Indigenous Referendum Rejection ‘Profoundly Disappointing’
Wednesday, 1st November 2017 at 4:34 pm
The Law Council of Australia has expressed “profound disappointment” at the federal government’s decision to reject the recommendation for a referendum into the creation of a representative body to give Indigenous peoples a voice to the Australian Parliament.
The Law Council also criticised what it said was the “failure by the federal government to identify any further process through which constitutional reforms and reconciliation with Australia’s First Nations will be advanced”.
Law Council president, Fiona McLeod said on Wednesday the manner of the announcement was “deeply disappointing” and “misrepresented” the outcomes from the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the Referendum Council’s Final Report.
“It is disappointing the government has not adopted the recommendation put forward by the Referendum Council to hold a referendum seeking to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander First Nations a Voice to Parliament,” McLeod said.
“The suggestion that a voice to the Australian Parliament amounted to a ‘third chamber’ is not a conclusion that could reasonably be drawn from the report of the Referendum Council. Its abject rejection must be deeply confusing and hurtful to the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities that participated in this process, in good faith.”
The Law Council had fully supported the recommendations of the Referendum Council and confirmed it remained committed to seeing their implementation.
“The package of reforms proposed by the Referendum Council are to be an important step forward in the process toward Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander First Nations’ self-determination, a fundamental and non-derogable principle of international law,” McLeod said.
“As a nation, we must continue to work with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to determine the next-steps on the path to reconciliation.
“The government must keep faith with the important expression of self-determination, put forward in the Uluru Statement from the Heart and adopted by the Referendum Council.
“The Law Council will continue to push for the adoption of the Referendum Council’s recommendations by the Australian Parliament and a new process to bring this matter to a referendum of the Australian people.”
Last week federal cabinet rejected the proposal for a constitutionally enshrined First Nations “Voice” based on fears it would be seen as a third chamber of Australia’s Parliament.
In a statement, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion and Attorney-General George Brandis said the idea of a representative assembly for Indigenous Australia – in addition to the House of Representatives and Senate – would be “inconsistent with the fundamental democratic principle of all citizens having equal civic rights”.
“It would inevitably become seen as a third chamber of Parliament,” the statement said.
“A constitutionally enshrined additional representative assembly for which only Indigenous Australians could vote for or serve in is inconsistent with this fundamental principle.
“The Referendum Council noted the concerns that the proposed body would have insufficient power if its constitutional function was advisory only.”
The government said: “The challenge remains to find a constitutional amendment that will succeed, and which does not undermine the universal principles of unity, equality and ‘one person one vote’.”
Reaction to the government announcement not to adopt the recommendation put forward by the Referendum Council drew swift criticism from the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.
“Following the disappointing news and the tumultuous responses [to the announcement] our members from across Australia are now on high alert,” National Congress co-chair Rod Little said.
“National Congress will now be paying very close attention to all proposals from Parliamentarians in the wake of the rejection of the Referendum Council’s blueprint,” Little said.
“Leadership across the board is now under scrutiny. For this reason, National Congress will not be taking the pressure off. Rather we will be the first to sound the alarm if the rhetoric of ‘engagement’ and the mantra of ‘working with First Peoples’ is not put into action.”
In response to the Turnbull government decision, federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten called for the formation of a Joint Select Committee.
National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples said that should such a Joint Select Committee secure bipartisan support, “National Congress must have a seat”.
“National Congress cautions all sides of politics. Not including National Congress on such a key committee would amount to another high-profile misstep,” Little said.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People cannot afford yet another upset. There is no doubt, that any attempts to exclude participation by National Congress would further frustrate Australia’s First Peoples and amount to a clear signal that our political leaders are incapable of supporting self-determination in good faith.
“This much is clear. National Congress is ideally placed to take a seat at a Joint Select Committee. We have the capacity to jointly review the work and findings of all previous bodies who have assessed the best way forward for Constitutional reform.”
However the federal government said: “The government has written in response to Mr Shorten’s call for a Joint Select Committee, and have asked that the committee considers the recommendations of the existing bodies of work developed by the Expert Panel (2012), the Joint Select Committee on Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples (2015) and the Referendum Council report (2017).”
Co-chair of the expert panel for Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians and Labor Senator Pat Dodson told Pro Bono News that as someone who had worked hard for Constitutional recognition for decades, he was “surprised and affronted by the callous and abrupt rejection by the government of the referendum”.
“The arrogance of the government that decided what should be the right of the Australian people to decide by a referendum,” Dodson said.
“The government did little or no work on how such a proposition could be crafted and did nothing to get support for the proposition put by the Referendum Council. It decided in its own wisdom Australians would not support such a matter.”
He said it was evident that there was no consultation by the government with the main proponents of the proposal, with any First Nations groups or the opposition parties.
“A Senate estimates interrogation of the minister by myself and other Labor senators revealed shortcomings in respect, and a lack of courtesy by the government.”