A Voice to Parliament is a human right for Australia’s First Peoples

A Voice to Parliament is a human right for Australia’s First Peoples

Honorary Assoc. Prof. Leanne Coombe, Policy and Advocacy Manager, PHAA

I began writing this blog on the anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which was adopted by the General Assembly on Thursday 13 September 2007. Australia was one of only four countries that opposed the Declaration, a decision for which we received significant international criticism. It was not until two years later in 2009, that the Rudd Labor Government overturned the decision of the previous Howard Coalition Government, officially declaring support for and ratifying the Declaration.

At the time, the Coalition Opposition condemned the decision arguing it would bestow additional rights on Indigenous peoples. However, the then Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin, made a clear statement stressing: “We want Indigenous Australians to be partners in efforts to close the gap. For this to happen, we must recognise the unique place of Indigenous people in Australia.”

Over a decade on, history seems to be repeating itself. We are about to vote in a Referendum that is fundamentally centred around the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. We are being asked to support Constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians, and establish a Voice to Parliament that will enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to make representation to government on matters that affect them.

This Referendum is the product of work undertaken by the Referendum Council, appointed in 2015 by then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten. Its purpose was to consult with First Nations Australians and reach agreement on the best option for constitutional reform to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The consequent regional dialogues held across the nation, culminated in a First Nations Constitutional Convention in 2017, where the Uluru Statement of the Heart was agreed. In short:

The Uluru Statement from the Heart is an invitation to the Australian people from First Nations Australians. It asks Australians to walk together to build a better future by establishing a First Nations Voice to Parliament enshrined in the Constitution, and the establishment of a Makarrata Commission for the purpose of treaty making and truth-telling.

The Coalition government subsequently rejected the call for a Voice to a Parliament and failed to pursue constitutional recognition. Many have worked since that time to advance the cause, but only in 2022, did the incoming Albanese Labor government recommit to implementing the recommendations from the Uluru Statement.

The four parts of the constitutional amendment we will be required to vote on are broken down in the below figure. But it is much simpler than that – the fundamental issue here is the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Figure: The Four Parts of the Constitutional Amendment. Recognition - In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia; Guarantee: There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice; Purpose: The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; Detail: The Parliament shall, subject to this constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.
The Four Parts of the Constitutional Amendment from yes23.com.au

Article 18 of the UNDRIP, clearly states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures, as well as to maintain and develop their own indigenous decision-making institutions.”

Furthermore, Article 23 states “Indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for exercising their right to development. In particular, indigenous peoples have the right to be actively involved in developing and determining health, housing and other economic and social programmes affecting them and, as far as possible, to administer such programmes through their own institutions.”

The Voice will provide the mechanism for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to make representation on matters that affect them, including health, housing, justice, and other determinants of health. It enables them to decide on what issues should be prioritised for the programmes and services that need to be delivered in their communities to address these issues.

The recent draft report of the Review of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap highlights the lack of progress made to close the gap, ultimately because government bodies separated from the day-to-day problems, whatever their good intentions, are still making the decisions on what they think are the priorities and solutions, leading so often to wasted resources, ineffective results and disenchantment. By contrast we so often see that when local communities, leaders and service providers are empowered and self-determining, outcomes are far better.

Things must change if we are going to succeed in closing the gap. We must take up the invitation that was so openly given in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

PHAA President Prof Tarun Weeramanthri (back row, right), PHAA CEO Adjunct Prof Terry Slevin (back row, second from left), Jamie Currie CEO of the South East Tasmania Aboriginal Corporation (front row, second from right), and Thomas Mayo national Yes Campaign spokesperson (back row, second from right) alongside members of the PHAA and Yes23 Tasmania teams at The Australian Public Health Health Conference in Hobart.

As Uluru Statement signatory and Yes 23 campaign spokesman and author Thomas Mayo said in Hobart last week, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their allies have worked hard for many years on recognition and trying to improve the lives of Indigenous peoples.

“We’ve been climbing this mountain for a long time, and at each waypoint we’ve had a lot of support,” Mayo said.

“When we got equal wages back in the sixties, when we got Native Title across the line with Mabo in the nineties, we’ve had this support where we needed it. I can feel that support rallying around us right now.”

But we need more support for change to happen and for the Yes campaign to succeed on Referendum Day.

We need to vote:

  • YES for Recognition
  • YES for Representation
  • YES for Indigenous Rights

We have the chance to ensure history stops repeating itself and make a real difference. The media advertisement for the Uluru Dialogue campaign featuring John Farnham’s song ‘You’re The Voice’, reminds Australians we have a chance to change history for the better.

John Farnham hopes the song can be a vehicle for social change: “This song changed my life. I can only hope that now it might help, in some small way, to change the lives of our First Nations Peoples for the better,” he said. Tim Wheatley, John Farnham’s close friend and son of his manager Glenn Wheatley, said “Both John and my father have fiercely protected this song’s use for decades, I think for this very moment.”

So, let’s help make a noise and make it clear! Together we can make history on 14 October by voting YES for a Voice to Parliament as a human right for Australia’s First Peoples.

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