Ms Ley (FarrerDeputy Leader of the Opposition) (17:52)

I’m pleased to speak on the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023 and, in so doing, make clear my views on the question that will be put to the Australian people at the upcoming referendum. At the outset, let me reiterate the Liberal Party’s position that all Australians deserve to have their say on that question—not big business, not big sporting codes, not political parties. All those bodies and more will make their views known and will put forward the case for yes or no. But, ultimately, it will be the Australian people who decide. The outcome is in their hands.

Whilst I will be voting yes to this bill, I will be voting no to the Prime Minister’s question. The Prime Minister’s proposed reform of the Constitution is unsound. It is my strong view that a yes vote will not result in better outcomes for Indigenous Australians, but it could result in worse outcomes for all Australians.

The term ‘outcomes for Indigenous Australians’ is often used in this debate, and it is used in the context of closing the gap in Indigenous disadvantage. We should pause and ask ourselves what this means and what we seek. In my view, it means measures that help children to feel safe in their own homes and beds, help women to be safe from violence and sexual assault, support families to stay together in secure housing, bring down the disproportionately high rates of smoking and health conditions such as type 2 diabetes and kidney disease, normalise going to school and work as a regular part of everyday life, and lower the rates of Indigenous incarceration. While these outcomes are practical in nature, there is, of course, a spiritual, moral and ethical dimension to closing the gap, but the work needed to advance these practical outcomes illustrates that the mission of reconciliation remains unfinished.

The overwhelming majority of Australians want to see the gaps closed. They want to see these better outcomes realised, and they want the reconciliation journey to continue apace. You can want all of that but still vote no because you do not believe that this referendum question is the right one. As my friend the member for Berowra often says, people of goodwill can disagree. My own local church parish leader, Father Peter MacLeod-Miller, who wrote to me over the weekend, noted: ‘It would be a tragedy if the referendum left us more divided than we have been before and more fearful of offering a range of perspectives because of righteous intolerance.’

People of goodwill can disagree, and in this referendum people of goodwill will disagree. But, increasingly, this Prime Minister acts as the self-proclaimed moral arbiter of Australia’s national conscience, not as a leader seeking consensus. Again and again, when given the opportunity to provide the detail, the Prime Minister takes the low road and hurls insults instead. Regardless of whether ‘yes’ narrowly wins or narrowly loses, millions of Australians will vote ‘no’, and they deserve better than their Prime Minister referring to them as ‘undertakers preparing the grave to bury Uluru’, ‘Chicken Littles’ or anything else with such deplorable connotations.

We cannot be in a situation, either, where those on the edges of radical politics belittle and demean Indigenous Australians, blaming them for their suffering and ignoring the realities of what has caused them their pain. Hardliners on both sides of this referendum need to take a long, hard look at the words they choose, because language matters; discourse matters. And there is a special obligation on the Prime Minister to keep this debate respectful, because, if he continues to descend into the gutter, how on earth can he lecture anyone else about the evils of joining him there?

I do believe there is a lack of understanding in society today about intergenerational trauma and how it cascades through generations. We have examples in our own history. When young men came back from the war, some were unable to manage relationships or show love for their children. Those children endured very difficult childhoods, and, in turn, were not always able to shake the lingering effects from their own decisions. Some turned to alcohol and drugs in order to cope, and that continued the pain in their own families.

But trauma in our Indigenous communities is especially severe and protracted. That is why at the heart of closing the gap is the need to break the cycle. Just because you did not personally experience dispossession, loss of identity and loss of country does not mean that you are not affected; nor does it mean you carry no burden.

The apology was an important moment in our country’s history. I was proud to support it then and I’m proud to support it now. As I said at the time:

The lessons we learn in very early childhood are the lessons we carry with us all our lives. Not having proper parenting very early on, not knowing your family and not knowing who you are are obstacles many find impossible to overcome. The pain of rejection and loss do not go away.

Knowing all of this, some say that it is nevertheless not our fault and we should not apologise. If previous parliaments are no longer around to say sorry, then it is up to us as the present parliament to apologise.

In 22 years as a federal parliamentarian, I have travelled to many Indigenous communities across the country. No-one can deny the enormous gap in living standards that exist between most non-Indigenous Australians compared with our First Australians. There is much more work to be done, and all Australians must be engaged in bridging the divide in distance and understanding for a more unified and confident nation.

As environment minister, I ruled against a go-kart track on the top of Mount Panorama, recognising the sacredness of the songlines that link the tops of all mountains for Indigenous peoples. Listening to different views from local tribes, I also made a decision that the remains of Mungo Man and Mungo Lady needed to be re-interred in unmarked graves, rather than continuing to be kept like scientific experiments in a safe at the tourist lodge, to the real distress of their descendants.

In both of these situations, not every Aboriginal person agreed with either the decisions I made or with each other. As with most complex social issues, people think differently.

How, therefore, do you capture deeply-held convictions and unique bonds of connection, kinship and country? I do not believe the answer lies in the proposal advanced by the Prime Minister. I do not believe that the path forward is through a group of appointed national leaders residing at the top of our system of government with an unlimited, untested ability to interact not just with elected representatives but across the full spectrum of executive government and with supreme authority gifted by the Constitution.

How can this group of just 20 have the detailed understanding, networks or even decision-making capability to reach across, and provide advice on, the myriad bespoke challenges in each and every local community? And how can a top-down bureaucracy be better than a bottom-up, community-led, locally-empowered Voice—one which speaks with local authority and local purpose, from every Indigenous community across Australia, backed by legislation, in this parliament?

