The Statement from the Heart delivered at Uluru last May contains the aspirational statement:
We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.
The idea of constitutional recognition has a deep emotional pull.
It is part of a broader project of reconciliation and recognition of the unique status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our nation.
We have kept the inspiration of the Statement from the Heart and our shared personal commitments to support and achieve constitutional recognition at the forefront of our minds while co-chairing this Committee.
We have set significant differences aside and worked together to focus on what we might achieve in this Committee.
Beyond the poetry of the Statement from the Heart is the prose of political reality—the need to ensure that our recommendations provide for a form of constitutional recognition that is legitimate and acceptable to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as well as our parliamentary colleagues across the spectrum, and ultimately to the Australian people.
Although the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples was asked to consider the work of the Expert Panel, the former Joint Select Committee, the Statement from the Heart and the Referendum Council, the Statement from the Heart was a major turning point in the debate.
Not only did it bring a new element, The Voice, into the debate but it rejected much that had gone before in terms of proposals for constitutional recognition.
The rejection of all previous proposals was a shame because there were previous proposals which would command broad political support; but we acknowledge that at Uluru they seem to have been taken off the table.
At the centre of the Statement from the Heart is The Voice. The Voice is the matter on which we have focused most of the efforts of this Committee.
The recommendations of this report build on the work of the interim report of this Committee. We raised questions in that report, to which there were some responses, but not as many as we hoped.
In the interim report we flagged that the next step would be co-design of The Voice involving:
... a process of deep consultations between the Australian Government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in every community across the country, in order to ensure that the detail of The Voice and related proposals are authentic for each community across Australia.
That is what we promised and that is what we have delivered in this final report.
Since the interim report a division of opinion has emerged as to the political tactics that should be used to achieve constitutional recognition.
Some have argued that there should be a referendum passed as the first step. Others consider that legislation should be developed to establish The Voice by an Act of Parliament and, once that is done, the Government should proceed to a referendum to entrench the guarantee of The Voice in the Constitution.
Others have argued for an extended process to educate the public before either legislation or referendum. Lawyers have provided various models and have taken positions on one side or another.
But these are just matters of political tactics.
The key point of this report is that The Voice should become a reality, that it will be co-designed with government by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples right across the nation.
After the design process is complete the legal form of The Voice can then be worked out. It will be easier to work out the legal form The Voice should take once there is clarity on what The Voice looks like.
Leaving aside any questions of the need to build further political consensus, it is difficult to proceed to referendum today on The Voice when this Committee has received no fewer than 18 different versions of constitutional amendments which might be put at a referendum.
Our political judgements as to the best approach may differ. However, we fully understand that to succeed a referendum must be passed by a majority of the Australian people and a majority of people in a majority of states. This is a high bar—achieved on only eight occasions in the last 117 years and never without strong bipartisan support.
The Co-Chairs come from different political party perspectives and have been working to seek common ground.
Senator Dodson comes to the work of this Committee from the Australian Labor Party which has committed to the establishment of The Voice and to taking it to the people in a referendum. His party has also committed to a Makaratta Commission for truth-telling and agreement making.
Mr Leeser comes to the work of this Committee from the Liberal and National Party Coalition Government, which, while supporting constitutional recognition, has expressed concerns over the role and function of a Voice to the Federal Parliament instead preferring the establishment of local bodies in the first instance.
Both of us have worked to find a shared, agreed position on what could be possible for the major parties to agree and which could gain the support of the Federal Parliament, including the cross-benches.
The commitment to a Voice, and the commitment to co-design of that Voice are significant steps for the Parliament to discuss and consider. They are significant steps towards a bipartisan and agreed approach to advancing the cause of constitutional recognition.
Finally, since the interim report the Committee has heard significant evidence about truth-telling, a matter raised in the Statement from the Heart.
We believe there is a strong desire among all Australians to know more about the history, traditions and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their contact with other Australians both good and bad. A fuller understanding of our history including the relationship between Black and White Australia will lead to a more reconciled nation. We have made some recommendations about how this might be achieved.
On behalf of the Committee, we would like to acknowledge and thank everyone who has worked with us including those who made submissions and gave evidence. In particular we would like to thank the Committee Secretariat for their work on the report as well as Kevin Keeffe and Philippa Englund from our offices for their support.
We commend the report to the Parliament.
Senator Patrick DodsonMr Julian Leeser MP