Tuesday 30 May 2023
This year, millions of Australians will be asked to vote on the constitutional amendment in this Bill.
The choice we make will be the most consequential electoral decision of our time, perhaps since Federation.
For it’s poised to create a new institution of government. And, of concern to many, it will bring back an old idea, one we thought we had expunged – the idea that there are two kinds of people, two kinds of Australians.
This choice will be made by the people. It’s important they know what is at stake.
So today, I want to speak directly to my constituents in Canning.
In our community, we are new Australians, we are seventh-generation Australians and we are first Australians.
Together, we all long for a nation, where our sons, and our daughters, know they are equal.
And know they belong.
We are grieved by the moments we lost our beliefs in our shared humanity, of equality before the law, of our common dignity.
Perhaps no moment was more shameful than on 28 October 1834, when Captain James Stirling led a detachment of 24 soldiers and civilians to a bend in the Murray, 20 kilometres Southeast of my home, and led a murderous ambush on 80 Bindjareb Nyungar men, women and children.
At least 15, but perhaps 50, were killed in cold blood. As bad as any atrocity that I’ve heard of in modern warfare.
Stirling later admitted that it was his plan all along, not just to punish with “decisive severity”, but to “appall” the local Aborigines.
Some local settlers, like Thomas Peel, were delighted by Stirling’s actions—receiving title to more than 250,000 acres of Aboriginal land surrounding the massacre site only weeks later.
Others were appalled, one Christian settler calling it a ‘shocking slaughter’.
The Pinjarra massacre went directly against the instructions given by the Crown as to the treatment of Indigenous people, that we were to “conciliate their affections, enjoining all Our Subjects to live in amity and kindness with them.”
While some forgot these directions in 1834, like Captain James Stirling, others remembered, like Captain Frederick Irwin.
And it was not simply a matter of being a good soldier who followed orders. It was more than that. It was conviction.
Captain Irwin was a man of war, make no mistake. And he came down hard on lawbreakers, settler and Aboriginal. He also believed that, while Aboriginal people may not be like him they were equal to him under the law, because they, like him, were subjects of His Majesty. And, more to the point, they, like him, were made in the image of God.
After the Pinjarra massacre, Irwin used his power and influence to create the Eliza Mission where King’s Park is today. A safe refuge from frontier violence—where Nyungar people could come and go freely for shelter, food and medical aid. Who knows how many Indigenous people we would have with us today, if it hadn’t been for him.
These are two competing visions of humanity. Captain Stirling’s and Captain Irwin’s.
In my own life as a soldier, I sense I have known both these men.
One believes different peoples have different value, and can be dispatched with great violence and without thought.
The other believes we have equal value. That we are one blood.
As Australian history has unfolded these past two centuries, Fredrick Irwin’s vision of equal value under the law has prevailed over James Stirling’s vision of violence at Pinjarra all those years ago.
The violence during early British settlement is hard history. It’s hard to reconcile with our present moment.
But there are voices from that time that speak to me. I hear the words of the Scottish migrant Robert Lyons. He felt very uncomfortable with the way Irwin was taking the conflict with the Nyungar.
It takes bravery to speak against the grain of the moment, but he did it. He pled that Aboriginal people were “guilty of no crime but that of fighting for their country. We call their deeds murder, so might they ours; but the fact was that they had a right to make war after their own manner.”
The Nyungar were people just like the settlers. People with families. People with rights. The right to defend themselves.
That principle still challenges us now. It has led us on a journey right through to today.
There have been peaks and valleys along the way, with the 1967 referendum being a high point in public sentiment for the advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
There is still much to be done as we seek an ongoing reconciliation.
The Pinjarra Massacre reminds us of the moral burden that lingers over our national history.
And, now, we consider this Voice.
With this central question: does this Voice create a new risk— of making one people more equal than another?
Or put another way: can we atone for the inequality of the past with a new kind of inequality?
I accept that many people in Canning, who share the same longing for equality between us, have formed opposing opinions on the question before us. I respect them all.
But our job, in this house, is not to merely echo these opinions.
The people who sent us here deserve more than that.
We, their elected representatives, need to wrestle with history, and offer our best judgement.
So, to be direct: I do not support Labor’s Voice.
I think this Voice is a radical departure from our parliamentary system, fundamentally changing the character of Australian governance.
One of the great challenges we face in the future is governing fairly for all Australians in a society that is becoming more diverse.
The great cultural consensus of the last century has evaporated. The rise of independent and minor parties is proof of that.
Our democracy needs to be fair for all Australians regardless of ethnicity, regardless of religion, regardless of gender, regardless of sexuality, regardless of origin.
