Bill Shorten has backed a referendum question on an indigenous voice to parliament, but Malcolm Turnbull has failed to give bipartisan support. Photo: Peter EveOpposition Leader Bill Shorten has backed a constitutionally-enshrined “Voice to Parliament” representing Indigenous people, marking the first clear commitment by him or Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to the Referendum Council’s central recommendation.
In a speech to the Garma Festival in the Northern Territory, also attended by Mr Turnbull and leading Indigenous figures, Mr Shorten expressed support for a “Makarrata” reconciliation commission and repeated the Labor Party’s openness to treaties between Indigenous people and n governments.
Mr Turnbull’s more conservative address to the gathering outlined a respect for the Referendum Council’s recommendations but said they would need to be considered properly and reiterated his caution about over-ambitious referendums.
The Opposition Leader said: “Labor supports a voice for Aboriginal people in our constitution, we support a declaration by all parliaments, we support a truth-telling commission, we are not confronted by the notion of treaties with our first ns.”
He said “voting for a constitutional voice is our chance to bring our constitution home, to make it better, more equal, more n” and “Aboriginal ns do not need a balanda [white person] lecture about the difficulty of changing the constitution”.
On the eve of the festival, Mr Shorten proposed a bipartisan parliamentary committee to finalise the recommendations, in consultation with Aboriginal voices, with a view to completing a referendum proposal by the end of the year.
His call for another committee has been greeted with scepticism and frustration from Indigenous figures – including former Referendum Council co-chair Pat Anderson and council member Megan Davis – who contend the Parliament should move immediately to propose a referendum question based on the already available work.
Mr Shorten said detail of how a Voice and Makarrata commission would work still needed to be figured out in a parliamentary process. He emphasised a Voice would act as an advisory body on legislation affecting Aboriginal people and not have veto power over legislation.
A Makarrata commission could oversee the creation of treaties and a reconciliation and truth-telling process about wrongs committed against Aboriginal people.
Following his speech, asked about the constitutional conservatives of the Coalition government, Mr Shorten said Labor would not wait for approval from the “right-wing rump” of the Liberal Party before backing big ideas.
The council’s recommendations were handed to parliamentary leaders just over a month ago following the Uluru Statement, which was finalised at a historic gathering of Indigenous representatives in May and also proposed a “First Nations Voice”.
Mr Turnbull told the festival: “I respect deeply the work of the Referendum Council and all of those who contributed to it. And I respect it by considering it very carefully.”
He said many important questions about the proposals still needed to be answered and noted that, until recently, referendum discussions had focused on removing the constitution’s race powers and recognising Indigenous people in the document.
“However, the Referendum Council has told us a Voice to Parliament is the only option they advise us to put to the n people. We have heard this and we will work with you to find a way forward.”
The Prime Minister warned that voters are constitutionally conservative and said a proposal must be clear, simple, backed by Indigenous people and broadly popular among ns overall to be successful.
In a press conference following his speech, Mr Turnbull said cabinet would consider the recommendations shortly and suggested Mr Shorten’s timeline of a referendum proposal by the end of the year was overly ambitious.