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Press conference – Parliament House, Canberra

The Hon Mark Dreyfus KC MP

Prime Minister of Australia
Anthony Albanese MP

Minister for Indigenous Australians
The Hon Linda Burney MP

Cabinet Secretary
The Hon Mark Dreyfus KC MP

Joint transcript


Subjects: Referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament

ANTHONY ALBANESE, PRIME MINISTER: Today, our Parliament has said 'Yes' to holding a referendum. Now, the Australian people will have a chance to say 'Yes' to reconciliation and 'Yes' to constitutional recognition of First Nations people. The Uluru Statement from the Heart begins: "We, gathered at the 2017 National Constitutional Convention coming from all points of the southern sky, make this statement from the heart."

It goes on to say:

"With substantial constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia's nationhood. Proportionately, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are alienated from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future. These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem - this is the torment of our powerlessness."

It goes on: "We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution."

It concludes with some powerful words: "In 1967 were were counted. In 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future."

Walk with us. Powerful words, a gracious request. And I say to my fellow Australians: Parliaments pass laws, but it is people that make history. This is your time, your chance, your opportunity to be a part of making history. It will be a moment of national unity, a chance to make our nation even greater. A gracious chapter in the great story of Australia. This change isn't about detracting from the 122 years of our democracy. As the Solicitor-General in his written advice says clearly - it enhances that system. This has been the culmination of years of discussion, consultation and patient hard work by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves. And what shines so brightly at the very core of its gracious request is the desire to bring us all closer together as a people reconciled. This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lift our great nation even higher. Recognition of this continent's first people in our nation's Constitution, listening to their voices on issues that impact them, making concrete practical change that makes a difference to people's lives, people making themselves heard across our great nation. In the regions and beyond, in the remotest corners of our vast and beautiful continent that we share with the oldest continuous culture on earth. All those voices rising across Australia like the head waters of a thousand creeks and rivers, joining in to a mighty current - a chance to walk together as one to a better future.

LINDA BURNEY, MINISTER FOR INDIGENOUS AUSTRALIANS: Thank you so much, Prime Minister. The person who is physically not here today, but I can assure you that he is here in spirit is, of course, our beloved Patrick Dodson. I wanted to particularly say that - and he'll be watching, so hi Pat - we have done it. Today, everyone, it is a big day because today this Senate has passed the Constitution Alteration Bill without amendment. This is the final hurdle to holding a referendum later this year on constitutional recognition through a Voice. It's on. We are one step closer to finally recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our nation's founding document. One step closer to giving a voice to the needs and aspirations of Indigenous Australians. One step closer to unifying Australia and making a great country even greater. Today, the political debate ends. Today we can start a national conversation at the community level about what a Voice is, why it's needed, and how it will make a practical difference. And to those Australians who want to know more, I say this: the idea of constitutional recognition through a Voice began with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a generous invitation to all Australians to walk a path to a better future. The Uluru Statement was a culmination of more than 12 regional dialogues, 1,200 Indigenous elders and leaders from across Australia, listening to advice from the ground in communities. Now, politicians may not like everything that the Voice has to say, but that's how a good democracy should function. What I can say for certain is that our democracy and decision-making will be enhanced by the Voice because listening to a range of opinions is essential for good policy. And let me be crystal-clear: the Voice will give independent advice to the Parliament and the government. It will be chosen by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people based on the wishes of local communities. It will be representative, community-led, accountable and transparent. It will work alongside existing organisations and structures. This is what Indigenous Australians want and this is why more than 80 per cent of Indigenous people are voting 'Yes' in the referendum. Can I thank the working group, the legal expert group, and the engagement group members for their hard work, for their advice, for their incredible resilience over the last little while. This is not about symbolism or tokenism, it's common sense. For too long, Indigenous Australians have been consistently worse off than non-Indigenous Australians. The Closing the Gap data shows us that. It's a broken system. And the Voice is our best chance of fixing it because when we listen to people on the ground and consult with locals, they make better decisions and achieve better outcomes. That is why we need a Voice. So vote 'Yes' to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Vote 'Yes' for a Voice and 'Yes' to a better future.

MARK DREYFUS KC, ATTORNEY-GENERAL: It's 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. Today, the Australian Parliament has responded to that request and approved a referendum to be held later this year for our Constitution to end more than 120 years of exclusion and omission and recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as Australia's First Peoples in our founding legal document. That constitutional change will enshrine an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice in the Constitution. And through the Voice, we will listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to create practical change and make a difference where it matters in areas like health, employment, education, housing and justice. The Australian people can be confident that we have got this right and that this is constitutionally sound. No harm can come from this referendum, only good. The Parliament has done its job and now it is 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.