This is why I was and remain such a strong supporter of local and regional voices as prescribed, initiated and undertaken by the previous Liberal government. I see this as a critical step towards improving the trajectory of people’s lives.

Recently Senator Kerrynne Liddle and I visited a family living on a concrete slab on the edge of Alice Springs. Originally travelling from an outstation, they had been there for months so that one of their own could receive medical treatment at the Alice Springs Hospital. It was confronting to see people in modern Australia living in such squalor and hopelessness.

It made me angry. Unfortunately, the situation would have continued if not for national media attention bringing a necessary and urgent response. On one level, the family was let down by the government. On another, they were let down by the Aboriginal council charged with assisting them. Disadvantaged communities need practical action to make a difference today, and the Voice won’t do that.

The desperation of remote communities that have so little is often invisible to those living in the cities. But that is exactly what this Prime Minister seeks to disingenuously appeal to—the enormous goodwill and good nature of all Australians.

The Prime Minister constantly implies that, if you are horrified by reports of Indigenous children in crisis and you want to do something to help, you must vote for the Voice because it will help. But, sadly, it will not. It will add an extraordinary layer of bureaucracy to every single decision the government makes, adding time, adding complexity and keeping communities waiting even longer for real measures that make a real difference.

I know that the argument of too much bureaucracy is dismissed by ‘yes’ advocates as a dreary political answer to a challenging moral question, but you can see what excessive bureaucracy has done to Aboriginal Australians in the past. It has prevented decisions being made precisely because of just how many competing issues and areas of responsibility are involved. Those issues won’t go away with the Voice; they will actually become entrenched.

There have been well-meaning efforts over many years to bring together all levels of government in one place, and I saw this in western New South Wales with a COAG initiative called the Murdi Paaki trial. I encourage people to read the evaluation not because it necessarily failed but because it is a clear demonstration of just how difficult and challenging Indigenous policy is.

In this case, 16 community action plans were delayed and not finalised. People couldn’t agree. If this doesn’t point to the need for local and regional voices then I don’t know what does. If you read this evaluation and superimpose a national Canberra led voice over the top, how could it be anything but counterproductive?

When I go to the ballot box later this year and vote no I will do so with conviction but with a heavy heart. If the question were different and about enshrining Indigenous Australians as our First Australians in the Constitution, the recognition that enjoys bipartisan support in this place, and this was accompanied by legislated local and regional voices than I would enthusiastically vote yes. As Father Peter also noted in his letter to me: ‘National leadership under our system of government affords the flexible option of legislation without permanent constitutional amendment.’

The truth is that, by pursuing his my-way-or-the-highway approach, the Prime Minister is putting the whole mission of reconciliation at risk. If the Prime Minister wants to achieve what he says he does, his first duty should be to bring all Australians with him. There’s no stopwatch in this process. There’s no call to action that says it must be completed in the next few months. The timeline is entirely the Prime Minister’s.

I appeal to the Prime Minister: if you look into your heart and the heart of the nation you lead and you see division, misunderstanding and, yes, even fear, do not rush to failure. Instead of insulting and demeaning the millions of Australians who are going to vote no, I urge the Prime Minister to work constructively with the opposition to legislate what we can agree on and then go to the Australian people with a referendum question that enjoys bipartisan support—constitutional recognition backed by legislated voices.

As I said on the day that the opposition leader and I announced our party’s position on the Voice, it was a day of many yeses—yes to constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians, yes to local and regional voices, yes to better outcomes for Indigenous Australians, yes to Indigenous Australians having their say and yes to uniting this country behind doing everything that we as a parliament can to strengthen outcomes for Indigenous Australians but a no to dividing Australians.

To all Australians I say this: it’s okay to vote no and still remain part of the national effort to help your Indigenous brothers and sisters as you look on with anguish at what is happening in their communities. It’s okay to vote no and still demand better action from all politicians when it comes to closing the gap. It’s okay to vote no full stop. And it’s okay to vote yes, too.

What is not okay is to feel a moral compulsion and a coercive guilt to vote a certain way because of the tenor of this debate. It’s not okay for the Prime Minister to bully you into a decision. It’s time for the Prime Minister to stop the insults and the moral blackmail. That’s what will divide our country and tear at the fabric of our beautiful nation. Significantly changing our country’s Constitution cannot be allowed to proceed just on the vibe. The Prime Minister has deliberately starved Australians of crucial details at every juncture. He has been deliberately tricky.

An increasing number of Australians—I believe them to be a majority—feel they do not have enough information to ratify the permanent change to our Constitution that the Prime Minister demands. This isn’t even about tinkering with an existing section. Australians aren’t being asked to make modest revisions or improvements to words already there; they’re being asked to enshrine an entirely new section. This is exactly why the High Court would be eventually called to interpret the Voice’s full scope and powers, and no-one can predict the outcome of that interpretation on our system of government.

I’ve made my personal views known in the speech, but, as I said at the outset, this is going to be for each and every Australian to decide. Irrespective of the final result, I will continue to pray that we stay together as a country true to the spirit that has made us who we are and what we are. Ours is a story that enmeshes an Indigenous history, a British liberal democratic inheritance and the most incredible mosaic of multiculturalism anywhere on earth.

As Australians approach this greatly consequential national debate, we cannot lose sight of the importance of every single part of our national story.

That is how we stay strong, that is how we stay together and that is how we advance the next chapter of our unique Australian story, advancing Australia fair together, one and free.