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The Voice to parliament could be up and running within this term of government, according to Indigenous lawyer and Yes campaigner Noel Pearson, as Prime Minister Anthony Albanese warned Australians they would have just one chance to vote for constitutional recognition and a Voice.
In an interview at the Garma Indigenous cultural festival on Sunday, Albanese gave the clearest signal yet that he would not attempt to create the Voice by legislation if voters rejected it at the referendum later this year, describing the vote as a “once in a generation” opportunity.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese arrives for the Garma opening ceremony.Credit: Rhett Wyman
Pearson, a Cape York lawyer and prominent Voice advocate, said the festival had energised the Yes campaign, and he argued creating a Voice was about “completing the Constitution”.
“That is the recognition that’s missing [of Indigenous Australians]. And that has been missing from day one,” he said. “With the actual Voice structure, I would say that we would, if we worked hard, we could have legislation within 12, 18 months of passage of the referendum.”
The comments from one of the most senior figures in the Yes camp are significant because of the detail they provide about the timeline for events if the bid is successful, and how consultation on the design would proceed.
“I would think that the parliament would set up a committee to go around the country to talk with the public, black and white, everybody to have a chance to input on the bill. There’ll be obviously debate in parliament about the bill and committees set up by the parliament to review. But that could all be done in a spritely but deliberative way,” he said.
Noel Pearson speaks at the Garma Festival.Credit: Rhett Wyman
“Everybody’s got a chance to have input, but there’s a lot of work to draw on. So we need not delay that process. We could have a Voice up and running before the end of this term of government.”
If the Labor government goes for a full term, the next election is likely to be held in May 2025. The 2019 Voice co-design report, written by Tom Calma and Marcia Langton for the former Morrison government, laid out in detail how the Voice could be structured.
Albanese, who attended the Garma Festival, was asked if he would legislate the Voice if the referendum was defeated in a vote widely expected to be held on October 14. He told the ABC’s Insiders the vote was “a once in a generation opportunity”.
“We will take the verdict of the Australian people in a referendum. [It] is something that has to be taken into account, whether they support it or not.”
He drew parallels between the Voice vote and the 1999 republic referendum, in which some supporters of a republic voted No because they did not back the model proposed at the time and expected a second referendum soon after.
“Many people in the republic referendum thought it would come around again. And that’s why I say to those people, including people who say ‘it [Voice] doesn’t go far enough, so therefore I’m going to vote no’, a no vote will be a vote for more of the same,” Albanese said.
The prime minister said he and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton both supported constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians and the creation of a Voice to parliament through legislation.
“The only difference here is him saying that if you enshrine it in the Constitution, it can’t be gotten rid of with the stroke of a pen. And that’s precisely why Indigenous Australians have asked that it be enshrined in the Constitution,” Albanese said in a separate interview on Sky News.
He highlighted the significant disadvantages Indigenous Australians face, including an eight-year life expectancy gap, a suicide rate twice as high as the general population, Indigenous women being more likely to die in childbirth and Indigenous men being more likely to go to jail than university, as he made an impassioned plea for Australians to support the Voice.
The prime minister restated his support for the full implementation of the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, which called for a Voice followed by a Makarrata commission that would oversee a process of truth-telling and agreement-making.
Parliament was dominated last week by a bitter debate over whether a Voice would lead to a national treaty, with the federal opposition accusing the prime minister of backpedalling in his full support for the Uluru statement.
“My priority is the referendum, that’s my priority, but treaties, of course, are being advanced in different places,” Albanese said. “There are 400 Indigenous nations in this country. So we’re not talking about centralised operations here. In 2015, the WA Liberal premier Colin Barnett came together with the Noongar people with a really comprehensive agreement. Queensland have said they’re advancing, it’s bipartisan.”
Marcia Langton congratulates Anthony Albanese after his Garma keynote speech.Credit: Rhett Wyman
Marcia Langton said there was “nothing radical about treaties or agreement-making”.
“The Noongar settlement meets the requirements of a modern-day treaty. The Noongar people lodged their native title claims and were successful. And they negotiated over time the four Indigenous land use agreements that they’d settled to become one major settlement,” she said.
“And that was then enacted by the Western Australian government as an act of parliament, and the state then, as the Crown, becomes a party to a comprehensive agreement.”
Langton said she had presented two reports to the Morrison cabinet “in which Peter Dutton sat. He’s across it [the detail of how a Voice would work]. I assume that he’s across it. He’s playing with the corporate leaders of Australia … purporting that there’s no detail and playing a dangerous game, not only with our futures, but also with other parties including corporate Australia, governments, businesses and other institutions.
“He’s hoodwinking the Australian public into thinking that there’s some big secret [about the Voice]. There’s no secret, it’s all on the public record.”
Dutton’s office declined to respond to Langton. Last week, he criticised business leaders for supporting the Voice and said that rather than donating money to the Yes campaign, they should be cutting prices on items such as groceries.
“If they’re in an essential service, like an airline or like food, like Coles and Woolies and the rest of it, they should be very conscious at the moment that Australian families are doing it tough and if they have the opportunity … reduce prices instead of spending their money on social causes,” he said.
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