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Consideration in detail – Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice) 2023

The Hon Mark Dreyfus KC MP

I thank the member for Berowra for his support for the Voice and engagement on this issue over many years. He has demonstrated his principled support for the Voice despite personal political cost. I know that the member for Berowra is moving these amendments in good faith because he thinks these amendments might improve the prospects of the referendum succeeding. With respect, the government does not agree with the member for Berowra. In our view, these amendments are neither necessary nor desirable.

The first amendment proposes to omit from the constitutional amendment the words 'in recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia'. These introductory words reflect the fact that establishing the Voice is an act of recognition in the manner sought in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. These words will pay respect to the unique status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia and the more than 60,000 years they have occupied this continent. These words will rectify over 120 years of explicit exclusion and omission in Australia's founding legal document. The constitutional expert group has advised that the introductory words appropriately and succinctly explain the purpose of the amendment without giving rise to any legal concerns. The government agrees. The second amendment proposes to omit section 129(ii). Section 129(ii) is a vital component of the bill. It provides for the core function of the Voice—that it 'may make representations to the parliament and the executive government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples'. Section 129(iii) gives the parliament broad legislative powers with respect to matters relating to the Voice, including the power to legislate in relation to the legal effect of the Voice's representations. But it is important that the Voice's function of making representations to the executive government is guaranteed in the Constitution. Without that guarantee, a future parliament might entirely remove the ability for the Voice to make representations to the executive. It is the executive government that makes policies and develops proposed laws about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. To improve the laws and policies that affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and to improve outcomes, the Voice must be able to make representations to the executive government.

Australians can have confidence in this constitutional amendment. The two changes proposed by the member for Berowra should not be supported. The bill as introduced should be passed by this House and ultimately put to the Australian people.

As I said at the end of the second reading debate, it has been just over six years since more than 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates gathered at Uluru from all points of the southern sky to make the request for voice, treaty and truth. We in the parliament have spent many hours discussing how to fulfil the first part of that request, a request built on more than a decade of work. But it will soon be up to all Australians to make a choice. It will be up to the Australian people to take the opportunity offered by the Uluru Statement from the Heart in 2017—an opportunity for our nation to do better, to come together and to walk towards a better future.