Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians – Speech – National Press Club
Today is the first time I have addressed the Press Club as the Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians.
It is the second time I have been given the opportunity to address the National Press Club.
The first was in November of 2016 when I stood alongside Marcia Langton and Josephine Cashman to address the critical issue of family violence and sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities.
Three Aboriginal women speaking with one goal; to tackle the scourge of Indigenous family violence.
Marcia cautioned me prior to the address, saying that I should not draw a link between the high rates of Indigenous community violence and the acceptance of violence within traditional culture.
Her suggestion is that there is no correlation. My experience screamed otherwise.
So, I could not bring myself to expunge a painful truth for the sake of the audience who might not want to hear it. I could not sugar-coat the reality of so many communities because it would be otherwise unpalatable.
I’ve been told that telling these uncomfortable truths makes Aboriginal people look bad.
I’ve been told that by speaking out, by amplifying the voices of victims and the vulnerable, by bringing attention to the rampant abuse and neglect that I am repeating the words of the oppressor.
I’ve been told I’m a sellout.
I’ve been racially abused, vilified, name called and threatened with violence.
Because I want to stop children from being abused. Because I want to stop women and men from being killed.
The truth is, for all the moral posturing and virtue signalling about “truth telling,” there is no genuine appetite in Canberra to tell the truth or to hear the truth.
This could not be any clearer than in this Government’s referendum on the Voice.
Australians desperately want to do the right thing for their fellow Australians, regardless of their background.
Many who have engaged with this proposal, hoping to find a way to help the Indigenous Australians who most need assistance, are left disappointed.
They are left with falsehoods, misleading information and promises that can’t be kept and should never have been made.
The Voice is flawed in its foundations. It is built on lies and an aggressive attempt to fracture our nation’s founding document and divide the country built upon it.
That division has now seen the “No” campaign branded as being “base racism” and “sheer stupidity” when in fact what would be racist is segmenting our nation into “us and them”.
And you have to say it would also be stupidity to divide a nation when it has been growing ever more cohesive. To split it along fractures of race rather than try to bring it closer together.
Our most marginalised deserve better than this. They deserve the truth. The unvarnished, untainted — and yes, maybe unpalatable to some people — truth.
The first lie that underpins the Voice, is that Indigenous Australians do not have a voice.
We have been told by the Indigenous Minister for Indigenous Australians that Indigenous people do not get a say on policies, or the decisions being made on our behalf.
I am one of 11 Indigenous Voices currently in parliament, and I will not accept the lie, the rationalisation of many Indigenous voices of the ‘Yes’ campaign, who suggest our democratically elected voices are redundant because we belong to political parties.
The patronising suggestion that we cannot focus our efforts on improving the lives of marginalised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, because we are simultaneously responsible for constituents of all backgrounds, is unambiguously wrong and should be rejected resolutely.
It is a suggestion that is offensive not only to me and my coalition colleague Senator Kerrynne Liddle, but to all Representatives that are of Indigenous heritage in Federal Parliament.
It has been argued by the advocates of the Voice that such a concept has never been undertaken before.
I would argue that establishing a taxpayer-funded bureaucracy, comprised of Indigenous-only representation, and tasked with simply providing advice is absolutely something that has been undertaken before.
The failed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, – or ATSIC, was established to provide formal involvement from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in government processes.
ATSIC consisted of elected representatives that oversaw the delivery of programs, distribution of grants, loans for small enterprise and larger loans.
The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples — which went into administration — was designed to be a representative voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Although some of its former directors and chairs now advocate for a Voice in wake of its failure, Noel Pearson once criticised it as ‘a blackfellas wailing wall’.
The only difference between the Voice and organisations like these is that we are being asked by a few elites to enshrine it within our constitution, without even knowing it’s functions or powers.
Unlike the others, if the Voice fails, we cannot simply dismantle it.
And make no mistake, it is only an elite few who are asking. The claim that this is an invitation from Indigenous people to the rest of Australia is the second lie that the Voice is built upon.
To say this has come from “First Nations people” plays into backwards, neo-colonial racial stereotyping, suggesting that all Aboriginal people think the same, feel the same and want for the same things.
Indigenous Australians have a long history of engaging in and contributing to our communities, our country, and our democratic process and we have done it in different areas, in different fields, with different approaches and different skills.
