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Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023

It is my great privilege to rise today on behalf of my community of Mackellar in support of Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023, otherwise known as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice bill. In doing so, I acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people as the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today, their connection to country and their safekeeping of it over many thousands of years. I rise in support of this Constitution alteration bill for many reasons. What is proposed in the bill is an opportunity to take a great leap towards reconciliation with our First Nations Australians. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our nation to start healing the centuries-old wounds that Indigenous Australians have carried with them since the dispossession from their lands and the devastation of their culture, language and identity.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a gracious invitation to all Australians to walk alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and is given in a spirit of harmony and progress. It is a request for the Australian people and the Australian government to listen to them—to simply listen—on issues which directly affect them. This is not an invitation only to politicians, as some such as the member for New England would have you believe. This is an invitation, as I said, to all Australians. Your opinion and your involvement does count, and your vote on referendum day is equal to everybody else's, so please don't feel that your opinion does not count. Referendums for constitutional change come around rarely, so to have one during my first term in parliament is quite something. Having the opportunity to play a small part in working towards a more positive future for all Australians is a great honour. Unfortunately, one of the reasons it has become necessary to strive for constitutional change is because the story of our First Nations people since the arrival of settlers is in truth a harrowing one. It is a history of deep trauma and pain. Indigenous Australians were dispossessed of their land, were the victims of massacres, had their children stolen from them, and had their language, culture and connection to country intentionally suppressed and destroyed.

The discrimination and denigration, sadly, persists. The burden of intergenerational trauma resulting from this history is profound. Year upon year, as disadvantage and dehumanising racism continues to be aimed at them, aimed at even our most celebrated Indigenous Australians such as Stan Grant and Adam Goodes, it adds further to the weight of that burden. Yet despite this history, our First Nation's people have responded proudly, with an outstretched hand, with a generous invitation to all Australians to walk with them on a journey of hope and healing to a better future and to a greater understanding of the needs of their people. I find this simply remarkable.

A Productivity Commission report in 2020 called Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage laid out sad truths. If you are an Indigenous Australian you can expect to have shorter life expectancy, lower health and education levels, lower employment and higher infant mortality rates than non-Indigenous Australians. If you are a male Indigenous Australian there is about a one-in-six chance that you are in prison or have spent time in prison. If you are a young Indigenous Australian, the chance that you will be incarcerated is 22 times higher than a non-Indigenous youth. The gap is not closing and hasn't done so for decades, so we must try something else.

Now, our First Nations people are asking two things of us: to be recognised as first Australians and to be listened to. That's it—to be recognised and listened to. We have been repeatedly reassured by constitutional experts that there is nothing to fear from those simple requests. Explicitly, there is no risk of either a veto power or a decade of litigation if these requests are granted. Leading constitutional lawyer Bret Walker SD 'condemned as "too silly for words" the prospects that the courts would be jammed with a "mythical procession of meritless cases" based on claims that the Voice had not been properly consulted on a government decision.' Kenneth Hayne, the former High Court justice said there isn't anything in the drafting of the amendment which comes anywhere near providing anything like a veto. Robert French, also a former High Court judge said "Parliament cannot legally be compelled to make laws for the Voice. It cannot be compelled to make a particular kind of law. Nor can it be prevented from repealing or amending the laws it makes.

So I would admonish those who seek to divide and diminish our nation through fear mongering and misinformation. This is a once-off opportunity to build a better Australia, a more caring and more harmonious Australia. The very least we can do is respond in that same spirit of open heartedness and generosity in which the invitation has been offered.

The Productivity Commission report identified approaches that have been successful in improving outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. They include addressing racism and discrimination in the Australian community through structural changes and education, and enabling Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to share in decision making on things that affect them. This is the critical part. There is compelling evidence that the direct involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the design and implementation of laws and policies that impact them produce much better outcomes. This is agreed across political parties and in parliament, and it is the core of the premise of the national agreement on Closing the Gap, which was developed by the coalition government in 2020 and is now being implemented by the current Labor government. Far from having the power to determine the outcome of decisions, this referendum asks only that we listen to Indigenous Australians on issues that affect them.

I have first-hand experience of the power of listening. Prior to this role I was a general practitioner for many years. Actively listening to patients is critical to that role. It is the only way to truly understand the concerns and needs of a patient and to be able to diagnose and treat them effectively. My experience as a GP taught me just how powerful and healing simply listening can be. We have all experienced immense relief to finally be heard and understood. It is vitally important to a person's mental health and their sense of worth and wellbeing.

I again experienced the power of listening in recent years as I stepped into the political realm. During my first speech as a member of Parliament I spoke about the power of listening. I described listening as a superpower. It was the simple act of listening to the people of Mackellar through kitchen table conversations that helped bring about a historic political shift, as Mackellar voted Independent for the first time in nearly 80 years. Prior to that last election, community members had repeatedly told me that they had felt shut out and cut out of their democracy because their previous representative was not listening to them on issues that were important to them. They told me how demoralising that was.

Despite this being a simple request, voting in favour of the Indigenous Voice to Parliament has the power to be transformative and healing in the lives of our First Nations peoples. Those who oppose the Indigenous Voice to Parliament want us to feel fearful of what voting in favour of it might mean, so I thought it might help to reflect on a few of the major social changes that have occurred since our constitution came into effect. Let's reflect on the time over 100 years ago when society was debating whether women should be granted the right to vote. Anti-suffragists argued that women did not want the vote. They argued that they were too fragile and liable to burst into hysterics or upend the family unit by casting the ballot. Some even argued that women lacked the mental capacity to offer a useful opinion about political issues.

In the second half of the 20th century the issue of Aboriginal land rights was being debated. At one point even the Attorney-General of Australia suggested that the impact of native title grants would be that non-Indigenous people would no longer be able to go to the beach or parks all around the country. Some Australians were worried about their backyards and their property values. Most recently Australians were asked about their support for marriage equality. As a part of the fear campaign, the misinformation that was spread about gay marriage included that it would threaten the institution of heterosexual marriage and that people would lose their religious freedoms if gay people were allowed to marry.

These reforms—women's suffrage, Indigenous land rights and marriage equality—have all come to pass. Family life was not upended by giving women the vote. No-one's back yard was taken from them. Heterosexual marriages everywhere have been unaffected by allowing gay people to participate in that institution. Indigenous Australians are now asking for a change that is far more moderate than any of these ground breaking historical social changes. None of these scare campaigns were borne out. None of the disasters came to pass, and the sky did not fall in. So it will be with the Voice to Parliament. However, once again, those arguing for a 'no' vote are peddling misinformation and attempting to divide us through fear. I ask you: is the act of simply listening really something to be that scared about?

The first reform called for by the Uluru Statement from the Heart is for a First Nations voice to be enshrined in the constitution. The statement says "we seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country".

Calmly and graciously, Indigenous Australians are asking to be respected in this place. They are asking to be listened to in this place. They are inviting us to walk with them in a movement of the Australian people for a better and more harmonious future. The Uluru Statement from the Heart is an invitation to all the people of Australia. It is a generous and gracious invitation, and I hope Australians all over the country respond with that same generosity of spirit and open-heartedness. It is time to listen. I commend this bill to the House.