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Despite an early promise by the Morrison government to deliver better outcomes for Indigenous Australians, they remain no closer to being recognised in the constitution. By Rick Morton.

Co-designing the Voice to Parliament

The minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt (centre).
Credit: Matthew Bulley, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

Shortly after winning the federal election, Scott Morrison’s government announced the creation of the National Indigenous Australians Agency. The body promised to “work closely with community” on policy and programs, delivering better outcomes for First Nations people.

There was one immediate problem with this approach. The acronym for the new agency – NIAA – sounds an awful lot like the Pitjantjatjara word nyira, which means “cunt”. Embarrassed officials have since stopped using the acronym.

It was an inauspicious start for the new Commonwealth entity, led by the minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, who himself is the first Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person to hold the role. The agency, which did not consult widely with Indigenous people about its name, was here to work with and listen to them.

Just 10 days after the new agency began work, Wyatt delivered a landmark speech about the constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians at the National Press Club in Canberra. He locked in all options for delivering an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, one of the key recommendations from the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

“The Morrison government is committed to recognising Indigenous Australians in the constitution and working to achieve this through a process of true co-design,” he said.

“… I want to focus on co-designing so I get the best possible model and the best possible set of words for the constitution that makes that long-lasting difference. If we pre-empt what everybody has in their minds then it becomes that mindset that government has got a position.”

Asked specifically about whether this plan would include the option of constitutionally enshrining a Voice to Parliament, the minister said it did.

Wyatt had scarcely left the stage, however, when the wheels of rejection began to turn. The prime minister’s office started briefing journalists and explicitly ruled out one of the options Wyatt had just publicly backed.

The prime minister’s advisers, and later Morrison himself, made it clear: there will be no mention of a Voice to Parliament in the constitution under the current government.

A month later, while delivering the Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture at Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory, Wyatt almost completely walked back his earlier emphatic support for all the options.

“I want to be very clear – the question we put to the Australian people will not result in what some desire, and that is an enshrined Voice to the Parliament,” he said.

“These two matters, whilst related, need to be treated separately.”

A lot had changed in 37 days.

 

When the voice proposal was first put to government, after unprecedented consultation and consensus-building in the Indigenous community, then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull rejected it outright. But the signals after Morrison ascended to the leadership were mixed.

Essentially, the government appeared to rule it out again before offering a confusing, surprise line item in the budget that sparked hope among Indigenous Australians. And then Wyatt cracked the door open further, before slamming it shut.

“Ken is a good guy but he is a lame duck,” one source close to the Uluru statement told The Saturday Paper. “He was rolled.”

The saga was all the more bamboozling because of that $7.3 million the Coalition had earmarked in this year’s budget – for “the co-design of options for a Voice to Parliament for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”.

The measure says: “The government remains committed to the process of constitutional recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and will conduct a referendum once a model has been settled, consistent with the recommendations of the Joint Select Committee.”

In senate estimates late last month, Labor senator Pat Dodson questioned the NIAA’s chief executive, Ray Griggs, about the sudden separation of a Voice to Parliament from constitutional recognition.

“There seems to have been a political decision somewhere, by someone, to decouple the funding for the Voice to Parliament and the referendum, and a legislative process,” he said.

Griggs responded: “I don’t think there’s been any decision to decouple funding. There’s been a decision to decouple the issues.” Griggs later clarified it was a “political decision”.

Senator Dodson pressed on: “It seems … the political circumstances have been changed and you haven’t been informed, or someone’s made a decision and you are pursuing something that was in the budget that is no longer the political position – that is, there’s no voice to be entrenched in the constitution.

“… When did the Morrison government make the decision not to pursue the enshrinement of the voice in the constitution? Was it before the minister made his Press Club address or after it? The minister is certainly on the record at the Press Club, saying, ‘We’re going to pursue the voice.’ Then something happens and he’s up in Darwin at the Lingiari lecture, and he says, ‘No, we’re not going there now.’ ”

Griggs replied: “That’s not something I can answer.”

