Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong recently addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Accompanying Wong on the trip was Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen and ‘Special Envoy for Reconciliation’ Pat Dodson. Wong told the General Assembly that Australia believed the UN and its forums “need reinforcing”, especially as others “seek to undermine them
At the General Assembly, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres noted the world had a number of problems to work through and
listed war, climate, the continuing pandemic, rising poverty and inequality. Those last points are where Pat Dodson comes in. The Aboriginal senator, who Wong introduced to the news conference as the “father of reconciliation”, had a series of high-level meetings progressing the Albanese government’s First Nations foreign policy.
Critical to this policy is the government’s commitment to right a historic wrong — the unrecognised, unceded sovereignty of the Australian continent by its original inhabitants.
There is no other polite description than ‘historic wrong’. The ‘First Fleet’ sailed into Sydney Cove in early 1788 and proceeded to set up a settlement. There was no apparent thought given to the people that were clearly already living there who were pushed away from their traditional lands as the settlement expanded. Commonly known as the ‘frontier wars’, the exercise in dispossession is claimed to have caused the death of 20,000 first nations people between 1788 and 1928, part of our history that will be acknowledged in the expansion of the Australian War Memorial that is currently under construction
Since 1788, more often than not the first nations people of this country have been under-represented in the halls of power and over-represented when inequality is considered. There are examples in most jurisdictions within Australia of first nations people being corralled into ‘settlements’ and ‘missions’ outside the view of the ‘respectable’ members of the community. Those in power used titles such as ‘Protector of Aborigines’ which they seemed to believe gave them absolute insight into the ‘needs and wants’ of first nations people. The ‘stolen generations’ where children were forcibly removed from the parents and expected to assimilate into European culture are all the evidence we should need to demonstrate our misguided actions. Even if the actions were considered appropriate at the time, clearly no one in authority thought to question for a second the actual wishes and desires of first nations people in comparison to the perceived wishes and desires inherent in the implied ‘superiority’ of ‘European civilisation’. Needless to say the Implied needs or wants had nothing to do with the reality. As a country we have a long history of ‘protectionism’ and abuse of first nations people who have the oldest civilisation in the world despite being dispossessed of their land from the time the First Fleet arrived in 1788, although the civilisation wasn’t in the European tradition.
The ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ website gives a potted history of the process to date that hopefully will create effective equality between the descendants of first nations people who were dispossessed and those that have immigrated to this country since 1788
. There have been a number of attempts and processes put into place over the past years to address the obvious discrimination, culminating in the Uluru Statement from the Heart in 2017. ‘The Voice’ process, as the first step recommended by the Uluru Statement, was adopted by a joint party committee of the Australian Parliament in 2018, despite the Coalition Government rejecting the proposal in the Turnbull era.
The current government came to power with a policy of providing a ‘voice’ for first nations people to Parliament. The proposal they have announced that will be put to a referendum is
Do you support an alteration to the constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice?
The actual intent is
A First Nations Voice to Parliament is the first reform called for in the Uluru Statement. This is a Constitutionally-enshrined body of First Nations with a direct line to Federal Parliament, able to influence laws and policies that affect First Nations communities first-hand — at the point they originate. A constitutional Voice is both symbolic and substantive recognition.
Despite that, right wing Liberal Senator Gerald Rennick
has described the Indigenous Voice to Parliament as a “divisive measure”.
“I’m opposed to it on principle; we are one race,” Mr Rennick told Sky News Australia.
“I do not know why you need that in the constitution.
“There is already a voice, we are all a voice.
If we are ‘all one race’ why is it that first nations people have a shorter life expectancy
, lower levels of income
and typically worse health outcomes
than the population generally?
Like all consensus decisions, some would prefer alternatives to the ‘Voice to Parliament’. It is also easy to create theoretical outcomes of a yet to be implemented policy based on no or incomplete information, then hold the theoretical outcomes up as a reason why the policy should be scrapped. Using the same logic, no one would ever plan an overseas holiday in a year’s time, take out a mortgage or make any plans for the future as there is always the possibility it just won’t happen. Some have valid reasons for their viewpoint, others such as Rennick and former Prime Minister Abbott, with his claim of ‘institutionalising discrimination’ are opposing for the sake of opposition — something it seems the Liberal Party is very good at.
Prime Minister Albanese has argued that the ‘Voice to Parliament’ is clearly not a third chamber of Parliament, or a process to subvert the government of the day. The referendum will occur in 2023 or 2024.
Former Prime Minster Rudd started the reconciliation process with his apology in 2007, it’s long past the time to demonstrate the apology was more than just words by including first nations people in the decisions made about them by the Australian Parliament. The ‘Voice to Parliament’ is the consensus view of the best available option for this to occur and should be supported.
What do you think?