Dutton, most Coalition MPs absent as Voice to Parliament referendum bill introduced to parliament
Callan Morse – March 30, 2023
Government MP’s react after Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus introduced the constitution amendment bill to parliament. Image: Alex Ellinghausen.
The bill that will trigger this year’s referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament has been introduced in the House of Representatives.
Only a handful of Coalition MPs attended parliament to see Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus introduce the constitutional amendment bill, with opposition leader Peter Dutton along with the majority of the Opposition absent from the chamber.
Mr Dreyfus said the amendment would acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia’s constitution and rectify more than a century of explicit exclusion experienced by First Nations Australians in the country’s founding legal document.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have occupied the Australian continent for over 60,000 years and represent the oldest continuous living cultures in human history,” Mr Dreyfus said.
“Yet Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are not recognised in our Constitution… the Constitution never recognised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of this country.
“They were not represented in the constitutional conventions leading to federation.”
The legislation, which already has the support necessary to pass both houses of parliament, will enable a referendum to be held for Australians to vote on whether to enshrine the proposed Voice to Parliament and formally recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia.
Mr Dreyfus said the referendum presented Australians an opportunity to “acknowledge our history and come together for a more reconciled future.”
Reiterating the words of Referendum Working Group member Noel Pearson, Mr Dreyfus said Australia “doesn’t make sense without recognition” and that until First Nations peoples are recognised in the constitution Australia was “a nation missing its most vital heart”.
Mr Dreyfus detailed the purpose of the Voice to Parliament, its abilities and composition.
“The Voice will determine when to make representations by managing its own priorities and allocating its resources in accordance with the priorities of First Nations peoples,” he said.
“The Voice will be proactive. It will not have to wait for the Parliament or the Executive to seek its views before it can provide them.
“But nor will the constitutional amendment oblige the Parliament or the Executive Government to consult the Voice before taking action.”
Mr Dreyfus said despite the best of intentions and efforts of successive governments, Indigenous Australians continue face significant disadvantage in life expectancy, educational attainment and overrepresentation in the criminal justice system, with 11 of the 15 Closing the Gap targets not on track.
“On our current trajectory, the gap will not be closed by 2030,” he said.
Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said the constitutional amendment bill was about “recognising and listening”.
“On our current trajectory, it will not close in our lifetimes.”
Mr Dreyfus said it was “time for a different approach” following decades of calls for a body representative of Indigenous Australians.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a long history of advocating for parliamentary representation, land rights, civic freedoms, constitutional recognition, and to have a say on the laws and policies that will work best for their communities,” he said.
“Too many times those calls have not been heard – or they have been ignored… It is time to open a new chapter. It is time to listen.”
Following its introduction, the Voice referendum bill will be refereed to a joint select committee, where it will be examined for approximately six weeks before being returned to parliament for debate.
Once the bill is passed, the government must hold the referendum no sooner than two months and no later than six months from its passage.
At this stage, the referendum is expected to be held on a Saturday between October and December.