Podcast – 7AM | Prime Minister of Australia
ANGE MCCORMACK, HOST: Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, welcome to 7AM.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, PRIME MINISTER: Thanks for having me on the podcast.
MCCORMACK: Prime Minister, on election night last year the first thing you spoke about was the Uluru Statement and you committed to the Voice. Why did you decide to make that the first thing you said to the country?
PRIME MINISTER: Because the first thing that happens now, and Australia is all the better country for it at any major event, is to acknowledge country or to have a welcome to country or the acknowledgement. So I felt like it was a natural flow to it.
We had committed during the election campaign to have a referendum. And at some point we had to have to have the courage as a nation to have the vote and to do what I hope occurs, which is to finally recognise Indigenous Australians in our Constitution.
MCCORMACK: And this issue is clearly important to you. It’s an emotional cause. I want to know, though, when was the first time for you personally that you noticed the inequality faced by Indigenous Australians? Was there a particular first memory of you becoming aware of that?
PRIME MINISTER: Well I grew up in Camperdown in inner Sydney. And I, along with other members of my family, for a long time back had supported South Sydney. My mum used to take me to Redfern Oval. We’d catch the bus there and then walk to the Oval through what was a large Aboriginal community. And whether it was at the Oval itself or in Redfern Park where the Oval is, or in the streets around it, you couldn’t help but not notice the Indigenous disadvantage which was there. And so, I was conscious of it as a young boy growing up. And then a number of Indigenous students came to my school. I went to school at the Cathedral School in Sydney, and kids who would – some of whom would get expelled from Cleveland Street, which was then the local high school in Redfern – would come to St Mary’s. So I got to know young Indigenous people growing up. And out of that came an understanding of hardship and how they were doing it tough. And then when I first got elected to Parliament, I ran for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Committee in 1996 because I wanted to broaden my experience. I thought as a first time MP we should all have a greater understanding of Indigenous issues. And that led me to go to places like Hall’s Creek and Fitzroy Crossing and Wilcannia, places that I hadn’t been in probably wouldn’t have gone without that experience, and to see firsthand some of the issues which Indigenous communities were confronting. And then in my second term, I got appointed as the Assistant Shadow Minister, or Parliamentary Secretary they were called then, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. I got to meet with communities during that period as well. And that gave me a greater knowledge of issues that they were dealing with. And so it evolved over a period of time. And I do think, as an Australian, we all have that sense of pride of sharing this continent with the oldest continuous culture on earth. But we also have a responsibility, I think, to try to close the gap.
MCCORMACK: It’s interesting that you mentioned your early years as an MP, because in your first speech to Parliament, you said that reconciliation with Indigenous Australians would be one of your top concerns as an MP. I was three years old when you made that speech.
PRIME MINISTER: Showing my age here.
MCCORMACK: Or mine, I guess. But why does it feel like 27 years later, you’re essentially calling for the exact same thing. Why is progress on this so slow?
PRIME MINISTER: Well Noel Pearson speaks about this in the Boyer Lectures. I think for many Australians, they don’t have contact directly with Indigenous communities. And it is difficult to achieve constitutional change. This is something that can be traced back to William Cooper in the 1930s, who was speaking about Indigenous representation. Now, this has evolved so that Indigenous Australians were themselves asked what form recognition should take in the Constitution, given that all of the major parties had said that they supported constitutional recognition from the time that John Howard was the leader and the Labor Party well before them. And so, this involved and led to the process being established, chaired by Julian Leeser and Pat Dodson, in a bipartisan way, appointed under Tony Abbott’s Prime Ministership, and then leading up to the Uluru First Nations Constitutional Convention in 2017, where Indigenous Australians decided by a big majority that they wanted recognition, but they wanted substance as well. They wanted a form of recognition that made a practical difference going forward – wasn’t just the symbolism, which is important, but they wanted something more than that. And they came up over a period of time, for more than a decade, going back, including legal experts, came up with the concept of the Voice, essentially an advisory group that would not be binding on government, but would allow for the views of Indigenous Australians to be put forward so that they would have a Voice and Parliament and government could listen to that Voice in order to achieve better outcomes.
MCCORMACK: So that Voice that you’re describing, it is a simple proposal. It’s an advisory body, as you said. Why are so many Australians not understanding it?
PRIME MINISTER: Well I think, originally, the concept of Voice does need some explanation. Like, what is a Voice? Don’t we all have a voice? So it needs explaining. And it’s been explained, the reason why it wasn’t just called an advisory group was they wanted to make it clear what it was that Indigenous people wanted to be listened to. And that is why the language was chosen, it arose from those discussions and dialogue between Indigenous communities. And I think it is unfortunate that we’re seeing so much misinformation out there. It’s so easy to ask questions that are never asked about other issues. And then if there’s an answer, it just leads to more questions. Because the objective is to sow doubt and to sow confusion. There has been a conscious campaign by some supporters of the No campaign to create confusion. That has been a strategy. And even the slogan of ‘If you don’t know, vote No’ is really an indictment. It’s really saying, ‘Don’t bother to find out’. It’s not a responsible thing in a democracy to say
MCCORMACK: But we’ve had that line come from the Opposition for a while. Isn’t it your job and the Yes campaign’s job to counter that message and cut through and simply explain what the Voice is? Why isn’t that working?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, we have been doing that and we’ll continue to do that. One of the things that will occur is that Australians will focus and are focusing. Just this afternoon, I have been out doing a street walk with Dean Parkin from the Yes campaign with Labor people, with Liberals for Yes, in Norwood in Adelaide. And the response was very positive. I’m confident that Australians will focus on what the actual question is, the question is very clear. The first bit is, of course, asking for the recognition. It simply says, in recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first peoples of Australia. It then says the ‘what’, there shall be a body to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, and then what will it do, it may make representations to the Parliament and the executive government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. And then the how, that’s so important as well, including a clear declaration of the primacy of Parliament. The Parliament shall have power to make laws with regard to the composition, functions, powers and procedures of the Voice. So there’s nothing to fear by this proposition. It’s not going to change the way that government functions in this country. But what it will do is enable the voice of Indigenous Australians to be heard. And that will, I’m very confident, lead to better outcomes, because we know that when any group is consulted about matters that directly affect them, then you get better outcomes. Common sense tells you that.
