Where to next for the Uluru Statement

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The likely return of the Morrison government coincides with the second anniversary of the declaration of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The commencement of a new term of government also heralds the start of the nuts and bolts work of designing a referendum to implement a Voice to Parliament.

Two Young Australian Aboriginal girls eating an ice cream And laughing (Photo by Thurtell / Getty Creative)A Voice to Parliament is a proposal arising from the work of the Indigenous steering committee of the Referendum Council, and a series of regional dialogues. The dialogues in turn culminated in a clear statement by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians about meaningful institutional reform supporting Indigenous Australians' explicit inclusion in the national polity.

This is the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The statement is an invitation to us all to walk with Indigenous Australians 'in a movement of the Australian people for a better future'. The proposal is for Voice, treaty, and truth.

The first step forward is establishment of a body known as a Voice to Parliament. The purpose of this body is to provide Parliament and government with its view on matters affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. The proposal is to establish the Voice through the Australian Constitution. However, Parliament would expressly retain power to legislate the detail of the Voice.

The proposed new body provides a mechanism for communication from Indigenous Australians to the institutions that enact legislation and policy that affect their lives. It addresses a key concern in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs.

With considerable funding devoted to programs aimed at Indigenous Australians, many complain that there is little evidence of positive impact. This problem arises from the exclusion of Indigenous communities from contributing to their own solutions. The Voice will provide a conduit through which to inform Parliament and government agencies of the views and experiences of Indigenous Australians themselves — a core component of better legislation and policy-making. This is a win for all Australians.

Although some have claimed that the proposal would establish 'a third chamber of Parliament', this is incorrect. The Voice will have no decision-making power, and no right of veto over legislation. It is not a chamber of Parliament. As a constitutional amendment, however, the proposal must first be passed by referendum: a majority of Australians in a majority of states. Once passed, the Parliament would make laws to set up the new body, and to provide for the specifics of its operation.

 

"All Australians are still waiting for the full promise of the 1967 referendum to be realised. A Voice to Parliament is part of that journey."

 

Despite an underwhelming initial government response to the Uluru Statement, the Morrison government has made a clear commitment to implementing a Voice to Parliament through allocation of $7.3 million in the most recent budget for a design process and referendum. As we will be asked to participate in a referendum on the issue within the next couple of years, each Australian needs to inform themselves of the facts about the proposal and the design process.

While the referendum question is likely to be framed as a simple mechanism for the existence of a new body called a Voice to Parliament, there remains the question of the detail of its operations. Who will sit on this body? How will they be nominated? And so on. There is a balance to be struck between voters understanding enough detail to be able to understand the proposal, and not so much detail that Parliament is effectively bound by a rigid set of rules. The design process must also keep faith with Indigenous Australians who have invested their trust in the process so far.

To achieve the right balance, the government's budget commitment provides for a design process in the lead up to a referendum. This process will at a minimum, involve articulating a set of clear principles for the design of the new body. A principles approach, rather than a predetermined detailed structure, will give Parliament the flexibility to implement detailed legislation following further community consultation. The community can, however, be reassured that the Parliamentary response will otherwise accord with the published design principles.

In other words, the process for design of a referendum proposal will be an iterative process. It will provide sufficient certainty for voters to understand the proposal, but sufficient flexibility for Parliament to determine the most appropriate way to implement it once the electorate agrees to its implementation. And importantly, such a process needs the time to engage appropriately with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities nationally on the detail of a Voice to Parliament.

All Australians are still waiting for the full promise of the 1967 referendum to be realised. A Voice to Parliament is part of that journey. We are sufficiently mature as a nation to comprehend a modest constitutional proposal, followed by empowering Parliament to enact agreed principles. The time has now arrived for the next phase contemplated by the Uluru Statement.

 

 

Kate GallowayKate Galloway is a legal academic with an interest in social justice.

Main image by Thurtell / Getty Creative

Topic tags: Kate Galloway, Uluru Statement, Aboriginal Australians, election 2019, Scott Morrison

 

 

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"In other words, the process for design of a referendum proposal will be an iterative process. It will provide sufficient certainty for voters to understand the proposal, but sufficient flexibility for Parliament to determine the most appropriate way to implement it once the electorate agrees to its implementation.. .. We are sufficiently mature as a nation to comprehend a modest constitutional proposal, followed by empowering Parliament to enact agreed principles" Parliament doesn't need any new power to consult with Aboriginal people, and the rest, and come up with a "voice to Parliament". So why not do that first, then implement it, see how it goes, tweak it to get it right, then see if the whole community wants to write it into the Constitution?
Russell | 22 May 2019


Kate, you have Buckley's chance of seeing the Morrison government do anything meaningful in this area. Yes, we just might get a referendum but it will be set up to lose, just as the Republic referendum was set up to lose by Howard.
Ginger Meggs | 23 May 2019


No chance of of a vague referendum proposal giving parliament open ended permission to come up with the specifics. The wrong way around. People will want to know the details.
Pete | 25 May 2019


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