Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023

SECOND READING DEBATE - HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

Voice. Treaty. Truth.

A call in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. A generous, warm invitation to Australians to support our Indigenous people; to join them on a journey to create a fairer, kinder, gentler and more inclusive country. An ask from a people who had their language oppressed; a people who were denied a count, denied a vote and denied their existence once this country was colonised. I am struck whenever I think about the notion of our referendum for a Voice. This referendum gives us as a country a moment to say yes, a moment to thank our First Australians for their 65,000-year custodianship of the land that we call home. It's an opportunity for us to right some wrongs, to progress our country. It is this generation's turn to step forward to progress the agenda, and it is our time to create a Voice to acknowledge a people with 65,000 years of continuous cultural connection to this country.

One of my first political memories was as a very young teenager. I was going home from school where we'd talked about a referendum to count Indigenous Australians in the census. I remember going home quite stressed, marching into the kitchen with some aspect of dread because I planned to ask my mother how she voted in that referendum. You can't imagine the relief for this young girl who had decided that every Australian should have voted yes and dreaded that perhaps my parents hadn't. You can imagine the relief when my mother said: 'We voted yes. Your father and I voted yes.' I shouldn't have been surprised, but when we'd been discussing it at school no-one had mentioned that over 90 per cent of Australians across six states had voted yes.

What a resounding moment that must have been for our country. What a wonderful moment for Australians to know that they were part of a journey to progress this country beyond the limitations of colonialism. And we now have this opportunity. We have this opportunity to move this, to progress this one step further. And we do so without fear. I will vote yes in this referendum without fear, because I know that, despite the misinformation program being run around the country, there is no fear in this for the Australian population. I know this is about continuing the journey.

We should vote yes. We should do it for the Yorta Yorta peoples who, in 1881, asked the New South Wales government for land grants. We should do it for William Barak, the Wurundjeri elder who, in 1886, petitioned the Victorian government in opposition to the protection bill. We should do it for King Burraga and for Yorta Yorta man William Cooper who attempted to petition the king for representation in the federal parliament that the Commonwealth did not pass along.

First Nations people have been asking for 90 years for a say in their country, and this is our chance to join in a referendum and grant that request, delayed as it is. We should approach this referendum with the spirit in which we've been asked. For me, as a former school teacher, I'll be voting yes for every student I interacted with in my English classroom over decades, where we sat together and watched Frontier, the ABC documentary miniseries about the forgotten wars in Australia. I'll be voting yes for every young person who sat in that classroom and was confronted with a history that they had no idea of before. We should do that because there are still Australians who have no idea about those frontier wars. There are still Australians who believe the myth of terra nullius. There are still Australians who believe that colonisation meant that our Indigenous population miraculously just moved to the centre of Australia and led a peaceful life there. These are the myths.

We should vote yes for every Indigenous writer, for every Indigenous singer-songwriter, for a people who have forgiven us so much. And we should do it for every young person in this country, for their compassion, for their empathy. I think of the young people that I taught and, when these issues would come up, their outrage at our history, their outrage pre-dating the apology. We should do it because we've been on this journey for such a long time. We've been on this journey—for me it's been since that day when I asked my mother that question about that previous referendum. We watched Gough Whitlam with the sands with Lingiari. We listened to the Redfern address. We listened to the 'sorry'. We saw the reconciliation marches across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Now we have an opportunity to embrace the future, to support the calls from our First Australians. We should do this for my friend Anita. We should vote yes for all of those who are part of the stolen generations. Anita is my friend, and she told me she had memories of riding her horse through town, followed by Aboriginal children who at the time she didn't know who were her cousins, because she was part of that generation. We should do it for her grandchildren—my nieces, Alix and Caitlin. We should do it to acknowledge in our Constitution that the First Australians existed then and still exist today.

This is a great opportunity, and the referendum provides all Australians with the opportunity to have their say. The passage of this bill today is required to hold that referendum to amend the Australian Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia in the Constitution by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice. Once this bill is passed by an absolute majority of the House and an absolute majority of the Senate, a referendum will be held in the second half of this year. I know standing here the excitement in my local community about that referendum. In the City of Wyndham this year there will be 15,000 new citizens created, some thousands already done in the first half of this year, and when I meet with those families and when I meet those new Australians it's one of their questions. They're very excited about a referendum, they're very excited about being part of Australia's democracy and most say to me they will vote yes. For them, thinking about 65,000 years of continuous connection to this country is unfathomable. They are stunned when they hear about that continuous connection to this country, and they as new citizens want their opportunity to acknowledge that. They want to be part of a country that's on this journey. They want to be part of a country that can look back at its history since colonisation with honest eyes.

Let's be serious: this referendum acknowledges First Australians through a Voice to Parliament and will progress the other parts of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Once we have a voice in that Constitution, truth and treaty will be what follows. This is an important moment for Australia, an incredibly important moment. I personally cannot express how privileged I feel to stand in this place to even discuss it, to be here while this parliament considers this referendum, this moment in history that is before us. It feels somehow like we've always been driven towards this, that we are compelled. The Australian people get to say if this journey continues, and a yes vote, when this comes, will create that.

I commend this bill to this chamber because I commend the advancement of the ideas enshrined in this bill for this country. It will build a sense of unity that we haven't felt since the 1967 referendum. It gives us an opportunity as Australians to say that we are all-embracing, to say that we are an inclusive country, to acknowledge our past, 65,000 years worth of past, to acknowledge that First Australians belong in the Constitution and that a Voice to Parliament and a voice to government is what has been missing, despite 90 years of recorded history of First Australians asking for this. It's an incredibly important opportunity.

I commend this bill to the House, and I would ask all members here to support this bill to create the referendum and to take us on that united journey where, as a country, we can imagine ourselves going forward, completely united around the acknowledgement of the First Australians in our Constitution. They sound like dry words, but what they mean to me is that, in my decades on this planet and in this country, this is an incredibly important moment, and not just a historically important moment. This moment will be about the future. In this House, when we vote on this bill, we take the first step towards what that future might look like. Despite the things that were done to First Australians in the earliest years of the colonies, despite the deaths in the frontier wars, despite the suppression of language, and despite the stolen generations and governments allowing children to be taken from their families based purely on race, this is an opportunity for us to nod at the past and move forward as a united country where we acknowledge, and have the opportunity to acknowledge, First Australians in our Constitution. It's a small ask but a huge agenda that that would bring forward, where we could move together as a country, healed, and that's the most important part.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart, as the Prime Minister says so often, is a generous invitation to walk on a journey with First Australians. Voting on this legislation in this parliament is the first step. Then a referendum and a vote at that referendum is the second step, and what a unifying day it potentially could be. I know that, in my part of the world, the families that I represent and those I speak to are really looking forward to the opportunity that this referendum provides, they're really looking forward to the notion of uniting Australia around this idea and they're really looking forward to having a Constitution that actually acknowledges our history, most importantly. I commend this bill to the House. I look forward to the vote. I look forward to the referendum.

 

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