The government has rejected the Referendum Council’s call for a national Indigenous representative assembly to be put into the constitution, effectively taking the debate about constitutional recognition back to square one.
Malcolm Turnbull, Attorney-General George Brandis and Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion, responding to the council’s report, said: “The government does not believe such an addition to our national representative institutions is either desirable or capable of winning acceptance in a referendum”.
The proposal for the body came late into the debate about recognising Indigenous people in the constitution. It was driven by prominent Indigenous leader Noel Pearson, and taken up by the May convention of Indigenous people in the “Uluru Statement from the Heart”, before being put forward by the council.
The cause of getting an Indigenous voice also gained support from some constitutional conservatives who preferred it to adding to the constitution or rewriting parts of it.
The longer the debate about a constitutional change has gone on, the less chance there has seemed of community consensus. It has become clear that Indigenous people will not countenance a minimalist position, while a more radical proposal would not get the support required in a referendum, which must obtain an overall majority and win in a majority of states.
Moreover many Indigenous people are now more interested in pursuing a treaty than the earlier-canvased options for constitutional change.
The council proposed that the “Voice to Parliament” would have “the right to be consulted on legislation and policies that relate to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”.
The government’s Thursday statement said: “Our democracy is built on the foundation of all Australian citizens having equal civic rights – all being able to vote for, stand for and serve in either of the two chambers of our national parliament.
"A constitutionally-enshrined additional representative assembly which only Indigenous Australians could vote for or serve in is inconsistent with this fundamental principle.
"It would inevitably become seen as a third chamber of parliament. The Referendum Council noted the concerns that the proposed body would have insufficient power if its constitutional function was advisory only”.
The challenge was to find a constitutional amendment that would succeed and which did not undermine the principles of unity, equality and one person one vote, the statement said. The government wants consideration to return now to work done over the past decade “largely with bipartisan support.”
The rejection of the “Voice to Parliament” was backed by Tony Abbott, who as opposition leader and prime minister promoted constitutional recognition of Indigenous people. He favoured a minimalist model and at one stage aimed for a May 2017 referendum, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the historic 1967 referendum.
Abbott said in a Facebook post on Thursday that recognition should “come in a way that brings all of us together and this proposal, for a further level of indigenous representation, was unlikely to achieve that.”
But Labor’s shadow assistant minister for Indigenous affairs, Pat Dodson, one of the several Indigenous members of federal parliament, described the government decision as “a real kick in the guts for the Referendum Council”.
Pearson told the ABC Turnbull had “broken the first nations’ hearts of this country” expressed in the Uluru Statement.
“The Prime Minister and his cabinet have abrogated to themselves the entire judgement of this fundamental issue of how do we recognise Indigenous Australians”, he said.
“Why not just put it to the Australian people, as we are putting to a plebiscite the question about same-sex marriage at this very moment?”
The Uluru Statement Working Group said it was disappointed at the government’s decision.
Its co-chair Josephine Crawshaw said Turnbull understood that a minimalist approach would not satisfy many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
“Our aspirations are high, but the Prime Minister appears to believe that the Australian people will not support those aspirations. This is a very unfortunate view for the Prime Minister to hold, particularly when he has the highest platform to inspire all Australians to achieve great things for this country and for all its people”.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra