Legislative Council: Wednesday, June 28, 2023


Federal Voice Referendum

The Hon. L.A. HENDERSON (15:51): In the coming months, Australians will be asked to alter the very premise of what it means to be Australian. I am sure that if you asked someone who was born overseas why they chose to make Australia their home, they would tell you that it is for the opportunity that Australia affords them and their family. You see, in Australia your race, your religion, your gender do not and should not limit or define the opportunity that you or your family will be given.

In our national anthem, we sing that 'we are one and free'. 'One' extends to our newest citizens who have chosen to make Australia their new home, just as much as it extends to families who have lived here for generations or Australia's First Nations peoples. You are not any more or any less Australian based on the time you and your family before you have lived in the country.

Later this year, our nation will be faced with a referendum. The draft question that will be put to voters is whether to alter the constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. According to the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) Bill 2023:

…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.

I put it to the chamber that it would be difficult to find an issue that exclusively impacts Indigenous communities that would not impact other Australians, and vice versa. As Peter Dutton has rightly highlighted, no issue—the economy, defence, national security, foreign affairs, infrastructure, health, education and more—would be beyond its scope.

In my belief, a Voice to Parliament seeks to create an unfortunate divide in our nation, based on race. I put it to you that Aboriginal Australians already have a voice in our federal parliament where they have 11 MPs and senators who identify as or descend from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, all of whom were able to achieve this through existing channels and without the need for a separate body of elected members. These members did not get here because of their race but because of their views, because of their hard work and because their communities believe they are the best person for that job. Those 11 members and senators are elected to represent every member of their community, regardless of their race.

An important pillar of our democracy is that we are all equal—one person, one vote. It is vital that the concept of equality before the law continues to be a key pillar of our society. If Australians say yes to Labor's proposed model for the Voice in this referendum, we will no longer be a nation where all citizens have equal rights under the law. The establishment of a Voice to Parliament undermines the very premise of equal representation, giving greater weight to a vote of one group over another and creating barriers to representation based on race. The premise that one person's voice is worth more than another or that someone would not be given the same opportunity purely based on race is not the Australia that I know.

What Australians are being asked to support during Labor's referendum is not a small change. When you change the constitution, you are changing the document or the rule book on which our democracy and system of government rests; it should not be taken lightly. Instead of being one Australia, instead of being equal, we will become divided, with separate voices, separate powers and separate votes determined by race. This change to our constitution would enshrine racial separation and divide our community based on race.

I think we would all like to see better outcomes for Indigenous communities, but one must question whether reviewing the effectiveness of existing policies and funding would create better outcomes for these communities than creating an expensive administrative body. This referendum will cost hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars and that is for the referendum and not even the Voice body itself which will come with another price tag.

Will an extra layer of bureaucracy and red tape do anything to help Indigenous Australians? Will this top-down, Canberra-centric approach do much to help Indigenous communities who want local solutions to build better lives for their families? Will it do more to close the gap? Will a body made for one group of Australians to the exclusion of all others bring us closer or divide us further?