As an Arrernte woman of the Central Desert I acknowledge the Gadigal peoples who are part of Sydney’s metropolitan group of 29 clans - known as Eora Nation.
I was born and raised in Central Australia, in regional Australia where far too much disadvantage exists and compounded by the challenges of isolation and distance especially for those whose home is more remote. It exists too within our major capital cities.
The many contributors to disadvantage are complex and very likely different for each and every individual. Disadvantage is not a constant state. It can change in a heartbeat. It can be lifelong. It can be inter-generational.
When those contributing factors (poverty, health, housing, stress and trauma and economic and social exclusion) and when they exist together its really tough. When they are mitigated; when we get those right, overcoming much disadvantage is indeed possible.
Disadvantage is not a permanent, perpetual state – birth does not necessarily condemn you to it. It is neither a cultural or racial matter but can present disproportionately in some groups compared to others.
Both my parents are Arrernte people – the language and cultural group of the area surrounding Alice Springs. I have close blood family ties to Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunyatjara peoples of the Central Desert.
My indigeneity is my identity. I am also so proud to be an ordinary Australian.
I was raised with culture, language, country and community and I will thank forever my parents for their belief that these things and personal and professional success must coexist – in fact they are inseparable.
In my First Speech in the Australian Parliament, just over 14 months ago I raised my concern about the divisiveness, risk and implications of a focus on race. I said:
“I get angry when others seek to define me firstly or only by race, and I know from experience it is getting worse.” (Liddle First Speech, September 2022)
And yet …. here we are with a nation divided over race.
This referendum is currently the cause of conflict in our homes, in our workplaces, on our streets and between friends and colleagues and strangers.
In Adelaide, just this week, we witnessed truly ugly scenes.
Protestors hurling racist abuse, spitting, shouting, foul, obscenities … simply because people came to hear three Aboriginal speakers explain; why we were voting NO at this Referendum Question – and why we publicly share why we say NO to voice.
And today a social media post going viral which looks to be spitting at a passer-by at a Canberra yes campaign stall.
YES. Even before a single vote has been cast this Referendum divides us and regardless of the referendum result the fallout will be enduring.
This division is palpable but in no way should it be a surprise.
When you load up with emotion a proposition, when you make it personal – rather than logical and purposeful, good people do bad things and those who behave badly – just get given licence to do worse.
The Prime Minister has split our nation. This is on him. The Prime Minister has delivered a no compromise proposition to the people and it is the Prime Minister that has overseen a terribly designed and constructed pathway to disunity!
Our foundation document, The Australian Constitution, finalised in 1901 talks about the work of the parliament, the executive government, the judiciary, the governor general, the states and territories and finance and trade. It belongs to all Australians – equally.
Yet … There was no constitutional convention on voice for all Australians to participate.
Australians are being asked a single question containing two separate notions – one being recognition in the constitution – the other being a permanently enshrined body called voice.
The voice proposition is divisive. It is risky. The details are unknown and if successful it is permanent.
Let me explain.
I’ve been watching this since Uluru 2017. Media reports way back spoke of dissent; that dissent and unrest has been public - from the very beginning.
Since entering parliament 14 months ago my reservations increased in line with the contact from Aboriginal people who don’t know what this is, who don’t believe this is the answer and who tell me they too will say no at this Referendum.
The magnificent sports stars, celebrities and ordinary Australians are not wrong for wanting to improve the lives of indigenous Australians, and they are not wrong for supporting a reconciled Australia – we all want that.
This proposition is not just about recognition.
The voice part of it is legally risky.
In the constitution words matter and Australians know to think very careful about that and they should!
In the Referendum Joint Parliamentary Committee looking at this the high court experts – judges, lawyers and academics could not agree on the extent of risk with the words “representation” “matters” and “executive government”.
The most prominent argument was the removal of “executive Government” because it lacked clarity and yet – the government proceeded. No issue is beyond its scope and no issue is off limits. Everything is, in fact, at large.
Ian Callinan AC, KC, Former High Court Judge predicts “ a decade or more of constitutional and administrative law litigation arising out of a voice … this opens a legal can of worms. It is unqualified” he said.
