Ken Wyatt has the toughest job in government.
Our first ever Aboriginal Minister for Indigenous Australians, he balances the hopes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with the wishes of a government seemingly opposed to any serious change.
It is an unenviable position, but he misses the mark when it comes to constitutional recognition.
His intended proposal will be ineffective at making a real difference, and also is not what our mob want - a failure on both counts. I urge him to rethink this flawed approach.
The 2017 First Nations National Constitutional Convention, held at Uluru, was the culmination of a long process of regional dialogues and consultation on what Indigenous people wanted constitutional change to be. Sponsored by the government's Referendum Council, it resulted in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a work of poetic brilliance as much as it is a vital strategic document for Indigenous self-empowerment. It calls for substantial recognition of our unceded sovereignty over the continent, through allowing our people a say on decisions made about us and our land.
It asks Australians to "empower our people to take a rightful place in our own country" through "the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the constitution". A constitutionally enshrined Voice would finally grant us a say over our own affairs, as well as an unshakeable presence in the halls of power, while also allowing us to oversee treaty-making and truth-telling processes. The Uluru Statement is an invitation for all Australians to take a journey with us to full inclusion and justice. Voice, Treaty, Truth. In that order.
What Minister Wyatt proposes is something altogether different. When the government famously rejected the Uluru Statement as a "third chamber" of parliament, it misunderstood the desires of First Nations people, and it continues to do so now. While the specific details of the proposal are not yet public, the minister reiterated this week his intent to legislate, rather than constitutionally enshrine, a Voice to Government, with "symbolic" recognition to come later.
Such a body will not have the same independence, moral or legal authority, or stability as a constitutionally enshrined Voice. What one parliament giveth, another parliament can taketh away. Indigenous people know a history in this country of government making us promises, and then repealing them. This would be no different.
The government's intended proposal ignores the centre of power in Indigenous affairs, and the fundamentals of how law is made in our political system. Political power over our affairs lies with the Federal Parliament, not with department secretaries, and especially not with the states. A body which speaks to public servants and parliamentary advisors, whose focus is to implement rather than legislate, is more "Breath to Bureaucracy" than Voice to Parliament. The bureaucrats already ignore our views, even when coming to them from the Coalition of Peaks, and another silent whisper into their ears won't change that. We will remain as powerless as we are now.
What is also striking about what the government envisions is not its weakness or ineffectiveness, although that is painfully clear. It is that Ken Wyatt and his advisers, including the Senior Advisory and National Co-Design groups, have not actually listened. The constitutional convention and the regional dialogues resoundingly rejected proposals for symbolic recognition, as have generations of mob. They wholeheartedly endorsed constitutional enshrinement as the best path forward. We want a body which has teeth, the ability to achieve change, and which they cannot take away from us. A constitutionally enshrined Voice. A legislated Voice to the Public Service isn't that.
This always was, and always will be, our unceded sovereign land. Nothing can take that away from us, despite how the government and society might try. But to get the kind of empowerment and position that we need to advocate for ourselves, and realise a more equal Australia which leaves mob better off, a toothless, revocable, and uninspiring Breath to Bureaucracy is just not going to cut it.
- James Blackwell is a proud Wiradjuri man and Research Fellow in Indigenous Policy at UNSW's Centre for Social Impact. He is a member of the Uluru Dialogue Leadership Group.