Chifley Research Centre
Monday, 20 February 2023

Prime Minister’s address to the 2023 Chifley Conference

I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.

I am proud to lead a government committed to the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

And I look forward to talking more today about how we can deliver on that commitment in 2023.

It’s great to be part of this important Chifley Research Centre Conference.

And I acknowledge all my colleagues who are here today participating.

Back in December 2019, the Chifley Research Centre was kind enough to host the third of my Vision Statements as Opposition Leader on Labor and Democracy.

Back then, I spoke about the rolling fury of culture war and the way it undermines civil and rational debate, our capacity to disagree respectfully.

The increasing polarisation and misinformation that can be fuelled and spread by social media.

In the year that followed, so much of this was turbocharged by the pandemic.

And then, of course, came January 6 in the US Capitol.

That iconic seat of democracy under attack – not from a foreign power but from its own citizens.

People who had fallen headlong into poisonous conspiracy theories, into a worldview of grievance and suspicion and betrayal where there are no political opponents – only mortal enemies.

People who would rather believe that an election was stolen, than accept that their preferred candidate was defeated.

And you could not miss the similarities between those shocking scenes and the events in Brazil just a few weeks ago.

We can condemn those events – but we must also heed the warning they carry.

Our democracy is a great and enduring national achievement, a marker of what it means to be an Australian.

Indeed, the citizenship pledge that thousands of people took for the first time in January speaks of the ‘democratic beliefs’ we share.

But democracy can never be taken for granted.

It needs to be nourished, protected, cared for, treated with respect.

I am proud that our Labor Government has already honoured our commitment to legislate for a powerful, transparent and independent National Anti-Corruption Commission.

I’m glad that we have made the Parliament a place where things get done again.

Where, instead of the extraordinary 224 gag motions moved by the Liberals in just the previous term of Parliament to shut down debate there is now room and time for genuine discussion, for legislation to be amended and improved and passed.

We respect the Parliament and its role.

That’s why the censure of the former Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, over the bizarre revelations surrounding his multiple secret ministries mattered.

It was a statement about the importance of transparency and accountability to the House of Representatives, the people’s house.

I’ve always believed that the strongest antidote to the corrosive forces of cynicism and division and the most compelling argument in favour of democracy, is not an abstract or a theoretical one.

It’s much more along the theme of this conference: governing through purpose.

Demonstrating the capacity of government to improve lives.

Delivering for people.

Repaying their faith.

Proving worthy of their trust.

Living up to our shared values.

Finding common ground amid differences.

And implementing the reforms that change our nation for the better – the programs and policies that open the doors of opportunity, that invest in our national resilience and self-reliance, that enhance our shared security and prosperity.

Achieving this, delivering those long-term changes depends on people understanding where you are coming from.

And it means bringing people with you, empowering and including Australians in the work of progress.

Recognising that trust in democracy needs to travel both ways.

And that governments need to be prepared to put their faith in the judgment of the Australian people.

To trust in the capacity of Australians to engage with complexity, to look to the long-term.

The people who drafted our Constitution showed that trust.

They believed in the Constitution’s pivotal role in our democracy.

But they didn’t imagine it was perfect, complete, the final word set in stone.

That’s why they included specific and detailed provision for altering it.

Yes, they set the bar high: a majority of voters and a majority of states.

But the architects of our Federation understood that democracy is dynamic, not static.

And that change driven by the people is not a threat to the system – it is a vital and necessary part of it.

This is why the Australian people have been trusted with the power to improve and modernise their Constitution.

And that’s just what we did in 1967.

Nine out of ten people voted to strike out two provisions that excluded their fellow Australians.

Including the provision which said:

In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted.

Think about that.

That sentence was in the Constitution in my lifetime. In some of yours.

It excluded the now Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney and her predecessor, Ken Wyatt – in their lifetimes.

In 1967, ninety percent of Australians voted to remove it.

They saw it for what it was: a harmful, discriminatory relic that didn’t speak for the Australia they believed in.

In 2023 our generation can go one better.

Instead of removing a provision that no longer speaks for who we are.

We can make a change that speaks for the future we seek to build.

We can vote not to remove something negative but to add something positive.

To recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our nation’s birth certificate.

