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Television Interview - Flashpoint WA

Television interview – ABC Insiders with David Speers

DAVID SPEERS, HOST: Prime Minister, welcome to the program.

ANTHONY ALBANESE, PRIME MINISTER: Good to be here at this rather extraordinary venue.

SPEERS: No, it certainly is. Look, you said, PM, that you wanted to come here to listen. Can I ask, what have you heard?

PRIME MINISTER: When I met with the Dilak Council yesterday, which is the elders from the 13 clans in North East Arnhem Land, there was a common theme. They want constitutional recognition. They want a Voice. And they want it so that they can get better outcomes on education and health and housing for their people and for future generations.

SPEERS: When you talk about constitutional recognition, I mean, this is the form of recognition that Indigenous Australians said through the Uluru dialogues, they wanted a Voice in the Constitution. Peter Dutton has been arguing if we had a more simple form of recognition, it would enjoy much more public support. Is that possible?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that’s a contradiction in Peter Dutton’s position, of course. He says that he supports constitutional recognition. So, both sides do. He says that he supports a legislated Voice. So, both sides do. The difference here is he’s saying, ‘Don’t put it in the Constitution’. The reason why Indigenous Australians have asked for it to be in the Constitution is that they want a form of constitutional recognition that has substance, not just style, that can’t be just dismissed on a stroke of a pen. And you can’t say you want a Voice, because I would assume that Peter Dutton supports legislating it, because it’s a good idea, because it will make a difference, because it clearly won’t be divisive. Otherwise, why would they say they are going to legislate it?

SPEERS: But in terms of recognition in the Constitution, is this is it? As far as you’re concerned as Prime Minister, it’s this style of recognition through a Voice or nothing?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, importantly, it’s the request of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves.

SPEERS: So, you couldn’t do something else?

PRIME MINISTER: It hasn’t occurred in a vacuum. You can’t say you want to listen to Indigenous Australians and that’s why you want a Voice, and Peter Dutton says he wants a Voice but legislated, but then not listen at the very first point is the form of recognition that they want.

SPEERS: Because I think this is important. 20 plus years ago, we had the Republic referendum and plenty of republicans thought, ‘We don’t like this particular time and we will get another go at it’. Just to be clear, you’re saying to Australians if this goes down, that’s it, there’s no other constitutional recognition on your watch?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, importantly, Indigenous Australians are saying that.

SPEERS: And you as well?

PRIME MINISTER: I am saying that I’ve listened to Indigenous Australians. And this is something that has arisen from them. What I’m doing by having the great privilege of being Prime Minister is seeking to fulfil their request.

SPEERS: So, you’re not going to come back if this goes down with some other type of recognition?

PRIME MINISTER: We know that this is a once in a generation opportunity. Many people in the Republic referendum thought it would come around again. And that’s why I say to those people, including people who say, ‘It doesn’t go far enough, so therefore, I’m going to vote no’, don’t think that other issues can be advanced by a No vote. A No vote will be a vote for more of the same.

SPEERS: And no recognition?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that is what Indigenous Australians have said, including, of course, the great Yunupingu here, who I discussed these issues with him extensively. And he wanted to make sure that recognition had that substance, that it wasn’t just a style issue of putting words in the Constitution, that it had an ongoing impact of having better outcomes. That is what it is about.

SPEERS: So, really, this is a crash through or crash moment for recognition?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, this is an opportunity is the way that I see it. And if we don’t do it, Australians will ask themselves, ‘Is it good enough that there’s an eight-year life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, a suicide rate that is twice as high, if you have a daughter, she is more likely to die in childbirth than a non-Indigenous woman, if you have a son, he’s more likely to go to jail than to university’. We need to do things better. This is a gracious offer that has been worked through over a long period of time.

SPEERS: So, let’s talk about how you improve some of those practical outcomes. Because that’s been your focus here in the speech that you gave at Garma. A lot of people are still trying to understand how this would work. How would a Voice fix some of those problems you identify?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I’ll give you an example right here in this local community. The Dilak Council here, made up of 13 clans in this vast region of North East Arnhem Land have come together, for example, and they’ve done a lot of work on bilingual school that has been established. Now, we’ve announced funding on Friday to extend that to the tertiary level. It’s a bilingual school, which is making sure that young Yolngu people from these communities are going to school more, are being retained at school for longer, are providing those opportunities in life.