That’s why the rule of law is central to our idea of fairness: everyone, regardless of wealth or privilege, is equal before the law.
We now see the challenge of a new toxic politics that divides people into tribes based on their identities.
I reject that politics—instead I want greater unity, cohesion and fairness in Australia.
And, sadly, this Voice - while well-intentioned - will only entrench division.
Those opposite argue that the Voice will advance the interests and welfare of indigenous Australians. But they haven’t shown us how.
It is vital that we do more for indigenous Australians. Everyone in this place is agreed on that.
That’s why we support on this side of the House—with full hearts—constitutional recognition for indigenous Australians, and the empowerment of local and regional Voices across our vast country.
When we consider Labor’s Voice, we must also balance it against the interests and welfare of every other Australian—including the many first generation migrants who have chosen Australia as their home.
And, sadly, I think Labor’s Voice undermines equality before the law—that very principle which is the great attraction for many migrants to our ancient land.
There are a few other points I’d like to note today.
First, the Prime Minister has made a mockery of this referendum process.
He has not convened a constitutional convention to build consensus on the amendment, or to refine the drafting or to narrow the areas of dispute.
He has not sought to build bipartisan consensus across the aisle.
He has rushed the Parliamentary committee process, cutting short important deliberation.
Only six weeks were allocated to receive submissions, hold public hearings around Australia and report back to Parliament on the legal effect of the constitutional change.
He has not established a YES or NO campaign, so that all Australians can easily access and consider the competing arguments.
The truth it that Labor has stacked the deck for the YES campaign at every turn. This is not democratic. Nor respectful of the Australian people. It casts a shadow over this whole referendum.
If this referendum fails, all the ensuing heartache belongs to the Prime Minister. He has not drawn the country together, which is the special task expected of a national leader.
Second, this amendment is risky. It poses a massive risk to our democratic system of governance.
Legal experts have given evidence that the amendment will impose two mandatory duties on the Government: a duty to consult the Voice prior to decisions, and a duty to consider representations made by the Voice.
This will radically change governance in this country.
Decisions delayed. Endless consultation. Gridlock.
But don’t take my word for it:
Robert French AC, a retired Chief Justice of Australia, gave evidence that it would “…make government unworkable.”
His evidence was supported by Kenneth Hayne AC, a retired High Court justice, who gave evidence that the Voice would “disrupt the ordinary and efficient working of government” so much so that it may “bring government to a halt.”
Now if you think that those retired Justices were exaggerating, take it from one of the most strident advocates of the Voice, Professor Megan Davis, Chair of the government’s referendum working group.
According to Professor Davis, the Voice will be able to speak to Cabinet, public servants, Commonwealth bodies, among others. As Voice advocate Professor Greg Craven put it, the Voice will have a say from parking tickets to submarines.
Australia has enjoyed stable democracy for the last 122 years—imperfect, yes—but unique when considered in the broad sweep of human history.
This radical and risky proposition will sever us from that tradition of stability, and entrench division and gridlock into our governance.
Third, there is no detail on the Voice. How will it interact with the Parliament and the Executive? How will membership be determined? How will members be appointed? For how long? How much will it cost?
How will my local indigenous people—the Bindjareb Nyungar people, long-time custodians of Mandjoorgoordup and the surrounding lands—be represented? Will their voices be heard among the many others from across this land?
These questions are fundamental to the consideration of this proposition.
The Australian people can’t make an informed decision without answers to these important questions.
Fourth, this constitutional amendment will be permanent. It can’t be undone. It’s final and certain.
Given all the risks to stable governance, the lack of detail on the Voice itself, the shoddy process and partisan approach by Labor—we cannot gamble with our unique democracy, and hope this radical change will work out on the other side.
Had the Prime Minister led a proper consultative process, had the Prime Minister reached out across the aisle in a spirit of unity, had the Prime Minister hammered out the detail, had the Prime Minister engaged with the risks and sought to minimise them—we might be seeing a vastly different approach to this referendum.
Instead, the Prime Minister has failed to lead and I fear his legacy will be one of division and heartbreak—setting the cause of reconciliation back for generations.
Finally, a word on the debate itself. I have heard some nasty comments from the YES side directed at those who have questions about the Voice, firing off accusations of racism and bigotry and nastiness. I won’t repeat them here. But this has to stop.
We all must show respect, good faith and tolerance. To my constituents: it’s ok to vote either way, after considering the arguments.
And having considered the arguments, I will be voting NO—in the best interests of all Australians, to uphold equality before the law and for the future stability of our democratic country.
I say today:
We are all of one blood.
One. Not two.
One and free.
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