Editorial: Indigenous Voice to Parliament makes perfect sense

This article appeared in the Age on June 15, 2019

Welcome momentum is building for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament as part of proper recognition of the first Australians, who have been custodians of this land for 60,000 years, the longest known civilisation on the planet.

Making this change would not of itself redress one of our nation’s worst blots, the gulf between the situation of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people and that of the rest of the population. However, it is an important step because there is consensus that the disparities in health, education, rates of child abuse, alcohol and drug misuse, income, employment, life expectancy and incarceration won’t be solved until Indigenous Australians are central to creating the requisite policies.

To its credit, the business community is swinging behind the recommendation for such an advisory body, put forward by the Uluru convention for a Makarrata (treaty) Commission in 2017.

BHP chief executive Andrew Mackenzie recently wrote: ‘‘It is critical we maintain the momentum and advocate for a referendum to enshrine a First Nations voice to the Australian Parliament in the constitution as a meaningful step towards reconciliation.’’

A ‘‘movement of the people’’, he said, has emerged to back the Uluru Statement from the Heart’s call for Indigenous Australians to have greater ability to influence their situations. Dozens of other businesses, investment banks, law and accountancy firms and superannuation funds are advocating an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

The Coalition government, which was last year too quick to dismiss the notion as an unacceptable third chamber of Federal Parliament, is now also indicating an openness to this proposal, realising it would be akin to various other statutory consultative authorities including the Productivity Commission, the Australian Law Reform Commission, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Auditor-General, all of which simply create reports to assist legislators make informed, effective laws.

Any such change needs bipartisan support, which has been made easier by the final report, delivered last year, of the bipartisan parliamentary committee on constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians – it declared there should be no concerns about an advisory body.

Some of the greatest reforms in modern Australia were the result of consensus between Parliament, business and community representatives. The opening of the Australian economy via competition, unfettered trade, a floating currency and an independent central bank was led the by the ALP governments of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, backed by the Coalition.

This time, it is the Coalition that can lead with the support of the ALP, which is in favour of the advisory body. In the April budget, the Coalition devoted funds to exploring the proposal. It is to be hoped this will help bring about an evolution of our nation that would seem as natural to people as the 1967 referendum in which Australians voted overwhelmingly to amend the constitution to include Aboriginal people in the census and allow the Commonwealth to create laws for them. Surely it is only right and fair they have a recognised role in advising governments about how to optimise such laws.

Uphold & Recognise