I have been contacted by many Gippslanders seeking my view on the proposed referendum to enshrine a ‘Voice to Parliament’ in the Constitution and here is my explanation for intending to vote ‘no’.
I’ve participated in many media interviews and made the basic point that this is an issue where entirely reasonable people can examine the same facts and reach a different viewpoint, and we need to respect each other’s differences as this debate progresses or it will divide our nation further.
It’s extraordinarily unhelpful for the Premier to be describing people as ‘mean and nasty’ or the Greens leader saying you are ‘racist’ if you don’t intend to vote yes. The Prime Minister suggesting that the ‘decent thing’ is to vote yes, is also implying that Australians will be acting indecently if they oppose the Voice!
The Prime Minister needs to re-set the tone of the public debate and recognise that there are diverse views on this complex issue.
It’s my strongly held view that Indigenous Australians should be recognised in the constitution. I would fully support changing our constitution to formally acknowledge in the founding document of our nation the simple fact that this continent had been inhabited for thousands of years before European settlement. That would demonstrate respect and a national commitment to reconciliation.
The previous Coalition Government should’ve made that move when we had the chance after extensive public debate on the topic but unfortunately it wasn’t resolved prior to the 2022 election.
I would also happily consider, new legislation being drafted and put to the Federal Parliament for a transparent vote on a new advisory body to help the Government of the day deal with the complex and well-known issues facing Indigenous Australians, as long as it was focused on practical outcomes.
Of course, we already have the National Indigenous Australians Agency which was established by an Executive Order signed by the Governor-General in May 2019.
But enshrining that new bureaucracy in the constitution is a step too far, ties the hands of future governments, and if it’s successful, the Voice to Parliament will divide our nation on racial grounds with powers that will be tested for years to come in the High Court.
This is the wording that will be put to the Australian people to vote in a referendum later this year:
“A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First People of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed legislation?”
My issue is primarily around a new race-based bureaucracy making representations directly to ‘executive government’ which is the Cabinet. In the event of Cabinet Ministers disagreeing, it is set to become a lawyer’s picnic and nothing will change in the communities where help is needed.
We are still no clearer to understanding how the 25 members of the Voice will be chosen, because they won’t be democratically elected, and how they will be somehow representative of all Indigenous Australians?
And the special access the members of the Voice will enjoy directly to Cabinet, which no other group based on race, religion or special interest can also achieve, gives rise to further concerns. It’s completely contradictory to our democratic system of government, will create suspicion about how decisions have been made, and will divide our nation.
I’ve said before that this is an issue where entirely reasonable people can examine the same facts and reach a different viewpoint.
I believe there is a shared passion in our nation to improve the circumstances for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and we need to harness that goodwill and work in partnership to achieve positive outcomes for generations to follow. I have spoken many times in Federal Parliament and the media about the need for ongoing, practical reconciliation measures and programs to improve opportunities for Indigenous Australians.
My view is the media coverage of the Voice is simplistic and urging people to vote for a ‘vibe’ that will supposedly change outcomes for Indigenous Australians is intended to assuage our guilt and make us feel better.
If only it was that easy. The truth is, the complex challenges require days, weeks, months and years of constant hard work by health and education professionals, in partnership with local community leaders.
In my time as a Federal MP I have worked in partnership with the Indigenous community across Gippsland in a spirit of active reconciliation. There has been significant progress in many areas but a lot of work is still required to achieve the social, economic and cultural goals we share.
As a regional MP, I strongly believe in localism. I believe that local people are best placed to overcome local challenges, obviously within a structure of national and state laws, plus government support where a need is identified.
From my experience, centralised decision-making across a range of key issues continues to undermine the success and prosperity of regional communities, including Indigenous people and the Voice will entrench that disconnect.
By refusing to even release the draft legislation or independent legal advice before the vote occurs, the Government is effectively asking for us to vote for an incomplete proposition.
Symbolism is important but the key to addressing the serious issues is by government delivering frontline evidence-based solutions and practical programs which aim to lift Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people out of poverty, and stimulate economic participation in Indigenous communities.
This includes dedicated initiatives to help raise living standards, generate employment, address domestic violence, improve education, stimulate growth, boost home ownership, support small business and encourage entrepreneurship. By doing this, together and in partnership with local people, we have seen some success, and we can continue to address the 17 Closing the Gap Targets.
It is simply wrong and incredibly disrespectful to so many hard working professionals and community leaders to suggest that nothing positive is occurring across our nation today. From my experience as a Minister, there is always more to be done in every area of public policy but we should also recognise the success stories. I want to thank everyone who has already dedicated their time and effort to improve outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
Imagine if all the programs from Federal and State Governments that are already funded by taxpayers weren’t in place today? We have to acknowledge there are some great initiatives in place and from my experience, the programs which are locally-run and directed at local problems, tend to have the best outcomes.
It is also important to keep recognising that Australian voters have already provided a ‘voice’ for Indigenous people with the current Federal Parliament including 11 MPs and Senators across all political parties. Our political reality in recent years is the political parties, and Australian voters, have recognised the lack of diversity among elected MPs and taken steps through the democratic system to begin remedying the situation.
It’s my strong view from 20 years of political experience at all levels of government that devolving decision-making power to regional communities which have a better understanding of local issues is a better approach in a range of policy challenges.
Critically, the point of a referendum is for everyone to have their say and at this stage, I have no plans to actively campaign for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote in my electorate but will respond to legitimate requests for information from locals and the media. In expressing my opinion here today, I’m not asking anyone to change their minds.
As you would be aware, for a referendum to pass in Australia it requires more than 50 per cent of the national population and a majority in at least four out of the six states must vote yes to pass.
I trust my statement clarifies my position on this important issue for those who are interested, and I encourage everyone to treat each other with respect and kindness in this potentially divisive debate.
Please find following link to the Australian Electoral Commission Yes/No pamphlet