Despite racial stereotyping that suggests Aboriginal Australians are one homogenous group, we are not. We have participated in public debate throughout our nation’s history, and we have often disagreed on many political positions.
The incredible contributions many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have made to our nation – contributing to it, not trying to tear it apart – is one of the greatest strengths and sources of pride for our country.
One of those great Australians was David Unaipon — “Australia’s Da Vinci” — who patented 10 inventions between 1909 and 1944.
Another was Senator Neville Bonner, who did not believe in dividing our country, but believed in the power of the individual and self-agency leading to opportunity for contribution.
It was Bonner’s voice that prepared the way for more Aboriginal voices to our parliament.
It was his vision to see more Aboriginal Australians elected to federal parliament and that vision has been realised.
Bonner’s great-niece and former Queensland Senator, Joanna Lindgren, recently said at a “No” event in Queensland that her great-uncle would never have supported an amendment to our constitution that divided Australians along the lines of race through a Voice.
Ernie Bridge, Albert Namatjira, Eddie Mabo, Vincent Lingiari, MK Turner – the list goes on, and includes 19 federal parliamentarians of Indigenous heritage – democratically elected voices – who have represented all Australians since Bonner’s entrance in 1971.
It includes 49 state and territory parliamentarians of Indigenous heritage – 24 of whom have come from my home, the Northern Territory – who followed in the footsteps of Hyacinth Tungutulum, a fellow Country Liberal Party member elected in 1974.
I wish I could spend this entire speech just listing inspiring Aboriginal Australians and their contributions to policy, government, our Australian way of life and so many important issues.
But I have to address the third lie that underpins the divisive Voice, that it is simply just an advisory body.
Nowhere in the question that will be put to Australians, or in the proposed chapter on which we are voting, do the words “advice”, “advise” or “advisory” appear.
If the Prime Minister truly intended for this body to be a simple advisory body as he, his government and the advocates of the voice repeatedly tell us, then it would have been stipulated in the proposed chapter.
Instead, proposed chapter nine, section 129 part one determines there shall be a body called the Voice, and part two specifies that it shall have the power to make representations to the parliament and executive government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
You see, words matter.
Words proposed for amendment within our nation’s constitution matter a lot.
And they matter to every single Australian.
As Chris Merritt, legal affairs expert, and Vice President of the Rule of Law Institute Australia, explained recently during a Voice forum, the difference is significant.
Describing the Voice as an advisory group understates its significance and gives the misleading impression it would be a benign sounding-board for ideas.
That the Voice will produce representations, not advice, suggests its role would be more like a lobby group that acts only in the interests of its clients — not the interests of the government, the parliament or even the nation.
It is the Prime Minister who has many times trotted out talking points that he wants us to focus on the question and only the question, but at the same time, the role he insists the Voice will have, is not in the question.
This point is critical, and it leads to the fourth lie that the Voice is built on.
No matter what the Government, the advocates and the activists say about what the Voice will or won’t do… the fact is they don’t know.
They don’t know who will be on the Voice.
They don’t know what it will choose to make representations on.
They don’t know how a high court will interpret the proposed new chapter.
For all their promises, the third and final part of the proposed chapter specifies that though the Parliament shall have the power to make laws, it will be subject to the Constitution, which means it will be subject to high court interpretation, and the amendment is such that the power to make representations comes before whatever laws the Parliament might pass.
Assertions that the Voice will only care about health and education or anything else that has been claimed, are pure misleading conjecture.
They don’t know.
The government have repeatedly promised equal representation, gender balance and youth representation, but these are not promises that the government can make.
The reality is that they don’t know what form the Voice may take in the future.
They don’t know.
What we do know, is that many of the most senior advocates of the Voice have very different views of it than that of the Government.
They talk about it as the first step toward establishing treaty, reparations, compensation, and a mechanism to ‘punish politicians’ – presumably, this means politicians like me who are not afraid to stand up to them.
There has been no shortage of false claims that it is the No campaigners who are fearmongering over the scope of the Voice, but the reality is that our concerns come from the Voice advocates themselves.
For example, we have heard calls for Australia Day to be abolished by referendum working group members.
Teela Reid directly rebuked Minister Burney’s comment that the Voice won’t make representations on Australia Day when she said, “It might be the Australian Government “preference” to keep things like Australia Day, but trying to limit the scope of what the people can advocate for to change is just stupid.”
