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Opinion Pieces

Tuesday, 27th April 2021

Indigenous Voice Must Be Heard for Nation to Be Whole

How can we have reconciliation when one side has no voice?

Next month it will be four years since the release of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, in which First Nations people called for “constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country”.

With grace, patience and unadorned power, the statement’s authors mapped out the path forward for us as a nation. As the statement made clear, though, the first step must be the enshrinement in our Constitution of an Indigenous voice.

A process of truth telling about our history to advance reconciliation and lay the groundwork for treaty-making is the other element of this generous and inclusive statement.

I’m at Uluru today with members of Labor’s First Nations caucus to advance this reform that would strengthen our nation. I pay respect and acknowledge the traditional owners, especially senior members who have passed.

For First Nations people, Uluru is a sacred place for where the ancient song lines converge and continue in all directions around the country. To visit Uluru is to begin to comprehend its wonder and special place at the heart of our nation.

Reconciliation won’t happen without political leadership. It is dispiriting to remember that the Liberal-National government’s initial response to the Uluru statement was a false claim that it would be a third chamber in the parliament.

They knew this was untrue.

The voice is a modest request that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples be consulted about issues and policies that affect them. It is not a third chamber. It is not deliberative.

It merely seeks to put a structure around what we would all regard as decency, as courtesy and as respect.

Through the statement, Indigenous people themselves reached out to all Australians seeking positive progress. Recognition in the Constitution will mark our maturity as a nation.

The government has said it wants to work collaboratively on these issues. But like so much else, this important issue languishes between the lush meadows of Scott Morrison’s promises and the dust bowl of his reality.

We can achieve progress — and a starting point is a referendum to make the necessary but modest alteration to the founding document of our modern nation.

Australia’s Constitution was written at a time of profound change. Its authors created not a museum piece but a living document. They gave to future generations the mechanisms for change. They set a high threshold, but just as crucially they took great care not to put change out of reach.

There are times when change is essential. Our Constitution did not originally embrace all Australians, but when the chance came for change in 1967 to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples would be counted, more than 90 per cent of voters said yes. While it did not make the problems faced by First Nations people disappear, it reminds us that we have the will to fix something that is wrong.

We have not yet had true reconciliation, and a country that is not truly reconciled is not truly whole. And until we are whole, we will never reach our truest potential as a nation — and we have so very much potential.

That is why a referendum is so important. How can we have reconciliation when one side has no voice? The voice is the bedrock upon which we must build. I want a voice and truth, then treaty, to be part of our national journey and our national life.

I want us to fully understand all that has unfurled since 1788 and the collision between the people of what was called the Old World and the people of a world far older.

We stand tantalisingly close to the cusp of something new — not the reinvention of Australia but the realisation of a greater one, a country drawing into its heart the many strands of First Nations people in the eternal understanding that together we are all stronger. It would be the ultimate fulfilment of that most Australian of instincts: the fair go.

Until we get this done, we all stand diminished. That is not something we should be content to settle for — all we need to do is take the next step.

But we need political leadership to get there. As the great Galarrwuy Yunupingu put it: “At Uluru we started a fire, a fire we hope burns bright for Australia.”

We can’t keep kicking this down the road.

A Labor government will ensure that we embrace this invitation that the Uluru statement extends to us all: “We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.”

We have what it takes. Let us get it done.

This opinion piece was first published in The Australian on Tuesday, 27 April 2021.

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Electorate Office

334a Marrickville Rd
Marrickville NSW 2204

Phone: 02 9564 3588

Parliament House Office

Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600

Phone: 02 6277 7700

Phone: (02) 9564 3588
Fax: (02) 9564 1734

We acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which our offices stand and we pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging. We acknowledge the sorrow of the Stolen Generations and the impacts of colonisation on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We also recognise the resilience, strength and pride of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

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