Dominant players in the Uluru process, which has already held 12 dialogues with mob from around the country to settle on a preference to constitutionally enshrine a Voice to Parliament, have sniffed the wind.

At the Cape York Partnership, established by Noel Pearson, high-end messaging company Newgate Communications has recently been dumped for the services of the conservative pollster Mark Textor.

No formal agreement has been signed but The Saturday Paper has been told Textor has already begun work on strategy.

The development hints at a more bare-knuckle political fight, which has raised eyebrows within the broader movement.

In Shireen Morris’s book Radical Heart, the lawyer who was a senior adviser on constitutional reform to the Cape York Institute throughout the Uluru process recounts one particular moment after the statement was finalised. She writes that Textor “sent an angry text to some Indigenous leaders, suggesting that Noel had killed the recognition referendum by advocating an Indigenous constitutional body”.

She also recounted a meeting of Recognise, which some Indigenous people viewed as pushing a “minimalist” model to ensure passage of constitutional recognition, where Textor offered a subtle dig at Pearson and academic Marcia Langton.

“There are more than just two Indigenous leaders in this country,” he said, according to Morris’s book.

 

Last week Ken Wyatt announced the committee that will lead the co-design of a Voice to Parliament – one that will not be coded in the constitution.

Professor Marcia Langton, a strident critic of the Coalition in recent years, led the first meeting in Canberra on Wednesday, alongside her co-chair, Professor Tom Calma. Other members include Noel Pearson, Mick Gooda and conservative columnist Chris Kenny. Another Indigenous woman, lawyer and entrepreneur Josephine Cashman, is also on the committee. She is a conservative and close friends with Wyatt and his wife, Anna.

On the same day as the Langton meeting, The Australian reported Textor had declined an invitation to be the committee’s 20th member. Textor and Scott Morrison have a long association.

Wyatt addressed the meeting, at Old Parliament House, before his agency – the NIAA – took over proceedings.

“I understand that many in this room and across the country have expressed disappointment that enshrining the voice in the constitution is off the table,” he said.

“I also acknowledge and respect the fact that many of you will not reconcile [sic] from that view – I’m not here to change that mind ... What I do ask, though, is that we remain pragmatic throughout this process and focus on what can be achieved – the opportunity we have in front of us.”

Other Indigenous people active in the push for the Uluru statement believe Prime Minister Morrison can be forced into accepting the community really does want to enshrine a voice in the constitution, if the current co-design process runs its course.

Time is on their side. The federal government has announced any constitutional referendum – due this term of parliament – will happen after the work is done on what a voice will look like. The thinking is that once this flesh has been put on the bone of the Uluru statement, then adding the enabling clause in the constitution via a referendum will become an easier sell.

It’s something of a Hail Mary and proponents have little more than a year to convince the prime minister. As Rachel Perkins told the audience at the Boyer Lecture on Wednesday night, the view of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples has remained remarkably consistent during the past four decades. It is highly likely the co-design process will find little new.

“Uluru Statement from the Heart gives us the road map to finally end the great Australian silence, this cult of forgetfulness on a national scale,” she said.

“By a constitutional guarantee that Indigenous peoples’ voices will be heard. For the full history of our nation to be finally told and listened to, and for agreements to settle the unfinished business of our nation that began on the shore of Kamay Botany Bay 250 years ago.”

 

On Wednesday, as guests were mingling before the co-design lock-up, Professor Langton handed a gift to Ken Wyatt. It was a copy of Thomas Mayor’s book Finding the Heart of the Nation, which charts the people power behind the Uluru push.

While people may reject the symbolism of minimalist constitutional recognition, it’s hard not to read the coded message in that gift.

The book’s final words include this: “If you are reading this and the Australian constitution does not yet enshrine a First Nations Voice, then the Uluru Statement from the Heart remains a live political document, and this book remains a call to action.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 16, 2019 as "Voice work". Subscribe here.

Rick Morton
is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.