PAT ANDERSON AO, REFERENDUM WORKING GROUP: Parliament has done its job, as it is supposed to do. It has taken us a long time to get to this position, much longer than the 12 years this is. In fact, we have been calling for recognition, respect, acknowledgement since the first boats came here. From 1840, people in NSW were calling to petition the King, and we thought a higher authority for someone to hear us and do something to help us. Today, Parliament did its job and now as it says in the Uluru Statement: the question is set, the amendment is set and we can go out and talk to the Australian people, which is what we said. It is a gift to them. The limitations of politicians, they have a lot of things to deal with, but the Australian public, the Australian people will decide what sort of a country we are. What do we stand for? What are our values? Who are we? That is what we will vote on soon in this referendum. It is big. It is important. This is a milestone in who we are as a nation today. And I believe, despite everything that has happened to me and my family and everybody and every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person in the country, there is a fundamental belief you will all do the right thing at the right time.

RODNEY DILLON, REFERENDUM WORKING GROUP: This country has taken a major step today, the first step towards recognition of our people, who have been invisible, in this country for a long time. Invisible. My ancestors behind me have been invisible. Today is an important step for this country to mature. It is only a young country, but we have matured a lot today. And I see in the Parliament there today, when people from both sides were on one side, it was very heartening for me to see that step. And that gives this country a great indication that we are starting to work together and walking together. Politics can be taken out of this. Because in the past, politics has played a major role in this. Not helping. We have been used like a political soccer ball in the past. And I see today, we are not. We are coming together and holding hands. These steps we take as a country today are going to be some of the most important steps we take in my lifetime and in some of your people here today's lifetimes. They are important, do not underestimate that. The things that have happened to our people in the past are no joy. There's no joy in the prison system. There's very little joy in the education system, the housing system, all of these systems that have been broken down and have been not working, this will play a role in giving advice and making those better. This is an important role that this is going to play for this country. I see the social determinants on the other end that are so wrong. And I can see that this can be so right for this country. The reason I support this - and this Government and the Opposition to work together as well - to make change for the better for our people. Because it hasn't been like that. We've been in a war zone for a long time. So I think that this makes that change. And it puts our hand out, our hand goes out to everyone to make change in this country. And I just see this as an important role. So having those outcomes, from the advice that this group will give our country is going to be so important. And all that it is is advice. At this stage it is important to take notice that this is advice to make change, to make it better for out people. Because it hasn't been better. And we want to make that change. We see it everywhere. Everyone in this room knows where Aboriginal people sit in this country. And this can make a huge change. And I'll be interested to see in ten years' time who is standing here and how much change is made.

JOURNALIST: Any Australian who has just watched the Senate would have seen some pretty full on division there over this reform. On one hand, we had Lidia Thorpe saying she's voting 'No' because this is powerless. On the other hand we had Pauline Hanson saying she would vote 'No' because it was going to be too powerful. What is your answer to Australians who might have seen that? Will it have any power at all? And won't the division in the Senate today undermine the Voice? And does it worry you that conflict might defeat the Voice?

PRIME MINISTER: I would make a few points. One is that, if people look at the balance of some people saying this goes too far, some saying it does not go far enough, I say we have got the balance right. We have got the balance right. This will be an advisory body that is not a funding organisation. It will not run programs and will not have the power of veto over the decisions to be made in the National Parliament. It is just that, an advisory body. But voice is a powerful word, because it will give First Nations people a voice. And it is up to us to listen to that voice. The truth is, that for most people watching this, it will have no direct impact on their lives. But it just might make lives better of the most disadvantaged group in Australia today. We have been doing things for 122 years for Indigenous people, often with the best of motives. It has not worked. If you do the same thing the same ways you should expect the same outcome. This is an opportunity to do things better. Instead of doing things for Indigenous Australians, make change with Indigenous Australians. To overcome, as I said, quoting the Uluru Statement, the 'torment of powerlessness' - powerful three words, that say so much. We seek the opportunity for us to listen. And I believe that we have got that balance right. It does not change our system of Government, but it does give people a Voice.

JOURNALIST: Do you think people have got their heads around what the Voice is yet? And how much influence do you think the pamphlets will be for voters?

PRIME MINISTER: I think the pamphlets will be one thing they will consider. But they will consider other things as well. The truth is that not every Australian knows we have a Constitution. Many Australians will focus when the referendum is called, which needs to be called, like a federal election, 33 days out. So, many Australians will just begin to focus. That was always going to be the case. That is the nature of the lives Australians have, where they are focused on things that directly impact on them. They will know now, that they will have an opportunity to vote in the last quarter of this year. And as the referendum approaches the date, there will be greater focus.

JOURNALIST: What is the timeline from here? Would announcing the date sooner rather than later help charge the campaign for or against?

PRIME MINISTER: We will have a discussion about that. Let us be very clear about this. People can't say I held back, within the first sentence of my being not even declared Prime Minister, the first public statement I made, was about this. I then went to Garma and put forward draft words. I then last year said that Parliament would consider it in the House of Representatives in March and we would have an inquiry and determine it in June. I said it would be in the last quarter of this year. So it can be any time now, from two months and 33 days, and six months, that is the timeframe between. We will have discussions, including with my friends here, about a precise date. But people know it is coming in that last quarter. And I think we have been very transparent and open about that to give people the opportunity to give consideration to its. But to go to the previous question, for many Australians, they will focus I am sure in the months leading up to the referendum.

