvantage that still prevail in Aboriginal communities.”

Mr Morrison and Mr Wyatt are dealing with critics within the Coalition party room who oppose any change to the constitution that sets Indigenous Australians apart.

Liberal MP Craig Kelly said on Thursday he saw no need to give greater representation to any race, an argument other members of the party room have made in private since Mr Wyatt’s speech on Wednesday.

But the Liberal MP for Bennelong in Sydney, John Alexander, spoke up for Mr Wyatt’s approach.

“I’m walking with Ken, and I ask people of all political stripes to also join him in good faith, so we can have a genuine dialogue and perhaps discover potential ways forward we can all agree upon,” Mr Alexander said.

We are all diminished whilst we don’t recognise First Nations people in our constitution.

Anthony Albanese

Labor Indigenous affairs spokeswoman Linda Burney rubbished some of the criticism of the reform, including the idea put forward by Mr Morrison and others than it would create a third chamber of Parliament.

“The whole idea of the voice … was that it would be the responsibility of the Parliament to design the voice,” Ms Burney told the ABC.

“There is no veto power, it is an advisory body only, and this nonsense about being a third chamber of Parliament is just – well, it’s absolute nonsense.”

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said a successful referendum was “absolutely realistic and doable” and promised to work with the government on a bipartisan model, without specifying at this stage the structure to be used.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said a successful referendum was "absolutely realistic and doable".

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said a successful referendum was “absolutely realistic and doable”.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“We are all diminished whilst we don’t recognise First Nations people in our constitution,” he said.

“It is also the case that we need a voice to Parliament. That’s not about a third chamber – it’s just about providing respect.”

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The scale of the constitutional change is not expected to become clear for months or longer, while Mr Wyatt engages in a “co-design” process with the community to devise the amendment to the constitution to recognise Indigenous Australians.

Indigenous leaders argued in 2017, when they delivered the Uluru Statement from the Heart, that the voice should be “enshrined” in the constitution, but this was rejected by the Turnbull government in that year and will be rejected by the Morrison government on the same grounds.

Mr Wyatt said constitutional recognition would be felt in tangible ways across the community, just as former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generation had been, but he rejected claims this would amount to special treatment of one group of people in the constitution.

“This is not about placing them in a special position – this is about recognising the duality of our nation,” he said.

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