In front of friendly audiences, where they aren’t trying to pull the wool over the eyes of ordinary Australian voters, the people who were in the room with Anthony Albanese designing this make clear what they expect the Voice to be.
Militant Unionist and key working group member Thomas Mayo told the Search Foundations, “Snapshots of Communists in Australian History” event on the Voice in March 2021:
“We understand as unionists that you don’t make an agreement with the boss without building power first, without building representative structures any more than a communist party or any other political party can function without structure and elected representation.”
Australians, including Aboriginal Australians, have every right to be concerned that such radical demands are being made by advocates of the Voice.
So, let’s be very clear.
The widespread community support for recognition of Indigenous Australians in the constitution bears no relation to what the architects of the Voice have put forward.
This very obvious point was made by Amanda Vanstone in the appendix of the 2017 Uluru Council Final Report. I encourage you to go read it.
She pointed out that the Voice proposal created a “dissonance” between what the public believed recognition meant and what has been proposed. She observed it could be very divisive and damaging to pursue this without properly working through that dissonance.
Well, here we are. Divided by a proposal that its own advocates are very clear is about being separate, not united.
The designers of the Voice continue to push the idea that we are different to everyone else despite also being Australian.
A massive disservice is done to the Australian people, and indeed has contributed to the division created by this debate, when government talking points are being laundered as facts, despite there being clear agendas stated by the designers of the Voice and despite the Government assurances being often flagrantly contradictory and incoherent.
We are seeing that this division is now beginning to play a significant role in the demands now being made by Aboriginal institutions. Institutions such as the Victorian Government’s established Truth-Telling Commission, Yoorrook.
Make no mistake, such so-called “truth-telling commissions” have no desire to tell history in the round.
They desire to misrepresent Aboriginal life prior to the arrival of the British as some form of Pascoenian paradise.
They want to demonise colonial settlement in its entirety and nurture a national self-loathing about the foundations of the modern Australian achievement.
Following a Royal Commission type process, the Truth-Telling Commission have demands for sweeping changes that would seek to legislate separatism based on racial heritage.
The Commission demands that an Indigenous-led watchdog be established with the power to arrest and search Victoria Police officers and investigate police complaints and deaths in custody.
Contrary to the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody making no findings of institutional racism, the Truth Telling Commission claims racism and the effects of colonisation are to blame for the high rates of incarceration.
The Commission calls for an entirely separate child protection system that treats Indigenous children differently to other Australians.
This demand is based on claims that systemic racism is the cause for high rates of child removal, despite the fact that children of Indigenous heritage are nine times more likely to be the subject of substantiated child protection claims than non-Indigenous children in Victoria.
Nowhere within the Truth-Telling Commissions findings are these statistics highlighted.
During my time working at the Centre for Independent Studies, I published a policy paper titled “Worlds Apart: Remote Indigenous disadvantage in the context of wider Australia.”
One of the areas I researched was crime and its nature.
We know that a fundamental cause of any person on a pathway to incarceration, for both youth and adults, is exposure to domestic violence, abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, lack of education and incompletion of schooling.
When all of these elements are combined then the likelihood of engagement in criminal behaviour and incarceration is virtually inevitable.
This relates to any person, of any background, but the reality is that Aboriginal children are exposed to all of the factors at a greater rate than any other group of Australian children.
Separatism, attributing causes to racism and colonisation, does little to nothing to address these true causes.
When we are led by grievance before fact, we overlook the opportunity to execute pragmatic, common-sense approaches capable of realistic and positive outcomes.
The demands now being made by the Truth-Telling Commission on the Victorian government give us an insight into the potential conduct and demands tha the Voice might bring.
No matter what the outcome on October 14, it is imperative that we examine the failures of our past in order to understand how to do better.
Our nation’s rule book belongs to every Australian and is not a document to be taken for granted or to be jeopardized for the sake of a vibe.
To undertake such a significant amendment, the Prime Minister owes the Australian people a clear, concise, realistic demonstration of how his Voice will deliver the outcomes that all good Australians want for our marginalised.
As yet, he is unable to do that.
Remember, it is the Labor party who have gone down this path of division by hitching recognition – which most Australians support – to the Voice.
