Julian Leeser: Bipartisan support key to Indigenous Affairs overhaul

This is an article by Rachel Baxendale, published in The Australian on 1 April 2018.

The Liberal co-chair of the parliamentary standing committee on indigenous affairs says he hopes to secure cross-party agreement and indigenous support for measures to recognise indigenous Australians.

Liberal backbencher Julian Leeser has been appointed alongside indigenous Labor senator Pat Dodson to investigate means of giving indigenous Australians a voice.

The committee has been set up almost six months after the Turnbull government rejected indigenous leaders’ calls for a constitutionally enshrined indigenous voice in parliament in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Mr Leeser said the committee would build upon the work done by four previous committees which have looked at the issue of indigenous constitutional recognition, with an interim report due in June and a final report due in November.

“Our job is to see what of those recommendations still holds support among indigenous people and cross-party support, and it’s also going to particularly focus on something that came out of the Referendum Council and the Uluru Statement, and that is the idea that indigenous people want to have their voices heard and they want to be consulted and engaged on public policy that affects them,” Mr Leeser told Sky News.

“There’s a specific part of our terms of reference that looks at how indigenous people are consulted and engaged currently, and what we can do to improve those mechanisms for consultation and engagement to ensure we get better outcomes for indigenous advancement economically and in the social policy area as well.”

Mr Leeser said he personally supported a constitutionally enshrined indigenous voice in parliament, as recommended in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, but accepted that was not the view of the government.

“I’ve got a personal view about that model and I’ve been on the public record about that prior to being a parliamentarian,” he said.

“But I’m chair of the government’s committee here, and the government has ruled out a particular version of that model, and that is a version where you have an entrenched, elected, indigenous-only body in the constitution.

“That aside, what the government has said is that we’ve got a wide range of ability to have a look at both constitutional and non-constitutional means by which indigenous people are consulted and engaged on policy that affects them, and if you look at the statement that the Prime Minister made when he announced that the government wouldn’t support that particular model, he said in particular that the government is interested in finding ways in which you can empower local people to have a say in the local affairs that affect them, and that he also understands the desire of indigenous people to have a greater buy-in and a greater voice in their own affairs, so it’s really only one particular version of that voice that’s been rejected.

“What this committee gives us the opportunity to do is to look at other models.”

Asked why indigenous people needed greater representation in Canberra despite record numbers of indigenous MPs, Mr Leeser used the example of the preponderance of former lawyers in politics.

“We have a parliament that’s filled with lawyers and we still have an Australian Law Reform Commission, for instance,” he said.

“I think there’s obviously issues among indigenous communities that are different to the rest of the population. By any measure this is a great country, and by any international standard Australians do exceedingly well, but there’s one group of the population that perhaps doesn’t share in the prosperity of the country and that is in large parts indigenous people, so we’ve got to do things to improve the economic and social outcomes, and that’s why I think getting better buy-in and better engagement is so important, and that’s why I’m pleased we’ve got that particular focus in our terms of reference.”

Mr Leeser said the committee could not replicate the consultation process the Referendum Council pursued in holding a dozen consultations around Australia to formulate the Statement from the Heart.

“I don’t think we’re seeking to replicate that, nor are we seeking to replicate the, I think, 250 consultations that the expert panel had some years ago,” Mr Leeser said.

“We have the ability to access all the materials from those particular inquiries, and we do intend to hold hearings around the country, including in some remote communities too, but there is substantial work that’s been done, I think we should respect that work and we’ll certainly be drawing on it.

“I think we’ve got to try to get as much detail down as possible, and obviously the first thing we need to do is to get cross-party agreement, and we also need to get a model that indigenous Australians will support. They’re the two key criteria.

“We’ve got to look at both constitutional and non-constitutional proposals, and I think the more detail that we can give the parliament, the better.”

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