With Jacinta Nampijinpa Price in Melbourne

31 August 2023

By: John Roskam

… and what Malcolm Turnbull used to say about the Voice

So now we’ve got a date – Saturday, 14 October. There might topics other than the referendum I’ll be writing about over the next few weeks – but it’s unlikely. I named this newsletter ‘One & Free’ for a reason. Those words from our national anthem sum up what Australia is and should always strive to be. An indigenous-only Voice to parliament is an assault on both those ideals. The Voice would permanently divide Australians according to their race. We would not be ‘One’. And it would threaten the concept of us ‘Free’ – no longer would all Australians have an equal right to choose how we are to live together. Some Australians would get the right to vote for and be represented by a Voice enshrined in the constitution – and other Australians would not.

That’s some of what I talked about on Monday night this week at the Burwood Uniting Church Hall here in Melbourne at a public information session on the Voice. It was organised by David Davis MLC, a Liberal member of the Victorian State Parliament and was booked out within a day of being advertised. I had the privilege of speaking at the event together with Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, Senator James Paterson – Liberal senator for Victoria, and Louise Clegg – a Sydney barrister.

It was a wonderful evening. Senator Price talked about her husband Colin and her four sons, three of whom would be able to vote for the Voice, and one who couldn’t, her stepson. She spoke about her blended family – just like Australia – and she said neither her country nor her family should be divided by race. It was powerful – and absolutely inspiring. If you haven’t had the chance to see Jacinta talk about her background and her family you can watch this documentary here. It’s called ‘ONE, TOGETHER’.

At the end of the event a nice lady came up to me to introduce herself and she commented – ‘It’s interesting how the two Australians who speak most passionately about our country’s values are both women – Jacinta Price and Gina Rinehart.’

Now to turn to Malcolm Turnbull. He’s taken a high-profile role in the Yes case and a few days ago was in his Yes t-shirt campaigning in Sydney with Tanya Plibersek and Teal independent MP, Allegra Spender. Then yesterday in an opinion piece published in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age he wrote this:

I will be voting Yes in the referendum on the Voice. Constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians is long overdue and has been a bipartisan policy objective for many years. It’s time to get this done…

Back in 2017, when this idea [the Voice] was new and lacked detail, my government did not support it. We had two major concerns. First, we believed it had no chance of success in a referendum…

Our other major concern was that the Voice would create an institution in the Constitution, the qualification for which was something other than Australian citizenship. For me, as a republican prime minister, this was particularly important. I believe our head of state should be one of us; an Australian citizen, not whichever English aristocrat happens to be the king or queen of the United Kingdom.

I have wrestled long and hard with this issue of constitutional principle, and I have concluded that while the Voice amendment is not entirely consistent with my egalitarian, republican values, nonetheless we are better off supporting it.

Turnbull’s argument doesn’t make sense. His claim that he originally rejected the Voice because he’s a republican is incoherent and as you’ll see below he makes no mention in his memoirs of his republicanism as a reason for his opposition to the Voice. Later in the piece he claims that while it won’t have an actual veto, but the Voice will have a moral and political veto.

It will not have a right of veto, but it will have considerable influence in matters relating to Indigenous Australians. As Prime Minister Anthony Albanese observed recently, it would be a very brave government that ignored its advice on a matter relating to Indigenous Affairs.

Anthony Albanese has said constantly the Voice is a ‘modest’ proposal. But Turnbull that’s not what Turnbull says. Again from his piece.

The Voice is intended to be powerful. It seeks to address what the Uluru Statement from the Heart called the ‘trauma of powerlessness’. It should be very influential.

The Voice is either ‘modest’ (Albanese) or ‘powerful’ (Turnbull) – it can’t be both.

And the contradictions continue. In parliament on 20 June this year, Linda Burney the Minister for Indigenous Australians said:

I can tell you what the Voice will not be giving advice on. It won’t be giving advice on parking tickets. It won’t be giving advice on changing Australia Day. It will not be giving advice on all the ridiculous things that that side has come up with.

Maybe Turnbull didn’t get the memo. In his newspaper piece he said something different.

