'Watershed': BHP, Rio back indigenous 'voice' to parliament
Cautious business leaders warned a referendum for an indigenous voice to Parliament stands "buckley's chance" of success, unless detail about the proposal is fleshed out and debated ahead of a national vote.
BHP and Rio Tinto became the first major companies to publicly support a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous "voice" to Parliament on Thursday after BHP boss Andrew Mackenzie said they could no longer "stand on the sidelines" and pledged $1 million for Noel Pearson's Cape York Partnershipto back a push for an indigenous voice to parliament.
But others including Fortescue chief Elizabeth Gaines declined to join the movement on Thursday, arguing "we really focus on the practical measures and the things that we can do to make a difference," she said.
The miners' historic pledge did not move Prime Minister Scott Morrison either after he warned last year the body would constitute a "third chamber".
When asked on Thursday he also said he wanted to focus on "practical" measures and the government would soon respond to a joint select committee report which has recommended more work is needed on the model before proceeding.
Labor leader Bill Shorten has promised a referendum on the voice issue before a republican plebiscite, which he has pledged in the first term of a Shorten government but opinions are increasingly divided about how any vote should proceed.
Business figures attending the CEDA event in Perth, heralded Mr Mackenzie's rallying speech as a "watershed moment". Veteran indigenous rights campaigner and former deputy Liberal leader Fred Chaney described it as "the most significant speech by a mining leader in more than two decades".
However sceptics claimed Mr Mackenzie - who did not take any questions - was deliberately vague about the vexed issue of how a vote might proceed.
"A referendum must be held at a time when it has the best chance of success," Mr Mackenzie told the 500-plus crowd. "But we must maintain the momentum of the Uluru Statement so that it is not overshadowed by other issues. A referendum not only demands political courage, it demands courage from all of us. This is not just a matter for politicians, this concerns us all."
Veteran indigenous rights campaigner and former deputy Liberal leader Fred Chaney described it as "the most significant speech by a mining leader in more than two decades".
Labor have sided with several indigenous leaders, the Greens and even the Business Council of Australia who are are calling for an urgent referendum, arguing that further details about the proposed advisory body made-up of elected Indigenous Australians could be quickly settled or finalised later.
Professor Megan Davis, a driving force behind the Uluru Statement from the Heart and The Australian Financial Review's 2018 Woman of Influence, and Indigenous leader Mick Dodson argued on Thursday we need to "get the idea across the line first and then talk about the detail".
But others including leading advocates Uphold & Recognise - funded by corporate partners including Allens, the Commonwealth Bank, Gilbert + Tobin and Westpac - believe the vote will never succeed until key questionsabout the voice idea are settled including what powers it would have and who and how many representatives would sit on the body.
"We have been at this for more than 10 years and have one chance to get this right. We don't want to miss that opportunity by not doing everything we can to get the right result. The consequences of failure on reconciliation efforts will be dire and there may not be another opportunity to revisit this," chairman of Uphold & Recognise Sean Gordon said.
Another business leader speaking anonymously said there was "buckley's chance" of a referendum on the voice getting up in the near future until more groundwork and public debate was complete. Only eight out of 44 referendums - which must be passed by a majority and in a majority of states - have been successful and bipartisan political support has proved essential for success.
Other leaders were happy to back BHP's CEO for putting it on the agenda with Rio Tinto managing director Australia Joanne Farrell urged an open national discussion.
"People do need to understand what they are voting and have good open discussion," she said.
BCA chief Jennifer Westacott also congratulated BHP for its leadership and is calling for a referendum on the issue within 12 months of the federal election.
"A constitutionally enshrined voice to parliament will help ensure Indigenous Australians can enjoy the opportunity of full participation in the Australian economy and society as a whole," she said.