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FOR – Bills — Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023; Third Reading

Murray Watt

In relation to this very significant bill, I move:

That this bill be now read a third time.

Michaelia Cash

I rise to make a short contribution on the third reading of the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023. In making my contribution I want to make it very clear to the chamber what will happen on this side when this bill is voted on today. The majority of this side of the chamber will vote to pass this bill through the parliament. This is not though because we agree with what this bill ultimately sets out to achieve, which is of course to irrevocably change this nation's Constitution in a way that will destroy one of our most fundamental values—equality of citizenship. The majority of us will vote to pass this bill because we believe in the people of this nation and their right to have a say on this issue. Ironically, the referendum of course will provide an unequal say for every citizen.

What we tried to do through the committee process on Friday evening and into Saturday morning was to establish some basic information for the Australian people so that when they ultimately vote in this referendum they are properly informed. What we saw, however, from this government was a cynical exercise to obfuscate and deflect rather than provide the Australian people with the answers they both want and deserve.

Senator Watt of course was armed with his handy little booklet that he purported gave Australians the information that they need, but he wasn't armed with the answers to the real questions Australians are concerned about. On more than 100 occasions the best Senator Watt could do on behalf of the government was respond: 'Well, that will be a matter for the parliament,' or, alternatively, 'I refer to my previous answer.' It was without a doubt one of the greatest displays of an exercise in avoiding giving the Australian people the details that, as I said, not only they want but, if you were treating them with any form of respect, you would ensure as a government you were able to give to them.

Despite this government's inability to answer any questions on how the Voice will work, some things were established during the committee process. We showed that there are genuine legal risks that the Australian people are just being asked to accept. We showed that the only real attempt at explaining the Voice is a glossy two-page brochure; but what we also found out is that it isn't even worth the paper it's written on. Australia's Constitution is our most important legal document. Every single word can be open to interpretation. The meaning of the words in the chapeau, the meaning of the words in section 129(i), the meaning of the words in section 129(ii) and the meaning of the words in section 129 (iii) are all important issues, and not one of them was explained during the committee process.

What we do know, though, from our interrogation of the bill, is that it is four things: it's risky, it's unknown, it's divisive and, on top of all that, when you change our Constitution it is a permanent change. Enshrining the Voice in the Constitution does mean that it's open to legal challenge, and if it is open to legal challenge then it is open for interpretation by the High Court of Australia. Ultimately, despite what the government says, it is the High Court of Australia who will determine what the right to make representations actually means—a vital question that we did pursue in the committee stage and there are still no adequate answers to it. What we do know is that legal experts don't agree. And the legal experts, I'm sure, cannot be sure how any High Court will interpret such a constitutional change. Again, what are we doing here? We're opening up a legal can of worms. The proposed model, as we know it, is not just to the parliament; it's to all areas of executive government. It gives an unlimited scope, as we've heard, from the Reserve Bank and potentially to Centrelink. Or, in the words of a constitutional law professor, from submarines to parking tickets. What does that then mean for the Australian people and for the government that they know? There is a considerable risk of delay to government decision-making. And what does this, ultimately, deliver to them, potentially? The risk of dysfunctional government.

There is no doubt that every single one of us in this place wants to see better outcomes for the most marginalised people in our community. We all want to lift them up; none of us want to put barriers in their way. But in our national anthem, we now proudly sing that 'we are one and free'. What the Albanese government is proposing with the Voice is a way of dividing us, and that certainly does not make us one. As Senator Nampijinpa Price has said:

We should be one together, not two divided.

And as Ian Callinan AC KC, former High Court judge has said, 'I would foresee a decade or more of constitutional and administrative law litigation arising out of the Voice.'

The coalition does not believe that this is what the Australian people want. Once the Voice is in the Constitution, it won't be undone. Once a High Court makes an interpretation, parliament can't overrule it. We'll be stuck with the negative consequences and bad outcomes. And what we saw in the committee stage of the bill on Friday night, and into Saturday morning, is that the government either will not tell or, even worse, is unable to tell Australians the most basic details. The government did not have the answers. The big message out of all of this is that the Voice is four things: it's risky, it's unknown, it's divisive and it's permanent. If you don't know how the Voice is going to work, my humble opinion is to vote no.