There were questions of a an implied “duty to consult” or a “duty to consider” and no precedent that a future high court could rely on. The flock of eminent legal and learned high court experts contributed their views but true to form and profession there was simply no agreement.
In the end, as with anything referenced in the constitution, it is not the parliament, not lawyers but the High Court that would rule on any challenge and any Australian can seek leave of appeal to the High Court.
Indeed Professors Marcia Langton and Tom Calma in their Voice Report were told by those consulted that “non justiciability must be an essential feature of voice design” and yet Professor Langton said as Chair, she was duty bound to sign off but did not personally agree with that proposition.
So what else did they write? What else are they telling us that they do not truly believe in?
A constitutional body “a committee” for one group means permanently dividing Australians.
Constitutional Academic and Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Lorraine Findlay argues: “it inserts race into the Australian Constitution in a way that undermines the foundational human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination”.
How can it be seriously argued voice is not a concept of race.
As an Indigenous Australian, voice allows me to vote, allows me to nominate or be elected to the voice and the matters it works on are intended to be relevant to me. It is without doubt a concept of them and us.
Permanency in the Constitution perversely suggests a perpetual state of disadvantage.
Not-withstanding the good work done by some service providers and public service agencies, the dysfunction sits in the service delivery system and supply chain; its complexity, its disconnect and its failure to deliver outcomes rather than outputs.
You know the saying that it is insanity to keep doing the same thing while expecting a different result – well another committee except that this one in the constitution is, quite simply, I believe, just that.
I now amplify the voices of those who are being ignored or silenced right now in this discussion.
Helen Secretary lives in the Northern Territory and is the equivalent of a mayor in a local top end community - She says no aguing it is: “a waste of money” and she didn’t want people considered differently because of their indigenous identity.
From the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Lands senior Aboriginal lore men and custodians of that most sacred place, Uluru. Mr Murray George, Mr Clem Toby, Mr Owen Burton and Mr Trevor Adamson described how they felt betrayed, disrespected and ignored as their most sacred place "continues to be used for political and promotional purpose".
Through a professional interpreter these senior men said: they don’t want to be associated with a push for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament. They don't see their hopes and dreams delivered by the Voice. They will vote no.
But they know Australians want and can do better.
These people who say no exist. These people who say no are real. They are not the product of artificial intelligence as some have wrongly claimed – and they have found a way to have voice about voice.
I’ll turn to constitutional recognition.
I’ve not yet come across any Australian that disagrees with wanting to improve the lives of Indigenous Australians – not one single conversation – not anywhere.
I have also not heard any Australian who does not agree with recognising the 70 – thousand year old history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders – not a single challenge to that notion – not anywhere.
The Coalition has always supported a form of recognition but this proposition is over-reach.
I appreciate that there are people politically, professionally and personally invested in this and that may have clouded and galvanised their no-compromise position but this is such an important decision and is not one to be made on emotion; intimidation or for posterity.
Its been argued too that race is already within our constitution and that is true. Section 25 is redundant – a relic of the past and relates to who cannot vote.
Section 51 gives effect to “special legislation” for people of any race that deals with Indigenous cultural heritage, native title and land rights and it allowed for the Northern Territory intervention.
Section 51 remains unchanged with this change.
Many of the architects, the collaborators and the promoters of voice know this too well because they were there in the early land rights struggle, in the negotiations on native title and yet here many of them are convincing us voice is, and must be, the only way forward.
Now let’s move to some truth telling.
We’re bombarded with claims and now slick advertising that Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peoples do not already have a voice. That is simply not true!
I’m one of 11 politicians in the Australian Parliament today. It’s a pretty impressive collection of voices.
There’s an Indigenous ambassador, there are indigenous advocates, commissioners and there’s the experts in the Coalition of Peaks - comprising more than 80 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled organisations representing some 800 organisations.
The Coalition of Peaks already speaks to the Parliamentary Cabinet, to Ministers and has no restriction on who they speak to, or what they speak on.
Indigenous Australians also have a voice through more than 3000 bodies that are funded more than $5.3 billion of Commonwealth Indigenous-specific expenditure to improve the lives of our most marginalised - particularly the nearly 140,000 thousand indigenous Australians living in remote or very remote areas.