SPEERS: And so, is this the model that you’re looking at for Indigenous Australians? It is a successful model here. But in some ways, it’s not usual because you do have greater autonomy here, whether it’s through, you know, the community-run education, whether it’s through the community owning the bauxite mine as well, is this the model of greater autonomy for Indigenous Australians that you’re looking at?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it’s not one size fits all. And the principles that are there in the Yes pamphlet make that very clear. But it also makes clear that one of the principles is working with existing organisations. So, that might work differently in a remote community from a community in urban Australia.

SPEERS: So, greater autonomy isn’t necessarily the answer everywhere.

PRIME MINISTER: No. But listening is the answer. And what we’re talking about here of a Voice is an advisory group made up of Indigenous Australians, selected by Indigenous Australians, giving advice on behalf of Indigenous Australians on matters that affect their lives.

SPEERS: Can you achieve these benefits in a community like this without a Voice? Because there is no Voice at the moment, but that Dilak Council is here, so it’s getting on with it.

PRIME MINISTER: What we’re trying to do here is to take what are the success stories that are there in Indigenous Australia. We know that that’s the case. But they’re the exception. What we want to do is to close that gap in so many areas that remain. And of the Closing the Gap targets, only four out of 19 are being met. Now, I think governments of all persuasions, whether they’ve been led by Labor Prime Ministers or Liberal Prime Ministers, have wanted to do the right thing, have wanted to make a difference. But the truth is that the outcomes haven’t been delivered.

SPEERS: If it’s going to make that sort of difference, would you legislate a Voice if the referendum fails?

PRIME MINISTER: If the referendum fails, it will be a clear sign that it doesn’t have the support of the Australian people.

SPEERS: So, you wouldn’t legislate a Voice?

PRIME MINISTER: I’m focused on success in this Referendum.

SPEERS: I bet you are. But would you legislate a Voice?

PRIME MINISTER: I’m focused on success, not on hypotheticals of what will occur if it is not successful.

SPEERS: Surely, it’s going to deliver all these practical benefits. You would be crazy not to, wouldn’t you?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the former Government said they worked for a long period of time, of course. And maybe they were waiting for their fifth or sixth or seventh term to get around to it. And what we’re doing is putting in place practical measures. But we will take the verdict of the Australian people in a referendum is something that has to be taken into account, of whether they support it or not. And I say this, that they do have the opportunity, not just to do something for Indigenous Australia, but to do something for all of us as well. I mean, we’re here on the land of the Yolngu people, celebrating a culture that is 65,000 years old as part of the Australian story. But the Australian story isn’t finished. What Australians will have in coming months is the opportunity to write the next chapter. To write the next chapter that’s more inclusive, that celebrates the connection that we have of sharing this continent with the oldest continuous culture on Earth. But also, makes practical change to close those gaps.

SPEERS: Prime Minister, when you spoke here at Garma last year, you made what you called a solemn promise to deliver the Uluru Statement in full. You didn’t repeat that promise this year. Why not?

PRIME MINISTER: I support the Uluru Statement being implemented in full. It’s a gracious document. That’s my position. But what I spoke about today and concentrated on is what is actually before the Australian people in this referendum. And what’s there is pretty clear. It’s recognition through a Voice in order to achieve better outcomes. That is what they’ll vote on.

SPEERS: You referred a few times to the late Yunupingu. As his daughter has said, one of his most important final acts was to give the word, deliver the word, Makarrata to the Uluru Statement. It’s a very important word. It means the coming together after conflicts. You’ve already committed money to a Makarrata process. What’s that money being spent on?

PRIME MINISTER: Why would someone disagree with the idea of Makarrata, which is a Yolngu word for coming together after conflict? What that’s about is just advancing reconciliation.

SPEERS: So, where’s the money going?

PRIME MINISTER: And that’s what it will do. Well, at the moment, what we’re concentrating on is, of course, the referendum that will be coming up. That is about Voice.

SPEERS: Sure, but on Makarrata, nearly a million dollars has been spent. What’s that money going towards?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that’s about establishing a structure, which will happen. But we’ve said that our concentration at the moment is very, very clear. And what the No campaign insist on doing is talking about anything but what is in the question before the Australian people. And I’d say to your listeners, have a look at what the question is. Have a look at the Yes and the No pamphlets. The Yes pamphlet with its optimistic appeal for hope and a vision for the future. And the No campaign quoting people, misquoting people who are actually supporting it.

SPEERS: But for Yunupingu, a big part of his life was the push for Treaty, as you know. He was involved in the Barunga Statement 35 years ago, the call for Treaty with the Commonwealth. That statement sits on display in Parliament House. I know you see some of this debate as a bit of a distraction. But can we just ask and get from you, what is your approach to Treaty? Where does it sit in your priorities as Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, my priority is the referendum. That’s my priority. But Treaty, of course, are being advanced in different places.