JOURNALIST: You said the time for politics are over. Members of your Caucus last week expressed concern that the 'Yes' campaign had not done enough to step up quickly and allowed the 'No' campaign to get a foothold. Do you share those concerns? And what are your message to the people running the campaigns today?

PRIME MINISTER: That is not right. I am the Prime Minister and I go to Caucus meetings and that was not expressed. We know that getting constitutional change in Australia is a difficult thing to do. It is a difficult thing to do. We know that from history. They also said you could not win a by-election that was held by the Opposition if you were the Government. We did that just a little while ago. What we are doing here is something that frankly is more important than any by-election that has ever been held. This is about who we are as a nation and whether we will move forward more reconciled. The campaign is being led by the people in this room and others, the thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people who were part of this process leading up to 2017. That is as it should be. This is something that has not arisen in Canberra. This is a Voice to Canberra, from every region, from remote communities, from every corner of this land under the southern sky, as the Uluru Statement says. So, we will continue to be part of a campaign. I intend to campaign. People in my Caucus intend to campaign. People in the Liberal Party will campaign. People across the board will campaign. What we see and what I see is that people in the business community have declared their support. Every major peak business organisation has declared support. The trade union movement have declared support. Every major sporting code has declared support. Every major faith group in Australia has declared their support. Civil organisations like ACOSS and Salvation Army and others have declared their support. That support has been won by people who have examined it, who have looked at their own organisations and had their own processes. Now it is up to the Australian people. Everyone has one vote. And I encourage people to engage in the debate as we go forward.

JOURNALIST: The confidence that everyone seems to have in the outcome of this referendum, is that backed up by concrete numbers?

PRIME MINISTER: I have faith in the Australian people. And I have faith that we will put our case - and I will ask people to comment as well - but I have always had faith in the Australian people. You cannot predetermine these things. And it is difficult to win a referendum. We knew that at the beginning. We knew that. We know that is the case. We expect continued misinformation. But we will run a positive campaign about why this makes a different and say to Australians, as I think my friend Mark Dreyfus here just said, 'Where is the downside here?' What are people risking here compared with how things have been working up to now? From my perspective, this is all upside. And that is why I am very confident that a positive campaign will produce a positive result, and that we will produce something that we can be proud of. And we go back to all the other advances that have been made in my time here. The Apology to the Stolen Generations, it did not happen until there was a change of government, didn't happen until 2008 because we were told of all these downsides. Not one of them proved to be correct. Just as Mabo and Wik and all of these gains that have been made over a period of time have produced positive outcomes.

ANDERSON: The level of maturity is required here irrespective of our political beliefs and the philosophies that we hold. It is a universal truism when you involve people you make decisions for, you make better decisions and a better allocation of resources that are required. This is fundamental to any democracy. Australia is one of the few liberal democracies in the world that does not have any arrangement, any settlement, with its first people. And what is on the table is, out of the disadvantage that many of our families and communities face, most of us here - including the Minister - we have spent our lives in the trenches, as our parents before us and generations. There is 65,000 years standing here. This is big for us and we can do better than we are doing. It is not a big ask. Yes, it has to have some power and you will give us the power when you vote 'Yes', we have the mandate of the Australian people. And then we can talk as equals, more equal with the Parliament and the executive of the day. Although the word 'advisory' is used, it is a very powerful word in this context. That is why we went for enshrinement in the Constitution because we have tried everything else. We've set up committees, done this and that and nothing has worked. Me and Linda, the Minister, we have worked a generation of us inside and outside trying. We do get advances, but only through our own activism, nothing has been given to us. That is a falsehood that blackfellas get everything because we do not. There has been advances and achievements but through our advocacy. And we are coming to you again as we have done all of the generations before us, and we get questions like that. But we will answer any question. But let us get some principles on the table here.

JOURNALIST: You mentioned the Stolen Generations there and I wonder if you want to respond to some fairly inflammatory comments that Senator Pauline Hanson made in the Parliament during the debate this morning, which I think will surprise many people of the Stolen Generation. And we have seen the tone continue to deteriorate, and there are people who are saying they are concerned to talk about their position on the Voice to Parliament for fear of repercussions. I wonder what do you say about how we have this debate?

PRIME MINISTER: I didn't see what Senator Hanson said. But I'm sure it's consistent with things that she said in the past and don't intend to respond to them, because I don't think that they are worthy of a Prime Ministerial response. I will say this. I will call for a respectful debate across the board, no matter what way people are voting, for the advocates to do their best to stick to the facts, to not say things that they know are not true, that they know are not true. And during this campaign, we've already seen the ramp up of 'What does the Solicitor-General think?' We published the Solicitor-General's advice. No-one talks about it any more. We should be very aware of the things that will be raised like that, looking for things that just aren't there. This is constitutionally sound. People should have a respectful debate in my view. Australia will be a stronger country, I think very strongly about this. I am completely unequivocal about this. I think I said, when I stood in this room with some of the same friends here, I said, 'We are all in'. Absolutely, we are.