Why I voted against Albanese Labor Government’s referendum to put a ‘Voice’ into our Constitution
Today I voted Against the Albanese Labor Government’s Bill for a referendum to put a Voice into our Constitution.
Labor’s Voice to Parliament proposal is risky and still unknown but will be a permanent change in our Constitution.
As a No voter in the Parliament I will be now officially involved in the No campaign and the drafting of the language for the official No campaign information to be provided to every Australian household. This is an important responsibility, that I take seriously.
I also advise that I will be campaigning strongly in Western Sydney and across NSW against this proposal.
The “Voice” will not help practical outcomes for Aboriginal people but instead will add a new, race, based right into our Constitution. This is something all Australians should be against.
The better proposition is equality of rights for all Australians.
Thank you for your consideration of this important issue,
Mr HAWKE (Mitchell) (17:15): I rise today to oppose the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023. I have to say I'm quite sad to have to speak on this bill in that way today. I don't believe that the government really needs to put us in this position with this bill, which is dividing us as a parliament and will divide us as a nation in the referendum. In fact, I believe we're at a historical point, a unique one in modern Australian history, where everybody—it doesn't really matter whether you're a conservative or a progressive, Right or Left, what your racial background is, what country you've come from or what gender you are—agrees that our Constitution could and should be altered to improve it so it's understood that the historical reality of this continent is that Aboriginal people were here first, accepting that principle in our Constitution. I actually think that consensus exists across this chamber and across our society today.
It is sad that we have ended up at a point where we are going to divide on a second proposition, which is something the government has called 'a voice to parliament'—which is the result of work that was done by the previous government—because of some things that are easily resolvable, in my mind. I'll go through some of those for the benefit of people listening.
I think that disagreement in a democracy is not division, and it's fundamental, when we have referendums, that we have a good debate and freedom of debate to discuss the ideas that will shape the fundamental rights that are involved in a constitution. Australia had the unique benefit of adopting the best of the British constitution and the best of the United States system and constitution—taking the best of those two models and implementing them together, as a modern country. But we're naturally conservative about the Constitution, not politically but in a traditional sense. There hasn't been a successful change to the Constitution since I was born, in 1977. In my entire life, not one referendum has been accepted adopted, and not many before that either. The reason for that is that there is an inherent scepticism, and I think a good scepticism, about government and government wanting to extend its power or control over the lives of individual citizens and communities, and about the idea that government knows best or that government can do best.
The whole principle of the Voice as I understand it, as best as it has been explained, is that government has not listened to Aboriginal people. Government and its organs—all of its bureaucracies, all of our parliaments, all of our laws—have not understood some fundamental things about what Aboriginal people want and need or how to determine their destinies within a modern Australia. And that's why we need the Voice. So we accept the point that government and its organs and all of our power has not been able to improve the lives of Aboriginal people. At the same time we're proposing that the way to resolve that is to send 24 elected politicians, elected by race, of Aboriginal descent, to Canberra to talk to government and that that will somehow resolve the same problems that have been unresolvable. To me, that doesn't make a whole deal of sense.
I've listened carefully to the arguments of my colleagues in the Labor Party, across the chamber. I've listened carefully. Many of them are very emotive. They've focused on 'how will you feel the day after if you vote yes or no'. I understand. Feelings are very important. Emotions are important. But constitutions are about rights, the application of rights, and about the construct of our society, and human progress has shown us that equality of rights is fundamental to a free society. The basic principle of equality of rights and access to rights is the most important feature, which means we should not allocate those rights on the basis of race, on the basis of background or on the basis of privilege. All of us want our children and grandchildren and future generations to have equal rights and opportunities, especially when it comes to questions of race.
So it is not understandable to me that a voice which is necessarily based on race—that's what the Makarrata Commission has told us: three per cent and 97 per cent—and which enshrines racially based rights in the Constitution will improve equality of rights in Australia or help us reconcile our history and help us journey together in the future. It isn't clear to me. The arguments I've heard from members opposite have not cleared it up either. I heard the member the Cowan, for example, say that, if you can Google a chicken curry recipe, you can Google what the Voice is. But we're not going to outsource the Australian government or the construction of our rights or the construction of our Constitution to Google or to a multinational company. There was the argument from the member for Cowan. She may have been making a joke, but it isn't a real constitutional argument.