SPEERS: But on the Commonwealth level?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, Treaty is occurring. There’s 400 Indigenous nations in this country. So, we’re not talking about centralised operations here. In Perth in 2015, the WA Liberal Premier, Colin Barnett, came together with the Noongar people with a really comprehensive agreement. Queensland have said they’re advancing it and it is bipartisan.

SPEERS: So, you don’t see the need for Commonwealth level down the track?

PRIME MINISTER: What I see is a concentration on the referendum. That’s my focus. Getting a Voice, as requested. And getting constitutional recognition. And the Uluru Statement from the Heart was actually very clear that the priority is getting a Voice to Parliament. And that’s the form of constitutional recognition.

SPEERS: When we spoke here last year, you were still hopeful you might get bipartisan support. You were hopeful we might see a sort of 1967 referendum result, more than 90 per cent of Australians voted in favour of recognising Indigenous Australians in the census. We know the polls show something very different now. You remain confident, though. Why? What are you seeing that the polls are missing?

PRIME MINISTER: I’m confident about the generosity of the Australian people, and that the Australian people will focus during the weeks leading up to the referendum, have a look at what is there, weigh up what voting Yes means, what voting No means. It’s unfortunate that the Leader of the Liberal Party has chosen to try to secure a political advantage at the expense of the need for Indigenous Australians to get that recognition. But I did think that it was a positive sign when Julian Leeser was appointed Shadow Attorney General and Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians. Who wouldn’t? He was one of the architects in terms of the legal fraternity giving advice as far back as 2012. Now, that hasn’t occurred. But that doesn’t mean that we retreat. As I said, today in my speech, the Australian Coat of Arms has on it the kangaroo and the emu. They don’t go backwards. We go forwards as a nation. And this is an opportunity for Australia to go forward together.

SPEERS: Okay. So, even though the polls might put in doubt the prospects of a victory, it’s full steam ahead?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, no constitutional change has ever been easy. And I was very conscious about that. I’m conscious of what the history shows us, with eight out of 48 being successful. But Australians have come together. There is enormous support from the business community, faith groups, sporting groups, trade union organisations, from civil society, people who’ve come together and will be campaigning. And this weekend, as we’re speaking, some people aren’t watching the program because they’re out knocking on door. Tens of thousands.

SPEERS: They can always catch it on iview.

PRIME MINISTER: Indeed, they can.

SPEERS: PM, in terms of timing, you haven’t announced the dates, but everyone’s sort of expecting October. Pretty wet up here to hold it in November in this part of the country, wouldn’t it? You’d have to get in before.

PRIME MINISTER: We will bear all of those things in mind, of course.

SPEERS: October is more likely, though.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I’ve said very early on when the process, the timetable, I set out, we’ve fulfilled that. We did what we said we would do. We set up a Referendum Working Group. We then had the legislation in March. We had a parliamentary committee, it reported in June. And it has to be between mid-September and mid-December.

SPEERS: After footy finals and before it gets too wet.

PRIME MINISTER: Obviously, it isn’t going to be on Grand Final day. I’ll give you the big scoop.

SPEERS: Okay. Nor when it gets too wet up here, I’m hoping. Let me turn, finally, Prime Minister to China. They’ve dropped their tariffs on Australian barley. Does that clear the way for you now to make a trip to Beijing this year?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, this isn’t a transactional exercise in terms of my visit. I’ve said that I want to cooperate with China where I can, to disagree where we must, but also to engage in our national interest. That’s our position. But the decision that has been made is a very positive one on barley. I welcome it. I want other impediments to be removed.

SPEERS: The detention of the Australians?

PRIME MINISTER: And included in that, the detention of the Australians, including Cheng Lei. And we continue to advance Australia’s interests here.

SPEERS: You still would like to go this year?

PRIME MINISTER: But I’ve said that I would like to take up the opportunity to visit China. I’ve said the whole way along, even before some of these impediments were removed, dialogue is always a good thing. We need the big powers, China and the United States, to engage and talk with each other. But we also have a role of talking. It is in Australia’s interests to engage with China. And it is in China’s interest to engage with Australia. And as a result of the decision that they’ve made this weekend, they’ll get access to the best barley in the world and they’ll get better beer as a result of it.

SPEERS: Win-win. Prime Minister, thanks so much for joining us here at Garma.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks very much, David.

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