And I say this:

If not now, when.

6 years after the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

56 years after the 1967 referendum.

122 years after Federation.

If not now, when.

The 2023 referendum is about two things: recognition and consultation.

First, recognition.

If you go to any big sporting event – a Test Match, State of Origin, the footy finals – there will be a welcome to country.

Or a barefoot circle. Or a smoking ceremony.

We begin sittings of Parliament with one each day, The Project open their show with it every night.

More importantly, it’s embraced by community: in schools and child care centres, local councils and sporting clubs.

It’s a simple, humble, very Australian way of paying respect that has become part of our daily lives.

And it’s a reminder of the unique privilege that all of us have.

Because only in Australia do we share a continent with the world’s oldest continuous culture.

And every year of my life, more and more Australians, from all faiths and backgrounds and traditions have come to hold this up as a source of pride.

Celebrating the 60,000 years and more of our shared history.

Our Constitution, our nation’s birth certificate, should embrace this – not stand apart from it.

The draft words I used at Garma to introduce the proposed constitutional alterations were:

“In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the First Peoples of Australia”

Not a long preamble, not poetry.

Because the recognition that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are seeking is the empowerment to achieve practical outcomes.

And that’s the second element – consultation.

In asking Australians to support an alteration to the Constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice we are asking people to say yes to a modest but meaningful change.

Not a radical proposition – a sensible one.

A simple, vital and practical principle: that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a say in the policies and decisions that affect their lives.

Not just because – as I’ve said before – it is common courtesy to consult people when you’re taking a decision that affects them.

But because the practical outcomes will be better.

Take the Justice Reinvestment model in Bourke.

Where, instead of sending young offenders to jail, the community takes responsibility for their rehabilitation.

Co-designed by Aboriginal people, driven and run by the locals.

The New South Wales Government – to their credit – backed it.

And guess what happened:

  • Juvenile offences went down
  • Year 12 retention rates went up
  • Family violence fell
  • And re-offending reduced too

The community used their voice to break a vicious cycle.

The community’s voice was heard – and that saved lives.

This should not be a remarkable exception, it should be the default approach.

That’s why I went to Alice Springs, to hear directly from the people on the ground.

And as we roll out our commitments to provide more local services and support measures to make communities safer, we will act in partnership with locals.

We will listen to those in the heart of it, including women and children who have the right to be safe at home and in their community.

Because we know that when governments listen to the people on the frontline, when we build from the ground up, when we trust in the wisdom and experience and earned knowledge of country and culture and kinship, we get better results.

And better results are desperately needed.

Every Closing the Gap report confronts us with the reality that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people lead lives of lesser opportunity.

In health, in justice and community safety, in education and employment.

A life expectancy a decade shorter.

A suicide rate twice as high.

A massive over-representation in the prison population – and in the number of children sent to out-of-home care.

And these are not failures borne of a shortage of goodwill, or good intentions.

Rarely even is it a lack of investment or resources.

Governments on both sides have invested billions.

But by and large, we have been repeating the same process and expecting a different outcome.

Imposing decisions from Canberra.

Mostly, with the best of intentions.

But assuming that one size will fit all.

And ignoring the wisdom of community.

Enshrining a Voice in the Constitution is our best chance to change that, because it has come from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves.

The draft Constitutional alterations I put forward at Garma – over six months ago now – are clear.

Three clauses, to follow Recognition:

  1. There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
  2. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to Parliament and the Executive Government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.
  3. The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to the composition, functions, powers and procedures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
    I’ve said right the way along this is our draft proposal, for discussion.

We haven’t seen any suggested changes to the wording yet but we are open to improvements or alterations.

But the substance – the principles of recognition and consultation – will not change.

This is about strengthening the Parliament’s understanding, not supplanting its authority.

Not special power. Not a third chamber.

An advisory body that will help drive better decisions and better outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Linda Burney and Patrick Dodson and Tom Calma and Marcia Langton and Megan Davis and Noel Pearson and Ken Wyatt and many, many others have explained what a Voice will and won’t do.

The Referendum Working Group haave already outlined some clear fundamentals.

The Voice won’t administer funding. It will not deliver programs.

It will not have any kind of veto power over decision-making.

