OPINION | It's time Indigenous Australians had voice in Parliament


Crispin Hull


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The chatter and clatter about Australia Day and Indigenous recognition may have abated a week out from 26 January, but it will never go away until the matters are resolved.

The victorious allies treated the vanquished Germans after World War I and II better than the colonising British and their Australian inheritors have treated Indigenous Australians. At least the Germans got a treaty after the first war and a lot of help after the second to bring their standard of living up to or better than that of the victors. Not so in Australia. And our Indigenous people were not the aggressors.

The reference to European conflict is pertinent. For a long time Australians wondered why the Europeans got themselves into stews over centuries-old blood feuds, battles and ethnic wars. The call, “Remember 1389”, or some other seemingly irrelevant grudge or grievance lost in time, seemed a bit silly from Australian eyes.

Well, we have one of these grievances of our own. And do not imagine that it will be forgotten just because 600 years or so have passed. After all, 230 years have passed since British colonists claimed other people’s land as their own on 26 January 1788, and it is not forgotten.

Australia Day and the failure to duly recognise self-identifying Indigenous people will still be a grievance in 2388 unless it is properly dealt with.

It is like the Basques, the Catalonians, the Balkans, Ireland and Palestine. Without resolution by the people in those geographic areas, the festering sores and grievances go on, to the detriment of all those peoples.

With resolution, however, whatever happened in the past no longer becomes grievance.

This is why the Uluru Statement of May 2017 is so apposite. It sets out what is needed for resolution.

“We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution. Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle.”

But Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull rejected it just five months later saying it would amount to creating a third chamber in the Parliament. Last September Scott Morrison as Prime Minister endorsed Turnbull’s view.

Just to highlight how out of touch the Liberal and National parties are, this week the two biggest mining companies, BHP and Rio Tinto, publicly supported the Uluru statement.

Turnbull and Morrison did not even give Indigenous people the courtesy of asking, “What do you mean by a ‘voice’?”

They just assumed it meant a group of elected Indigenous people who would have a veto over legislation – a third house.

But it need not be like that. Sure, it must be more than some glib symbolic statement of recognition. For decades now Indigenous people have heard endless public speakers begin their speeches with paying respect to Indigenous leaders and recognition of ownership of the land. But it has not come to much.

Further, Indigenous people are right to want constitutional recognition. The intervention showed that, without it, legislation can easily erode Indigenous rights.

But it need not be a third house. There are other options. One proposed by Tony Abbott several years ago (about which he has since gone silent on) has a lot of merit.

It follows the New Zealand principle of giving Indigenous people representation in the Parliament.

The Abbott proposal was for Indigenous representation in the Senate of 12 senators – the equivalent of an Original State in the Constitution. That has a symmetery to it. It would be as if the six original colonies and the original Indigenous population had come together as a single nation.

People identifying themselves as Indigenous would have the option of either voting for the Indigenous senators or voting in the state or territory of their residence, but not both.

So there could be no objection that Indigenous people were getting more than everyone else.

Of course, it is likely that the Indigenous senators would not vote as a block on most issues. It is very likely that they would stand under party umbrellas or as independents, just as the state senators do.

This would have several advantages. It would give a constitutionally recognised “voice” to Indigenous people. It would not be a third chamber giving Indigenous people a veto. Even if the Indigenous senators were party members, they would still look out separately for Indigenous interests, just as Tasmanian or Queensland senators look out for Tasmanian or Queensland interests.

Importantly, it would provide an Indigenous voice in the respective party rooms.

There have been nine Indigenous members of the federal Parliament since Neville Bonner became a senator in 1971: three Liberal, three Labor and three from minor parties. So the parties have little to fear from Indigenous representatives being all from one party.

At present the 798,400 people who identified as Indigenous represented 3.3 per cent of the people as at the 2016 census, according to the ABS. And that percentage is rising. The Indigenous population is higher than that of Tasmania, the ACT or the Northern Territory, all of which have Senate representation.

True, 12 senators would be 5.1 per cent of the enlarged Parliament, a little higher than the percentage of Indigenous people in the population, but Tasmania has 7.5 per cent of the present Parliament with only two per cent of the population.

The arguments made at the 1890s constitutional conventions in favour of smaller states having greater representation in the Senate apply equally to the Indigenous population.

It would need a change to the Constitution, of course. That would mean a referendum, which could perhaps be held on 26 January, or the new provisions could be stated to come in to effect on 26 January.

No doubt such an idea would need refining or changing after consultation, but it is a better starting point than Turnbull or Morrison’s blanket rejection of an Indigenous voice because it would amount to a third chamber. Clearly 12 senators, many of whom would have party affiliations, would not be a third chamber.

One of the joys of a meaningful recognition, voice, and Makarrata is that it would not be like an economic change, where there are winners and losers.

It would be more like the same-sex marriage change: there were no losers.

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