MCCORMACK: One of the things you’ve said is that the Voice is modest, right? It won’t get a say on Australia Day, it won’t be a funding body and so on. Is that messaging of minimising, effectively, the Voice’s impact actually undermining the Yes camp? If it is so modest, doesn’t that enable people to vote No because it implies that it’s not a big deal?
PRIME MINISTER: No, I don’t think that’s right. It’s about putting forward accurately what it will do. Now, it may give advice on a range of issues, as other bodies can give advice. To make two points: the idea that they’re going to be giving advice to the Reserve Bank, I mean, I can’t give advice to the Reserve Bank. Well I can, but they don’t have to listen to it, when it comes to interest rate decisions. And that’s been one of the things that’s been said. It’s been spoken about that there’ll be new taxes, that there will be an impact on people’s land and ownership. And that’s before you get to the massive conspiracy theories about the UN or other issues. The point is here, that this is what Indigenous Australians themselves have asked for. They’re confident that if there is a Voice, then they will give advice that is accurate, that will make a difference on matters that they will concentrate on, which is closing the gap on life expectancy, that eight year gap that’s there, closing the gap on education outcomes, outcomes on justice. And we know from experience that when Indigenous Australians have been engaged, and recently during the pandemic, at the beginning of the pandemic there was fears of catastrophic consequences for Indigenous Australian health. That got turned around once Indigenous communities had agency over the roll-out of vaccinations, over the information campaigns, rather than decisions being just made in Canberra. We see it with justice reinvestment in Bourke. We see it with health outcomes in Cape York. We see it with education with kids going to school in Arnhem Land. When decisions are made with the direct input of Indigenous Australians, they’re the success stories. The Indigenous Rangers program is a great success story because it’s arisen from Indigenous Australians themselves. With the best of intentions, decisions have been made from Canberra for 122 years. But we haven’t seen a closing of the gap in recent years. And if we do the same thing, we should expect the same outcomes. And that’s why giving Indigenous Australians a say will be so important.
MCCORMACK: Prime Minister, you said this is a once in a generation moment. So, the timing of this vote is crucial. And this referendum is happening while so many people can’t think about anything other than their rent, mortgage, paying bills, affording groceries. Do you regret scheduling the vote during a cost of living crisis?
PRIME MINISTER: No, I put out very early on, so that there was certainty going forward, a timetable. I got elected last May. There are people who have worked on this campaign for more than a decade, and for many have given their long lives to this campaign, people like Pat Dodson and Tom Calma or Marcia Langton and Noel Pearson. And there wasn’t one person at the Garma Festival, where I was recently, who was saying ‘Can we change the timetable here?’ So I went to Garma a bit over a month after I was elected as Prime Minister. I put out a draft of the wording for the constitutional change and the encouraged people to participate. We established a Referendum Working Group. We established a timetable so that everything was designed to try to get as much and as broader support as possible. Now, when Peter Dutton appointed Julian Leeser as Shadow Attorney General and Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians, one would have thought that was a positive sign given his involvement in this question going back as far as 2012. And that’s why I took that as a positive sign. We had a process, I met with Peter Dutton on at least seven occasions to discuss getting broad support for it. The National Party declared their opposition from the beginning. And in the end, the Liberal Party under Peter Dutton, declared his opposition just a couple of days after they lost the Aston by-election. And after there was commentary that they saw this as a way of securing a political advantage, a partisan advantage over the Labor Government. Now, that is the decision that they made. But we had a very clear timetable. We had the Referendum Working Group that would produce draft legislation that would be agreed with the Cabinet. That occurred in March. And then I said there’d be a three month inquiry. We did all of those processes. But this has gone on for a long period of time. And I said at my first Garma speech, I said, ‘If not now, when?’ There will always be something. And this was also a timetable established when there weren’t state or territory elections, which is very unusual. We’re going through a period now where we’re not in an election timetable somewhere, given we have eight states and territories, six states, two territories, and the Federal Government. We have nine elections. And the fact that there’s none on at the moment was designed to provide some clear air. But also, what is important is that we’re sticking to what we said we would do. And that’s something that I want to characterise my Government. To restore faith in the way that politics is conducted. Had we walked away from the commitment and said, ‘Well, it’s all too hard, we’ll defer for this term, and we’ll do it in the second term’ then for those people who had put all of their energy and commitment and passion into this cause, there’s a limit to how long you can do that for when political leaders don’t have the courage of being prepared to put it to the Australian people with no certainty about outcome. There was never going to be certainty about an outcome when you’re trying to change the Constitution. But if you don’t advance the question, then you’d be in the same position. No recognition, no Voice, nothing moving forward.
MCCORMACK: Prime Minister, if Australia votes Yes on October 14, what country will we wake up to the next morning? What will it mean for us?
PRIME MINISTER: We will wake up to a more unified country. One that has shown respect for the oldest continuous culture on Earth. One that is more confident about ourselves and feels better about ourselves. And one which the world can look at and see a more mature nation coming to terms with the fullness and richness of its history. I think just like the Apology for Stolen Generations, like the vote on marriage equality, it will just feel like a great country has become just that little bit greater.
MCCORMACK: Prime Minister, thanks so much for your time.
PRIME MINISTER: Thanks very much.