Dorinda Cox

What a truly historic day for First Peoples and, in fact, for all of us. I start by acknowledging all of the First Nations people and others gathered here today in the gallery. We have a new generation of people voting in their first referendum and, for some of them, it will actually be their first time voting ever—and what a first vote to have! Eligible Australians will be voting to recognise the first peoples of this country in the nation's birth certificate.

We are the oldest living culture in the world. We have cared for this country. We have preserved the waters and ecosystems. We were the first inventors and navigated by the stars for tens of thousands of years. We are hundreds of nations across this country, with different stories, languages, cultures, arts and dances. Our people have provided many Australian governments with beautiful, deliberate and considered words in the form of statements, declarations and agreements.

Now what we need is action. That is the responsibility of all of us: Indigenous and non-indigenous, from remote communities to the decision-makers here in this place. And we must stand together in solidarity. In passing this bill today, the Senate will trigger a referendum and signal that the parliament's work is done. It is time for the grassroots 'yes' campaigners to get out there in the community and share with all Australians why this referendum is so important and why the Voice to Parliament is so important.

But this is only the beginning of what is needed. We need to restore First Nations' people's rights in this country. We also need progress towards truth and treaty. We also need that now. We need to see progress on closing the gap, community based health care, education in language, stronger cultural heritage protection and better legal frameworks to be provided for consultation on projects that are happening on country, either land or sea country.

For over 200 years since colonisation, we have been fighting to survive. The frontier wars saw our people chained and massacred on our lands and being systemically stolen. Government policy ripped our children from our families and punished them for speaking our languages and practicing our laws and our cultural traditions. Today, we continue to fight governments and fossil fuel billionaire who are destroying our sacred places, our meeting places for ceremony and cultural business, our ancestral songlines and our trade routes, which are in fact the social and spiritual fabric of our culture.

We are sovereign people and sovereign nations, and the Commonwealth government—

Lidia Thorpe

Why did you vote for it?

Dorinda Cox

Sorry, do you have a contribution, Senator Thorpe? I'm happy for you to make it.

Sue Lines

Order! Senator Thorpe, your interjection is disorderly. I am asking you to listen in silence. Senator Cox, please continue.

Dorinda Cox

We are sovereign people and sovereign nations, and the Commonwealth government must treat us as such.

Lidia Thorpe

Vote against it.

Dorinda Cox

I'm sorry, President. Senator Thorpe continues to be disorderly by her interjections.

Sue Lines

Senator Thorpe, I have asked you to listen in silence. We're up to the third reading. If you want to make a contribution, you may stand to do so. Otherwise, I'm asking you to listen in silence. Please continue, Senator Cox.

Dorinda Cox

Our sovereignty has, in fact, never been ceded. My sovereignty is my birth right to care for this country, to protect this country and to be a knowledge holder and to pass that traditional knowledge on to the next generation. This change in the Constitution will not impact on our sovereignty, my sovereignty. I would not be standing here—

Lidia Thorpe

Prove it.

Sue Lines


Dorinda Cox

I'm happy to let Senator Thorpe continue.

Sue Lines

Senator Cox, allow me to control the chamber. Senator Thorpe, I have called you to order a number of times. I don't want to be constantly interrupting Senator Cox. I have asked you to listen in silence, and I expect that to happen. Senator Cox, please continue.

Dorinda Cox

This change to the Constitution will not impact on our sovereignty, my sovereignty, and I would not be standing up here in support of this bill if I had any doubt in my mind that it would. The Greens have sought independent legal advice and we have had discussions with the referendum working group, the Attorney-General, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, who joins us here today, and many others. I want to thank them for their respect for our concerns and for taking the time to hear us and address these concerns. Ceding our sovereignty is something that I—and, I assume, all First Nations people in this place—would not want to do.

The Australian Greens remain committed to the full implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and truth, treaty and voice. The referendum is the first important step. I continue to push the government for the establishment of the makarrata commission to oversee that truth telling and treaty making. My message to all Australians is that, on referendum day, I will in fact be voting yes to unite Australia, bringing us together for what I see is to be a decade of change.

Long debate text truncated.


Date and time: 11:11 AM on 2023-06-19
Senator Pocock's vote: Aye
Total number of "aye" votes: 52
Total number of "no" votes: 19
Total number of abstentions: 5
Related bill: Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023

Adapted from information made available by