The role of the National Indigenous Australians Agency that reports to the Minister for Indigenous Australians – an Indigenous woman herself, and whose sole purpose is delivery of Indigenous programs is overseeing the $4.3 Billion investment through its role of advising government on improving lives through consultation and engagement.
The Albanese Government’s own Budget Papers in October 2022 and May 2023 use language of codesign, collaboration – these are existing concepts, language and practice within processes of the parliament and in the executive government.
Last week I attended the Australian Press Club to hear my colleague, Sentator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price speak on the Referendum.
I was pleased to see adorning their walls pictures of indigenous speakers, presented a bit like an honour role.
Eight esteemed speakers who identify as Indigenous Australians four of whom are coincidentally also on the government appointed Referendum Working Group – and one of the eight being a Federal Member of Parliament.
The evidence is everywhere that Indigenous Australians already have a voice. Maybe we are not doing enough listening, maybe it’s the wrong voices in the wrong conversations –whatever the answer its surely NOT YET ANOTHER committee called voice.
Individuals can talk directly to their local members of parliament – they can participate in and can contribute to the joint and select committee processes as individuals or through organisations on matters that interest or affect them – just so many ways to be heard. Some of these are replicated at a state and territory level.
There’s also the Australian media.
What is most often raised about this Referendum question is confusion about what Australians are being asked – and here we are on the countdown to Referendum on October 14.
Well the answers are simply not there.
Failure to provide detail, to respect discourse, appears a deliberate design feature of this well-financed, well-resourced and well-rehearsed campaign.
We don’t know which recommendations contained in the report by Professors Calma and Langton are wholly endorsed by the Prime Minister.
There seems confusion in the working group itself about the detail. I’ve heard working group spokespersons reference the body is about negotiation rather than representation.
I like you, heard the PM tell us this is merely a “modest proposal” and a few weeks later it was “modest no more”.
From the yes side we are just seeing YES.
We don’t know how voice will be funded – that is still being worked out
We don’t know how its members will be selected – that is still be worked out.
Much of the detail we are told will come after the referendum.
There is no limit to scope so it entirely feasible yes advocates can legitimately talk about reparations, compensation and a focus on treaty and truth telling.
In reflection, as a person who, in addition to my two children taking care of two wards of the state who at their young age had already had devastating life experiences I wonder how much focus is on children and their challenges as adults. Of course it won’t be on them.
Will they hear the voice of Benny – a child taken away in the Northern Territory by police in a way that was brutal, inhumane for any child – regardless of the reason he could not stay.
Will voice step in for the family, with several children, who had been living on a concrete slab for two years in the heart of Alice Springs. I don’t think so.
So lets talk about accountability because that’s not beign talked about near enough.
The issues created by the service delivery supply chain in government, in not for profits in Aboriginal Community Controlled needs a major over-haul.
Its easy to talk about this like this. If the driver and the engine is not working separately and together as they should, the wheels won’t move as they should and won’t maximise traction with the ground – where it matters the most.
In short its about parliaments, public servants policy makers, program providers and people doing better. With much of the money from the Commonwealth going t the states and territories – the accountability focus is actually quite clear.
Right now I am demanding accountability and greater transparency for the most vulnerable when the Albanese Government won’t.
We need to do more of what we know works and be fearless about stopping what doesn’t and being courageous in sometimes giving the task to someone else.
For example, Cape York residents are witnessing disturbing crime trends as Aurukun and Kowanyama they’ve had more offences than it has residents. Cape York unemployment is double the Queensland average.
Lets talk native title and land rights and of benefits reaching rights holders now and the future flow of entitlement to future generations. Important conversations that we don’t nearly hear enough of. Just where are the inter-generational benefits going.
In recent parliamentary sittings my colleague Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and independent Senator Lidia Thorpe prompted by heart-wrenching and concerning stories of the impact of mal-administration and potentially corruption sought a parliamentary enquiry to hear from the people who depend on these services. What works and what doesn’t.
But no said the Labor Government. It was a no from the Greens and no from Senator David Pocock. They did not support and important and timely inquiry.
