Noel Pearson has offered Malcolm Turnbull an olive branch on indigenous constitutional recognition, telling a parliamentary committee there are ways to ensure a proposed advisory voice to parliament does not become a “third chamber” or additional representative assembly.
Months after he angrily accused the Prime Minister of “lying” by ditching the proposal despite previously supporting it privately, Mr Pearson’s Cape York Institute is understood to have provided a detailed submission aimed at allaying government fears.
Rejecting the Referendum Council’s proposal last October, Mr Turnbull said the voice would “become seen as a third chamber of parliament”, would be contrary to democratic principles and would not win support at a referendum.
However, researcher Shireen Morris told The Weekend Australian the institute had “heard the government’s concerns, and we think there are absolutely ways to achieve a constitutionally guaranteed First Nations voice that address those concerns … we have put forward constitutional drafting and legislative design ideas that demonstrate without a doubt that this would not operate as a third chamber”.
Dr Morris said a 2017 proposal by Aboriginal businessman and former prime ministerial adviser Warren Mundine, to constitutionally recognise First Nations voices at the local level, “may offer an innovative solution”. Revised versions of an alternative suggestion, by Sydney University constitutional law professor Anne Twomey, could also offer reassurance through a national First Nations advisory body to “connect to local and regional” groups. Any national entity “must be anchored in local First Nations and their regions, in all their diversity” so that the approach was bottom-up rather than top-down.
“As minister Ken Wyatt has said, this must enable local and regional voices to be empowered in their affairs, and enable those voices to percolate through to the national level so they can inform the federal parliament,” Dr Morris said.
The proposed voice would be a “conduit for diverse views” rather than a “gatekeeper”, she said.
Mr Turnbull and Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion’s backing of the Cape York-based Pama Futures program of regional decision-making is seen by some as a cautious endorsement of the ground-up principle. The joint parliamentary committee reconsidering the Referendum Council’s recommendation is co-chaired by West Australian senator Patrick Dodson, the so-called “father of reconciliation”, and constitutional lawyer and Liberal MP Julian Leeser, who helped design the original “constitutional voice” proposal with Professor Twomey.
The committee, which is in the middle of a round of public hearings, is due to submit an interim report next month.
Dr Morris said it now had “a massive opportunity” to endorse the Uluru Statement from the Heart’s call for the new body to be put in the Constitution, not just enacted in legislation, because it was “the only proposal that is constitutionally conservative, because it was designed with constitutional conservatives” such as Mr Leeser.