Australia’s nine major human rights bodies have rebuffed the Turnbull government over its sceptical reception of the Uluru Statement, strongly backing the proposal to enshrine a “First Nations Voice” in the constitution.
The major parties reacted cautiously to the recommendation for what would likely be an elected Indigenous advisory body, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull warning Australians were “constitutionally conservative”.
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce went further, declaring “it’s not going to happen” and suggesting a body akin to a third chamber of Parliament “just won’t fly” with the Australian people.
But the Australian Human Rights Commission, joined by its eight state and territory counterparts, declared “it is time for all our political leaders to listen” to Indigenous people and that the proposal could not be ignored.
“What the Uluru Statement from the Heart calls for is not a new idea, nor should it be contentious,” the Australian Council of Human Rights Authorities said in a statement.
“Often we fail to take into account the views of our First Peoples. Our political systems and institutions remain inadequate at providing them with a voice in the matters that affect their lives, futures and communities.”
The commissioners said decades of research, reports and calls for constitutional reform had been “overlooked and forgotten”.
“As the gap of disadvantage widens for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the Statement cannot be ignored,” they wrote.
The commissioners reminded the government it had asked the Referendum Council to consult Aboriginal people, “which it has done”, and the results should therefore be heeded.
Under outgoing president Gillian Triggs, the AHRC has often irked the Coalition government for what some have called overtly political stances, particularly on asylum seeker policy.
Monday’s statement follows an ABC report on Monday of an alleged explosive outburst by Indigenous leader Noel Pearson during a meeting with Mr Turnbull and other MPs about the recognition process late last year.
Liberal MP Warren Entsch, who was not at the meeting but recounted it based on the testimony of attendees, said Mr Pearson called Mr Turnbull a “white c**t” and Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt a “black c**t”.
Mr Pearson reportedly denies the outburst.
Mr Entsch stood by the account on Monday, telling Fairfax Media: “It’s not the first time. When Noel’s not happy with them, he lets them know. But there’s no excuse for bad-mouthing or bad behaviour.”
Mr Entsch reserved comment on the Uluru Statement’s proposal for a constitutionally-enshrined voice, but said: “I’m not sure whether the broader Australian public are ready for it.”
The Uluru proposal will be considered by the Referendum Council, which reports to the Parliament. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has also been cautious but said the idea should be considered with an “open mind”.