Transparency, accountability and outcomes was our goal. We got nothing. These voices are maybe too inconvenient, too loud and too uncomfortable because they are talking about issues too close to home.
The Prime Minister could have legislated voice but he didn’t!
When it is in the constitution it is permanent.
Didn’t we want to avoid everything being about race.
Do we really want to elevate and amplify difference. History tells us a focus on difference and “the other” diminishes us all.
Action, accountability, responsibility, doing more of what works and having the courage to stop doing what doesn’t delivers change.
Being future focussed and focus on potential, possibilities and performance is the mind-set that changes lives.
My personal and professional experience tells me voice is the wrong path.
I’ve worked across many industries, in the resources sector, in tourism, stakeholder engagement and in communications and I’ve created opportunity for well over a thousand Indigenous Australians to forge career change with me.
I have undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications in management and in business as well as professional qualifications in governance and ethics and with that experience and learning I have cemented my position. And, since coming into politics 14 months ago, I can see how, from there we can do so much better.
We must use the levers already available to US decision makers. We don’t need more Canberra-based finger pointers, more reports, more advice, more talk - we need action, accountability and progress on the ground where it counts.
The irony is that whatever the result –this country has put us all on notice that we can should, and must, do better.
The PM and his Indigenous Affairs Minister have already demonstrated one of the main concerns about Voice. They only hear the voices they want to hear – muffling those they don’t.
The voice will not likely deal with practical day to day issues for the most marginalised; the most disadvantaged; or on issues of family violence, poverty, getting children into school – the experts will continue to do that.
Imagine what that $364 million dollars and the enthusiasm of those corporate and philanthropics could have achieved if they committed to those causes – rather than an unknown, risky and divisive voice.
We’ve already been told by the voice architects voice will be about treaty, reparations and compensation and that’s even before people are elected or appointed to it.
No-one can tell the voice what it can make representations on – not even the minister or the prime minister.
I want to take a moment to acknowledge and celebrate the significant achievements to date because truth telling tells us it not all bad.
In my home state of South Australia, more than half of the indigenous population is in the labor force - including nearly a quarter employed as professionals or managers.
Nearly 300 - thousand indigenous Australians in the labor force hold jobs across the broad spectrum of industries, from tourism, government, health and construction to education, agriculture, mining, law and so on.
The number of indigenous businesses grew by 74 per cent between 2006 and 2018 and with that more than 22 - thousand jobs were created.
Supply Nation-registered Indigenous businesses earn more than $1 billion per year with revenues growing at an enviable annual average rate of 12.5%. The game changer was the Coalition’s Indigenous procurement policy.
42% or 145 thousand indigenous households own a home with or without a mortgage – but yes we can and should do better.
Between 2016 and 2021, median weekly household income for indigenous households grew by more than 18%, compared with a growth of 11% for other households - but yes again we can and must do better.
It is not a race of people that needs a voice. It is a group of disadvantaged people within that race of people, that need a voice. They don’t need this voice; and they don’t need it in the constitution to make the difference for them.
Where issues are greater then we must hear, engage and act more in these places.
On the way here and as you leave here your will see and hear a barrage of advertising. Its slick, its emotional and its based on celebrity endorsement – as wonderful, incredible, contributing Australians as they are.
Think of this advertising no different to any other. It may come with a great jingle. It may include great people who have done great things for our country. It may be everywhere BUT it does not mean that the product is good for you – and this offering is forever – not for this generation but for the next and the next and the next.
A deliberate design feature is we don’t have detail on voice but we can talk about what we do know.
Reconciliation Australia says their work will continue regardless of the referendum result.
The PM has confirmed that you are not racist if you vote no.
If you want to really walk together as equals – don’t support the idea of treating people differently based on race. Don’t condone over-reach, but demand the same not different and, don’t agree to locking unequal treatment into the Australian Constitution forever.
Whether you can trace your ancestry back 70,000 years ago, or you became an Australian seven years or seven days ago, the Australian Constitution belongs to you equally and that’s why we all get a vote.
I’d would like to have been able to vote for constitutional recognition but for me, as an indigenous Australian, this referendum with its divisive, risky and unknown voice is the wrong proposition and so I must on polling day say NO.