The Coalition is consistent on supporting recognition but we, rightly, say No to a divisive Voice.
If the referendum goes down, that’s on Labor for choosing a divisive and non-consultative path which sets back recognition.
What has become abundantly clear, is that when racial separatism that designates a class of Australians as an ‘other’ is prioritised over serving Australians on the basis of need, we experience failure.
An industry has been established that provides opportunity for the already privileged to occupy positions that are supposed to deliver outcomes for our marginalised, based purely on the fact they share a racial heritage.
Such positions should carry immense responsibility, but unfortunately very little has come in the way of accountability. It is for this very reason that I, along with my colleague Senator Kerrynne Liddle, have put motions before the Senate to establish an inquiry into the structures that currently exist to deliver the much-needed outcomes to our marginalised communities.
If the taxpayer is funding these structures like land councils, native title and similar organisations but they are not delivering outcomes, then it is incumbent upon us as the elected members of parliament to provide a platform for the marginalised, to hear from them as to how they are being failed.
So, when the Prime Minister says the Voice is the last chance we have to overcome the disparity for marginalised Aboriginal Australians, do not believe him.
Do not believe him when he attempts to undermine the importance of the Aboriginal members of parliament who are fighting to affect real change via the democratic structures by which we have been elected.
Remember, the Prime Minister himself has cited examples where local communities have had input on policies that have worked.
This is already happening, and our support for regional and rural consultation is about amplifying that success, rather than doubling down on previous failures.
We don’t need a Voice to Canberra, we need accountability.
It is incumbent upon us as Members of Parliament to determine what actions are required in order to fix the current structures and apply greater accountability. It is not for us to initiate a mechanism for a transfer of constitutional power to an entity controlled by a handful of individuals, then relegating an entire group of Australians based on racial heritage to this entity.
My hope is that, after October 14, after defeating this Voice of Division, we can bring accountability to existing structures, and we can get away from assuming inner-city activists speak for all Aboriginals, and back to focusing on the real issues: education, employment, economic participation and safety from violence and sexual assault.
Two years ago, I filmed a documentary to give a voice to the voiceless and the vulnerable. To the women, children and men who have suffered in silence. To those who have survived horrific violence at the hands of those closest to them, those who have been murdered by those closest to them, and those alleged to have been murdered but whose deaths have never been properly investigated or brought to justice.
It highlighted the people who have not previously been heard because the cause of their pain has not been colonisation or racism. The cause of their pain has been much closer to home.
These are the voices that will not be represented within the new Canberra Voice. The Canberra Voice would not have a purpose if the lives of the most marginalised were dramatically improved.
The Aboriginal industry would come to a screaming halt if the gap between our most marginalised and everyone else, including privileged people of Aboriginal heritage, disappeared.
We need to be listening to people like Cheron Long — the cousin of a young Indigenous girl who died hours after being sexually assaulted in a remote community — and her beautiful nieces and sisters that she cares for and who are here today.
Recently they made their way to Canberra to be heard, and while Minister Burney, Prime Minister Albanese and in fact the entire Labor government, Teals and Senator David Pocock have been happily traveling the country to do events with leading activist Yes campaigners, they couldn’t find the time for them.
They listened to the Qantas sponsored leaders of the activist industry, but not to an ordinary Aboriginal woman, actually on the ground, living the disadvantage they claim they care about.
Cheron not only takes care of her siblings and nieces but has recently brought her elderly grandmother from Bulla in the Northern Territory to her home in north Queensland, because her house in community was made unliveable when a male family member tried to set fire to his girlfriend in the room next to her Nanna’s bedroom.
Despite Cheron’s calls to the Northern Land Council and other organisations to intervene and provide support for her grandmother, her cries have fallen on deaf ears. It is why Cheron has little faith in the multi-million-dollar organisations responsible for representing the needs of the vulnerable.
Why would a Voice be any better, especially when its advocates hold nothing but contempt toward those of us who question it and who challenge its intentions?
The Voice will become yet another battle ground for many Aboriginal voices to disagree, fallout and create division.
The division must be rejected and certainly must not be enshrined within our constitution.
I want to thank my husband Colin, for his support and for standing with me against division.
I want to thank my parents for their support, who are here today.
Thank you to the Aboriginal women who have travelled here today and thank you to everyone around the country who has joined us in this fight against those who want to divide our nation.