Constitutions should be about principles, and the Constitution should be about the principle of equality of rights. It's a fundamental Liberal principle. It's a reason I'm in politics and parliament. I do believe absolutely that, as a human being, whatever your background, you should be treated the same, and our country has failed to do that in the past. Our Constitution failed to do that with some racist provisions in our own constitution that should be resolved and fixed. But history has taught us many things, and one of those is that trying to make subsequent or future generations pay for the mistakes of past generations is a fool's errand. Over 50 per cent of the population in Australia have a grandparent or parent born overseas. Most people have no ownership of our colonial period or the wrongs that were done to Aboriginal people. They weren't part of it—not their ancestors or them or their children or the future generations.
This debate today on this bill and this referendum that the government is putting forward is about the future. It's about future constructions of rights. We can't make rights more equal in Australia or fix what went wrong in the past—when many things went very wrong—by attempting to rebalance things the other way, so that the three per cent will then get special rights over the 97 per cent. It was wrong not to give Aboriginal people equal and the same citizenship from the beginning of our Constitution. It is wrong to enshrine the rights of three per cent over 97 per cent the other way. The better proposition is equal rights for all Australians, and that's the proposition that I'll be putting when I campaign for the 'no' case, because I believe that's the fundamental principle that makes a society free and makes us a great country.
I'm disappointed in the way the government has handled not just this legislation but the entire referendum debate. Many of the government members had a very respectful debate, but many implied that, if you don't understand the Voice, you are some form of idiot. The Prime Minister has been guilty of this, too. If you don't understand what the Voice is, somehow you're a fool. This is not correct. The Voice is a very new concept. People don't understand it. They need information about it. That is why, in the past under the legislation, governments have provided money and funding for the 'yes' case and the 'no' case in referendums and committed to extensive information campaigns and committed to constitutional conventions. That's because, when we're talking about the construct of our society, we want the maximum information in the hands of our citizens. We want their best thinking. We want their best consideration. The government has a role in setting that up. We certainly shouldn't be outsourcing it to Google, as the member for Cowan suggested. But the Albanese government quite radically has provided no funding for the 'yes' and 'no' cases. I understand that the purpose behind that—and I think Australians should really appreciate this—is that they believe that will give the 'yes' case an advantage. Therefore the government is saying, 'No funding.'
The government attempted to cut off the communication that would ordinarily go to every single household. Every household would get a basic piece of information from the government outlining the 'yes' and 'no' cases and outlining the merits of both so people could make their own decisions. The government tried to cut this off. Why did the government try to cut off information about our Constitution and about what's proposed? One can only surmise that they don't want information about the Voice in people's hands. Why? If this is as good for Aboriginal people as members of the government believe, why wouldn't you fund a full information campaign about it on both sides? You have to be fair about this. I might be a constitutional monarchist and believe in our system being quite unique and good for Australia and good for Australia's future, but of course I believe that the campaign for a republic should get the same amount of funding as the constitutional monarchy campaign. It would have been outrageous for the Howard government to have denied funding to one side or the other. It would have been outrageous for the Howard government not to commit to providing information on the 'yes' and 'no' cases to every single household so they could make their own informed decision. It would be, I think, an error not to have had that constitutional convention, which people can still remember being a great exploration of the issues.
What a great opportunity has been missed by the Albanese government to have a constitutional convention. That really could have thought about the best of the arguments for and against a Voice and really explored things in a way that would have helped. There's no doubt that the polls are telling us people don't understand exactly what the Voice is or how it will function. That's all demographics, including older people, younger people and migrants. I think that this failure by the government to have this fundamental fairness project on a fundamental change to our Constitution, something new and different, is a failure of the government. That's why I'm going to be opposing this bill.
