Indigenous voice to parliament: Pat Turner urges PM to show 'a bit of backbone'

Daniel Hurst
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Pat Turner has called on Scott Morrison to show “a bit of backbone” over the push for a genuine Indigenous voice to parliament, as she accused the government of pursuing a flawed process that was doomed to fail.

The co-chair of the Joint Council on Closing the Gap used an address to the National Press Club to warn the Coalition’s approach was high on rhetoric but shifting away from “a voice to parliament” as proposed in the Uluru statement from the heart to a more limited “voice to government”.

This meant the government-controlled process for establishing a voice was “likely to be disjointed, conflicted, and thus counterproductive” and it also created an unacceptable risk of “considerable division arising between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”, Turner said on Wednesday.

The speech represented a significant shot across the bows from a leader who worked closely with the Morrison government on securing the latest Closing the Gap agreement.

Related: Some say a voice to parliament is toothless. But together our voices are powerful | Megan Davis

Turner, who is also a member of a government advisory group on the voice, said the commitment to shared decision-making between government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was “not to be applied only at the discretion of governments when and on what governments determine”.

“The proposed voice to government – like many other incarnations that have gone before – will not stand the test of time and be doomed to fail unless these foundational shortcomings are addressed urgently,” Turner said.

The chief executive of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation said the options to be put forward for community consultation later this year would be decided by government.

She said it was to Morrison’s credit that he had “heard us” on a new approach to Closing the Gap – but she said the prime minister now needed to show leadership on the voice.

“You have to have the strong leadership of the prime minister and the cabinet, and they’ve got to be prepared to stand up for it,” she said. “We’ll need to see a bit of backbone here and a bit of real commitment. That’s what you need. Ken [Wyatt] can’t do it by himself.”

Turner said she hoped Wyatt, the minister for Indigenous Australians, accepted “our right to determine who our representatives are”.

Asked whether she got the sense that Wyatt was being obstructed by elements within the government, Turner said: “Well, I don’t know. I don’t work on the machinations that go within or between political parties. I’m just a naive observer like you.”

Wyatt is expected to take options to cabinet by the end of this year, which will pave the way for a round of consultation.

The Uluru statement from the heart in 2017 called for “for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the constitution” – but the government has ruled out constitutional change to give certainty to the new voice. The government is also keeping options open as to whether it will be put in place through legislation.

Morrison has previously likened the idea to a third chamber of parliament, a continuation of a controversial criticism his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, had used.

Indigenous and legal experts have rejected that characterisation, pointing out a voice to parliament would not have any veto powers, nor would it examine every piece of legislation.

A spokesperson for Wyatt said the government was “working in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the country to develop a practical way for Indigenous voices to be heard at all levels”.

The spokesperson said community consultation would begin later this year “with Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in urban, regional and remote locations across Australia”.

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“Ultimately, if anybody is going to advise government or the parliament, it must be established and accepted by government – any suggestion that this detracts from views or contributions of Indigenous Australians is wrong,” the spokesperson said.

Turner said she would not resign from the senior advisory group on the voice – which is headed by Dr Marcia Langton and Prof Tom Calma – because she believed it was “better to be inside the tent making the argument”.

But she warned that Australia was lagging behind other liberal democracies with Indigenous minorities when it came to setting up institutions and structures that allowed Indigenous peoples to be heard.

“How can we confidently raise concerns about human rights – whether it be the treatment of the Uighurs in China, or the death penalty in Iran, or mass incarceration and police overreach in the US, or the restraints on freedom of expression in Hong Kong – while failing to hear the cries of Indigenous Australians for justice, fairness and equality?”

Wyatt said in a recent speech that the government was developing an Indigenous voice that was “more than a voice to parliament, and more than a voice to government”.

It would empower people and it could “not be a Canberra-designed approach in the bubble of Canberra”.