The scares and diversions whipped up over the Voice have been utterly predictable. Let me deal with a few of them: Will the Voice give advice on the date of Australia Day? I am sure it will recommend the date be moved. So what? That’s hardly a novel suggestion.

This demonstrates the confusion and, dare it be said, even the ‘misinformation’ of the Yes side.

But there’s more to what Turnbull wrote yesterday than just the contradictions of the arguments for Yes. He noted that he had indeed opposed the Voice in 2017. And that was his position as recently as 2021 when in the second edition of his memoir ‘A Bigger Picture’ he explained his views. I’ve written out the relevant section below – it’s a long excerpt – but it’s important as an insight into the history of the Voice, and the role of Noel Pearson and then opposition leader, Bill Shorten. And finally his government’s statement on the Voice of October 2017 remains an eloquent statement of how our ‘democracy is built on the foundation of all Australian citizens having equal civic rights’.

The most controversial issue during my time as prime minister was undoubtedly that of constitutional recognition and in particular the proposal for a ‘Voice’ to parliament. The Australian constitution makes no acknowledgment of the First Australians other than to discount them. Prior to the 1967 referendum, under the constitution Aboriginal people weren’t counted in determining a state’s entitlement to seats in the House of Representatives or per capita grants from the Commonwealth. Moreover, the Commonwealth parliament was expressly prohibited from making laws with respect to Aboriginal people. Since 1967 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have been counted and the Commonwealth parliament does have the power to legislate with respect to them. The 1967 referendum was a watershed and seen as granting political equality to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians but the legacy of dispossession and disadvantage left a lot to be done.

There had been a reference to the First Australians in the new constitutional preamble proposed in 1999 at the same time as the republican amendments – but both failed to carry a majority in the referendum. Howard had promised the revisit the Indigenous recognition issue in 2007. Not much progress was made in the Labor years, but in 2014 Tony Abbott had promised to ‘sweat blood’ to achieve it.

When I became prime minister, I formally appointed the members of the Referendum Council, already chosen by Tony Abbott. There were equal numbers of eminent Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and their task was to develop and propose a set of constitutional amendments.

A huge amount of work had been done by many groups and committees, not least of which was Reconciliation Australia, and the reform agenda was focused on recognition of the Aboriginal history of Australia in the preamble, the removal of archaic racist provisions (like section 25), and the insertion of some language to require the Commonwealth parliament to exercise its power to legislate for the advancement or benefit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

I was fully committed to delivering this constitutional recognition and, while I’d inherited the process and the personnel from Abbott, I worked closely with the council, as I did with Bill Shorten, to seek a proposal that was both acceptable to Indigenous Australians and would succeed at a referendum.

The Referendum Council planned to conduct a series of consultations in the course of 2017 to culminate in a conference at Uluru on 23-26 May 2017. There was a meeting of the council in the cabinet room on 25 November 2016. Bill Shorten and I both attended, as did the Aboriginal members of parliament – Ken Wyatt, Linda Burney, and senators Malarndirri McCarthy and Pat Dodson.

Referendum Council member Noel Pearson said that he was expecting the Uluru conference to recommend that there be a change to the constitution to establish ‘a Voice’, which would be a national advisory assembly composed of and elected by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. He said the parliament would be obliged to seek the advice of this assembly on any legislation affecting Aboriginal people. He had no more detail to offer – his theory was that the constitution should contain a generally worded requirement, with the parliament to be responsible for the detailed design. The object of the constitutional amendment was so that the Voice couldn’t be abolished, as ATSIC had been in 2005. Few lamented the loss of the Canberra-based peak body, which had been discredited by poor governance. However, there was and remains regret that the local regional councils had been abolished as well.

A general discussion followed and there wasn’t a lot of support for the Voice around the room. Shorten and I both expressed the same view: we weren’t comfortable with the constitution establishing a national assembly open only to the members of one race, and moreover we both said we thought it would have no prospect of success in a referendum. ‘A snowball’s hope in hell,’ as Bill had previously said to me.