And in the course of the year, there will be more information for people to examine.

But the mechanics of the Voice won’t be written into the Constitution.

That’s not how it works.

For example, the Constitution says the Commonwealth Parliament will have power to make laws for the ‘naval and military defence of the Commonwealth’.

It doesn’t spell-out the size of the ADF, or where it should be based or what sort of defence hardware we should have.

And just as well – that section of the Constitution doesn’t even mention the air force, for the very good reason that it became law before the first powered flight.

The authors of Federation understood – as servants of democracy – that it was for government, parliament and the people to deal with the detail and the implementation, through legislation.

The Constitution contains the power and then Parliament uses its democratic authority to build the institution and renovate it as needed.

At this year’s referendum – Australians will be voting on the principle.

The principle of recognition and consultation, the principle of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people having a say when it comes to the decisions that affect them.

The Parliament can show its respect for that principle too – by co-operating and uniting to make it a reality.

By rejecting the false choice between constitutional recognition and practical outcomes – and embracing the fact that we need constitutional recognition to improve practical outcomes.

Embracing the Voice as a vehicle for Closing the Gap and improving lives.

I will continue to seek the co-operation and support of all members, from all parties.

And I welcome any constructive contribution to the legislative process, to the shape of the campaign, to the success of the outcome.

I see this as an opportunity to build national unity, to show the best of our politics, to demonstrate our Parliament is committed to reconciliation, Closing the Gap and delivering greater opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

And to those who say: why not take the easy option, why not just legislate a Voice instead.

I make three simple points.

Firstly, the Uluru Statement from the Heart was the product of five years of consultation and dialogue and deliberation among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

From the cities and the regions to remote communities, ‘from every point under the Southern Sky’.

And in 2017 they produced a very clear request for recognition and a voice in the Constitution.

Second, the Calma-Langton report makes it clear that Aboriginal people have endured far more than their share of new advisory bodies and committees and taskforces and councils created with good intentions and great fanfare only to be discarded or ignored when there’s a change in policy or Prime Minister or government.

So a key argument for enshrining the principle of the Voice into the Constitution – through a vote of the people – is that it sends a message about the strength and substance of the body.

Not just to the government of the day or the parliament of the moment but also to the people we want the Voice to serve, the people we want engaging with it.

It sends a message to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people: we’re serious about making this work, over the long-term.

Not as a project of one government – but as an enduring national priority.

And the third point brings me back to democracy – and my faith in the Australian people.

Yes, there are already people out there pushing misinformation on social media.

Drumming up outrage, trying to start a culture war.

That’s an inevitable consequence of trying to achieve change.

There are always those who want to create confusion and provoke division, to try and stall progress.

But moments of national decision, such as this referendum, are also an opportunity for our people to show their best qualities: their generosity, their sense of fairness, their optimism for the future.

That’s why I’m optimistic for the success of the referendum – because I’ve always been optimistic about the character of the Australian people.

The Voice will be a national achievement in which every Australian can share.

To campaign for it, to vote for it, to celebrate its success.

To play their part in an historic step forward for our country.

To embrace a better and fairer and more respectful future.

To add their vote and their voice to the message we send to the world about our modern nation, our maturity, our unity, our commitment to Reconciliation.

Just as our forebears did in 1967.

I keep the Uluru Statement from the Heart on the wall of my office.

Such an economy of words, yet such generosity of spirit.

So rare for a document drafted by thousands of conversations, to speak with such clarity and unity.

I have always loved the concluding connection it makes between that Referendum of 1967 and the task ahead.

In 1967 we were counted. Now we seek to be heard.

That’s what the Voice is.

A generous, patient, gracious call to be heard. To be listened to. To have a say.

This year’s referendum is our chance to answer the call.

All of us.

It has the support of every State and Territory Government.

The vote will give every Australian the chance to be counted and to be heard on the side of progress, on the side of fairness, on the side of a stronger and more equal and more reconciled nation.

It will be a great democratic moment.

And a great Australian moment.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a hand outstretched.

This year, let us all vote to grasp it.

About Chifley Research Centre:

The Chifley Research Centre is the Labor Party’s official think tank, committed to advancing public policy debate and progressive thinking in Australia.