An Indigenous Voice to Parliament
Judy Lewis reviews An Indigenous Voice to Parliament: Considering a constitutional bridge by Frank Brennan SJ (Garratt publishing 2023).
Frank Brennan has been an advocate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders rights in the areas of law, social justice and reconciliation. He has been a member of some of the many consultations and advisory groups including the co-design process to develop the Voice.
Throughout the book, Brennan uses extensive quotes and as a lawyer, his emphasis has been on the legal and constitutional issues. In 2015 he advocated legislative reform as a first step towards constitutional change in his book ‘No Small Change’. This approach was roundly criticised by Marcia Langton and Noel Pearson who were his colleagues and Indigenous leaders.
His encourages Australians to inform themselves prior to the Referendum by providing ten points to be considered and acted upon. These are clear and pertinent.
Brennan has 2 chapters outlining some of the earlier processes aiming to bring effective change. There have been a number of landmark legislative changes, many with bipartisan support as well as proposals for a statement in the Preamble. He rues the current lack of bipartisan support for the strong proposal from the delegates to the Uluru dialogue in 2017 for a constitutionally entrenched Voice to Parliament.
Brennan moves to recent developments with the ALP and PM Albanese’s pledge to enshrine a Voice to Parliament and the proposal for the Referendum wording. Brennan is concerned that the inclusion of ‘and executive government’ as well as ‘to parliament’ runs the risk of numerous challenges in the High Court, delaying passage of legislation. Brennan submits that “the political lesson of 1967 is that minimal symbolic change…. can be a catalyst for substantial policy and legal changes.”
The final 2 chapters present the lines of reasoning for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote using quotations from key advocates.
The ‘yes’ case presents the views of Indigenous advocates Megan Davis, a professor in law, Pat Anderson, who led the Uluru dialogue and Noel Pearson, ‘principal architect of the Voice’ and a member of many relevant forums. All were on the 2017 Referendum Council. Plus Linda Burney, Minister for Indigenous Australians, Senator Patrick Dodson and ex High Court judge Kenneth Hayne. Their views were presented with quotes, and they all spoke of various difficulties.
The ‘yes’ advocates contended that a Voice would both acknowledge the right of Indigenous peoples to be recognised as First Peoples and give them direct input into the laws and policies that affect them; the detail of this process being contained in subsequent legislation. A Voice enshrined in the body of the Constitution would compel a future government of any shade to listen, provide recognition, address injustice and open channels for communication in shaping better policies and strategies.
Advocates for a ‘no’ vote included Indigenous peoples Senator Jacinta Price, Anthony Dillon, an academic and writer, Warren Mundine, a businessman. Non-Indigenous advocates were former PM Tony Abbott, former High Court judge Ian Callinan.
The Indigenous ‘no’ advocates focused on the numerous obstacles such as defining who is aboriginal, promoting divisiveness, and that many advisory bodies are already active. It would create yet another bureaucracy rather than empowering Indigenous Peoples. The non-Indigenous voices emphasised difficulties in passing legislation and failing to directly address obtaining better practical outcomes.
In his final chapter, ‘Where to from here’, Brennan argues for his wording of the amendment to the Constitution and his belief that subsequent appropriate legislation and action would enable Australia to move beyond symbolic change.
For any seeking to expand their understanding of the controversies surrounding the Referendum, Brennan’s book would be valuable.