I pointed out to Noel that surely the objective should be to have more Indigenous Australians elected to the parliament – we were after all in the presence of Ken Wyatt and Linda Burney, the first indigenous man and woman to be elected to the House of Representatives. [In 2016 as Turnbull mentions, there were four indigenous members of parliament. Today there are eleven. Indigenous members of parliament are a higher proportion of parliamentarians than are indigenous Australians in the country’s population.]

Noel said, ‘So, you’re saying we can’t recommend a Voice!’ I responded they could recommend what they liked; it was just that I didn’t think it was a good idea, let alone one that would be carried in a referendum.

After the meeting was over, I returned across the corridor to my office and Pearson followed me. He then became very angry, stood very close and started to swear at me because I hadn’t agreed with him. I didn’t respond in kind. ‘Noel, you can recommend whatever you wish – you’re entitled to my honest opinion, not my acquiescence.’

Pearson abused Ken Wyatt and Pat Dodson when they spoke to him later that afternoon. He seemed furiously indignant that everyone hadn’t agreed with him.

Both Shorten and I were presented with the final report of the Referendum Council on 30 June 2017. It contained the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’, which recommended the Voice to parliament as Pearson had proposed. The council also said that the Voice was the only constitutional amendment they recommended. In other words, all the other proposals and options were rejected. It was the Voice or nothing.

The ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ left me deeply conflicted. It was a beautiful piece of poetry, a cry for a say, for agency, for respect. But it contained no detail at all about how such a Voice would be designed.

And how could there be any real limits on what it advised on? After all, every piece of legislation affects Indigenous people. It was unrealistic to say that parliament could, or would, simply ignore the Voice’s advice, or decline to give it time to consider that advice.

In practical terms, such a Voice would effectively evolve into a third chamber.

And where would its legitimacy come from? Who would define the franchise, the eligibility of someone to vote for the Voice? How would small, remote communities get represented at all, given that the vast majority of Indigenous Australians live in cities?

And how would the Voice relate to or advise state and territory parliaments, who are primarily responsible for most of the policy areas that impact on the day-to-day lives of Indigenous Australians – such as health, education, justice and child protection to name a few?

Pearson’s idea was that some general language establishing the Voice would be put in the constitution as ‘a hook’ to enable the assembly to be established. But given the near impossibility of persuading the Australian people to vote for any contentious change to the constitution, what hope would you have with a proposed change that lacked any of the detail?

Lucy and I attended the Garma Festival at Gulkula in Arnhem Land in August 2017 and the night before the main events, we sat around a campfire with Bill Shorten and Labor MP Linda Burney among others. Bill announced that he was going to say he’d support the Voice. I asked him why he’d changed his mind. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘you decided to come here, and so I had to come too. And we can’t come here and say we don’t agree with it.’

When I spoke at Garma on Saturday 5 August, I did so honestly and respectfully. I said that the cabinet was giving the Voice careful consideration and described some of the problems of the proposal, both practical and principled:

“What would the practical expression of the Voice look like? What would the voice look like here for the Yolngu people? What would it look like for the people of Western Sydney, who are the largest population of Aboriginal peoples in Australia?

Is our highest aspiration to have Indigenous people outside the parliament, providing advice to the parliament? Or is it to have as many Indigenous voices, elected, within our parliament? What impact would the Voice have on issues like child protection and justice, where the legislation and responsibility largely rest with state and territory governments?”

My cabinet were overwhelmingly supportive of my view that we shouldn’t establish a Voice to parliament in the constitution. On 26 October 2017 we formally rejected the proposal.

Here is part of my joint statement with Attorney-General George Brandis and Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion.

“The Government does not believe such an addition to our national representative institutions is either desirable or capable of winning acceptance in a referendum.

Our democracy is built on the foundation of all Australian citizens having equal civic rights – all being able to vote for, stand for and serve in either of the two chambers of our national Parliament – the House of Representatives and the Senate.

A constitutionally enshrined additional representative assembly for which only Indigenous Australians could vote for or serve in is inconsistent with this fundamental principle.”

I couldn’t agree more.