Constitutional lawyer Shireen Morris supports Voice to Parliament

September 20, 2023

The Voice referendum is not about Labor vs Liberal. It is not about left or right. It is about right and wrong.
Do Indigenous Australians deserve to finally be recognised in the Constitution from which they were excluded in 1901, through having an advisory Voice in their affairs? Not a veto; just an advisory Voice.

This is the Yes/No question – the moral question – every Australian must answer. Many right-leaning Australians are voting Yes.

NSW Liberal leader and barrister, Mark Speakman, recently confirmed his support. Echoing the Solicitor-General, Speakman endorsed the Voice constitutional amendment as an “enhancement” of Australia’s democracy that will enable better practical results.

“Working in closer partnership with Indigenous Australians – and elevating it by embedding it in the Constitution – offers a better chance of ‘Closing The Gap’,” Speakman said.

Speakman is an experienced Senior Counsel, and he is right. A Yes vote will create a national, constitutional commitment to partnership, dialogue and listening in Indigenous affairs.

This would be a national commitment to mutual respect and mutual responsibility – to a shared, united effort to close the gap.

As Liberal MP Julian Leeser pointed out at a Sydney event recently, the Voice referendum’s focus on practical results epitomises the ‘practical reconciliation’ John Howard championed. Giving Indigenous communities a guaranteed Voice in laws and policies made about them will empower their “right to take responsibility” in their own affairs, as Indigenous leader Noel Pearson has said.

In asking for a Voice, Indigenous communities are seeking shared responsibility in the development of solutions to the challenges they face – and therefore shared responsibility for outcomes.

This resonates with liberal and conservative values. It is why principled Liberals, like Speakman, Matt Kean, Tasmanian Premier Jeremy Rockliff and federal parliamentarians Leeser, Andrew Bragg and Bridget Archer (among many others) are declaring support.

A Yes vote would correct a great historic wrong. Indigenous Australians have lived on this continent for over 60,000 years, but no Indigenous representatives were included in the Constitutional Conventions that founded that nation. They had no say. As a result, the Constitution of 1901 contained clauses explicitly excluding them. It created a top-down power relationship with Indigenous peoples, which flowed into laws and policies made about them.

There were laws denying Indigenous people the vote in some jurisdictions, right up until the 60s.

There were policies withholding Indigenous wages for their hard work, controlling where they could live and who they could marry, banning their languages from being spoken, and denying their property rights.

Though most of that harsh discrimination is past, the top-down dynamic continues today.

The Productivity Commission’s review of Closing The Gap echoes what Indigenous people have been telling us for years: Australia is failing to close the gap because politicians and bureaucrats don’t listen to Indigenous communities. They don’t partner with Indigenous communities.

Governments still think they know best, so despite good will and money spent the gap is getting wider, not narrower.

A constitutionally guaranteed Voice is urgently needed because Canberra politicians – whether

Indigenous or non-Indigenous, whether Labor, Liberal, Greens or One Nation – often don’t hear or understand the local needs and priorities of Indigenous communities out at Alice Springs, Aurukun, Hopevale, Fitzroy Crossing or Wadeye.

A Voice is about recognising and empowering the Wik people, the Yolngu people, the Yorta Yorta people, the Arrernte people and so on – to take greater responsibility in their affairs.

It is about enabling local solutions to local problems, and local responsibility for local outcomes, rather than top-down solutions imposed from Canberra that fail time and again.

This referendum is about recognising Indigenous people in a way that embeds principles of partnership and responsibility into Indigenous affairs.

It is about listening, dialogue, mutual respect and shared responsibility.

The top-down approach has failed. It’s time to let Indigenous people have a say in policy decisions made about them.

Originally published by Shireen Morris in the Weekly Times, 20 September 2023