I'm very frightened at the way the debate has been conducted in some quarters. It is almost as if Aboriginal people who have a 'no' opinion, who don't agree with the government's proposal on the Voice, have no right to that opinion. I think that's an extension of the paternalism that we've seen over many hundreds of years. It's an extension of the paternalism towards Aboriginal people—the idea that they can have only one opinion. Actually, the diversity in Aboriginal voices should be as welcome as the diversity in any other background or group, and it should be listened to.
I've found when I've spoken to Aboriginal elders who have spoken to me, some just very randomly, at events—they might be doing the welcome-to-country ceremony or other things—that I have been surprised by what I have heard from them about their concerns about the Voice. I have been surprised sometimes by their positions. Sometimes I have been confronted by other things that they have said that I did not expect. I believe Australians should go and listen to as many Indigenous Aboriginal elders as possible to get a real understanding of what people are thinking. We are not getting that in this debate in this chamber. We are getting a very one-sided monologue about this. We are not getting that in the media. We are getting a one-sided monologue.
But I am concerned that when I have said to Indigenous elders, 'I would like you to come and speak to the people in my electorate and tell your views, because your views as an Aboriginal person are more important than mine on this matter,' they have said that they are too afraid to speak out in the culture of today on their view that they have concerns one way or another about the Voice. I think that is a very, very sad indictment of this debate and the culture that we live in. This should not be the case. How we going to improve the situation for Aboriginal Australians if lots of Aboriginal people do not feel comfortable in coming forward with their own views? Are we guilty of not listening already? Are we guilty of not listening in this debate to Aboriginal voices that think differently to what the government is proposing? It feels like we're replicating the mistakes that we have been making for a long time in many ways. This is not an esoteric point. I think this is part of the cultural problem that we have today—that, if you are not in line with the majority or you don't have the consensus view, you are denied a voice. I think, sadly, that is happening to a lot of Aboriginal elders who don't agree with this proposal.
I accept many do, and I accept many think this is a good way to proceed. I think it would be nonsensical not to accept that. But a diversity of opinions needs to be heard. The fact that they are not being heard is another reason why I don't support this bill or this process. I believe that this juncture in history actually lends itself to us coming together and taking an important step in reconciliation. That would be recognition in our Constitution. I believe the government could get a mandate from the Australian people—and perhaps they did last time—to legislate a Voice in their own right. I may not agree with that, but if the government gets the public's permission they should legislate that Voice. It is a better way to proceed given all the lack of understanding that we have seen from Aboriginal bodies in the past. You can go through all of the different bodies in Australian history. Everybody in this chamber has now acknowledged that they haven't done a great job of listening, understanding or working through government processes to produce outcomes. That's why we're here. So how is another one going to do that?
The last one point I'll make is that the government's denial of detail of any potential bill or legislation is another revealing point of their intention. Detail does matter in relation to constitutional reform. How we will improve the lives of Aboriginal people is an essential question. How will the Voice do that? No government speaker has addressed that. They've said it will. They've asserted many things, but they've not said, 'This is how the Voice will function to improve these actual practical outcomes for Aboriginal people.' At the same time they're saying we need to listen more, the government are saying that this will not be listened to because the executive doesn't have to pay attention; it just has to consult. That's their own argument—that this will not be litigated. Really, when you look at it—and there is plenty of conjecture about this—everything is litigated in Australia. So if we have a constitutional amendment and we have a bill to enshrine the Voice and a piece of legislation passes this parliament, this would be the first constitutional amendment in Australian history that wasn't litigated. I just don't think anybody can look the Australian people in the eye and suggest that there will be no litigation out of a change like this. Of course there will be and we accept there will be. That is not necessarily a reason to go against it but it is a concern that would be addressed by a piece of legislation that the Australian people could examine and that legal professionals could examine. We could test that and test how well that would work or not work. None of that has happened. So I say to people: consider this carefully, seek out the information the government is trying to deny you and consult Aboriginal elders.
The Prime Minister is fond of asking: if not now, when? But I say to the Prime Minister: if it is a bad idea, never. I won't be supporting this bill and I certainly won't be supporting the referendum in its current state. I do believe that it is sad for our country. I believe we can recognise Aboriginal people in the Constitution and that we should in the future.