I was raised by my single mother and have always been inspired by strong black women. I was reminded of these many formidable Indigenous women who have challenged and encouraged me to speak up for justice when I appeared on Q&A’s people panel on Monday night, during this NAIDOC Week. And it is why, channelling their spirit, I spoke out against a Labor plan that would circumvent the recognition of a First Nations voice in the Australian constitution.
Two of the women who have inspired me are constitutional law professor Megan Davis and Aunty Pat Anderson, both of whom ran the First Nations dialogues of more than 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in 2017, which culminated in the historic Uluru Statement from the Heart. But Labor’s proposal to legislate for a First Nations Voice, without holding a referendum to change the constitution to include one, would dishonour that statement.
The Uluru Statement calls for the establishment of a First Nations Voice in the constitution, to ensure Indigenous people have a say in the laws that affect us, and a Makarrata Commission, to supervise agreement-making and facilitate a process of local and regional truth-telling.
The Coalition rejected the recommendation that a referendum be held to allow for the constitution to be changed to include that First Nations Voice.
Now, if Labor accepts mere legislation over constitutional change, it will waste its political power as Australia’s major progressive party. Such a move would diffuse the political pressure that could encourage the Coalition government to adopt a more reasonable response to the Uluru Statement.
A merely legislated voice would be vulnerable to the whims of the government of the day. This is why Uluru proposed a constitutionally guaranteed voice.
Have our progressive politicians forgotten what constitutional recognition means? It means substantive constitutional reform – not just legislation. Without the constitutional guarantee, it’s not constitutional recognition.
The ALP should stand in solidarity with the First Nations to steadfastly back the Uluru Statement’s call for a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament, not merely a legislated one. Rather than folding to the Coalition’s lazy predictions of referendum failure, Labor needs to keep ambitions for constitutional reform high.
Bill Shorten says Labor fully backs the Uluru Statement. If this is true, then Labor must pursue a smart strategy to ensure the First Nations Voice is constitutionalised. Labor can play a vital role in this respect, helping the Coalition shift its position. Labor has influence that can persuade the government to change its mind.
It seems to me Labor’s proposal is really about watering down the Uluru Statement, and indefinitely avoiding standing up to the Coalition.
We are not politically naive. Indigenous people understand that the Coalition rejection last year created a big challenge, but we will not give up. Polling reflects a groundswell of support. Thousands have been signing up, and this is without bipartisanship – imagine if we had a prime minister with the moral clarity to lead this constitutional change.
It’s still possible. But for this to happen, we need Labor backing the First Nations. With appropriate pressure from the left, we can change the political situation for the better.
The Uluru Statement’s call for a constitutionally guaranteed voice is not just a “nice idea” that can be easily given up. It was a historic First Nations consensus.
We will not settle for anything less than a constitutionally enshrined voice in our affairs. The First Nations have made our position clear. It is a modest and achievable request. It is now up to parliament to show leadership – both left and right.
Labor must stand strong with First Nations instead of selling us out. The future of our nation depends on it.
Teela Reid is a lawyer and Wiradjuri/Wailwan woman who was recently selected to attend Harvard University as a global emerging leader.