Bill's Transcripts

Doorstop: Sydney - Constitutional Recognition.





SUBJECT/S: Constitutional Recognition.

BILL SHORTEN, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Good afternoon everyone. This morning, before this meeting started, I said there would be one test for whether or not it was a successful gathering: would we be able to regain momentum about Constitutional Recognition of our First Australians. The test this morning was could we move this nation closer to sorting out the great silence of the Australian Constitution. By that I mean if our Constitution is our nation's birth certificate then it needs to include all Australians, including our First Australians.

Now today in the course of four hours was a remarkable gathering. The Prime Minister and I working together, putting aside party politics, Liberal and Labor to see how can Australia, in its Constitution, finally include Indigenous Australians. And in this endeavour we were supported by 40 remarkable Australian leaders, Indigenous leaders who are Australian leaders.

It would I think, renew the faith of a lot of Australians in politics if they were able to see some of the discussions. Opinions were stated honestly, ideas were put forward, people who don't always agree with each other putting aside their own particular point of view, in the interests of generating momentum for Constitutional Recognition. So today it was decided that we will have community conferences, engaging Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia at the grass roots, in our big cities and our regional centres and remote areas, talking to Australians about updating the Constitution. It'll be supported and supervised by a Referendum Council, the Prime Minister has agreed to consult myself in terms of the makeup of that Referendum Council, but its job will be to help work through the technical issues and make sure that these community conferences reach out to all parts of Australia, and all parts of the Australian population.

Thirdly, there was a renewed commitment from both the Prime Minister and myself to make sure that our Joint Select Committee of expert Members of Parliament continue the work of making sure that we've got options on the table for Constitutional Recognition. But I think at the heart of what was spoken about today, is a recognition that if this nation is to move forward, we need a constitution which represents all Australians, and doesn't exclude our First Australians.

What was recognised also, was that on one hand we don't want to have the tyranny of low expectations, that an argument that just putting up very symbolic change is unsatisfactory and won't be accepted by many people. But what was also recognised is there needs to be compromise. The people will all have their own particular version of what needs to be done, but that we need to actually come together and everyone needs to give a little ground to gain the change of updating our national birth certificate.

Today was a special day , there was trust, there was unity and dare I say it, there was some momentum in Constitutional Recognition. Happy to take any questions on this matter.

JOURNALIST: How would you like Council, the Referendum Council to be made up? Do you think it should have a majority of Indigenous people, what should be the makeup of this particular group of people?

SHORTEN: Well first of all the function of a Referendum Council I think, is to keep matters on track, to keep that momentum going. I think it should be made up of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, I’ll meet with the Prime Minister and we'll talk about the sort of people of eminent Australians who can help keep this process going. I'm not going to get hung up about particular numbers or particular personalities, but what we do know is that we need to make sure that this Referendum Council ensuring that these community conferences - which could be up to 40 around Australia in the next 12 months take place. That they're resources, that they're taken seriously, that people feel engaged and of course the Referendum Council  would report to the Prime Minister and myself on a quarterly basis. We expect that the first of these community conferences would start as early as September this year.

JOURNALIST: Why couldn't it start earlier and Indigenous leaders have expressed over the last week, they wanted a six month time frame at the most - why can't the Government and the Opposition meet that request?

SHORTEN: Well as the Prime Minister has said he wants to talk to his party room and I'll do that same with mine, Parliament resumes in August. I think September was a good starting point, I think your question goes to why have we waited 115 years to deal with this matter, and I don't think there is a satisfactory answer, but the point is today we're now dealing with it. We want our constitution to be able to explain to young Australians, to our next generation, how we see ourselves in the mirror, and a Constitution which excludes our first Australians is an incomplete document.

JOURNALIST: Do you support the race discrimination provision?

SHORTEN: In terms of particular model for Constitution change - which is what your question goes to, I don't support any form of discrimination full stop. Now there's difference competing views about what should go in a Constitution, and what are the other mechanisms to tackle discrimination. I think today we were sensible not trying to finally answer the question you're asking, but to recognise that we're not ruling in or ruling out particular propositions, but I’m looking forward to these community conferences tackling the issues of discrimination. Tackling the issue of what do we want our constitution to do and I think it's smart, and today was a smart day, where we're not trying to say, you know, one person's right and another person's wrong. Changing our Constitution is a most serious exercise, and it's one which needs to be embarked upon in a most conservative and cautious fashion. But I also think the Constitution does need to be updated and I think we made another step towards it today. There's been a lot of work done before today, and there'll be a lot of work done after today, but I can assure all Australians through you here today, that the Indigenous leaders, the Prime Minister and myself, came away with a greater unity of purpose than I think this debate about Constitutional Recognition has seen in a long time.

JOURNALIST: You said in the lead up to this you didn't want to set the bar of expectations to low, are you thus pleased the Prime Minister has kept on the table in questions just now the possibility of non-racial - of avoiding racial discrimination, and also the Indigenous Advisory panel as well.

SHORTEN: Well I won't verbal the Prime Minister, today was a most unusual day in the last two years of this Parliament, we're working together, no one - I don't think anyone would contradict that at all. In terms of not ruling in, not ruling out, we all bring our own particular views about what needs to be done, but what we now have today is a process, and a process which isn't just about the Prime Minister or myself, you know, making announcements.  What it is about is the grass roots of Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, non-Indigenous Australians. Constitutions should be owned by all Australians and it should speak to all Australians, and that's what I think we've done today. We've moved that process along, it's a very healthy development today, I can't guarantee success and Constitutional Recognition, there are detractors on the extremes who don't believe in this process, but I think most Australians want to see leadership here. They also want to see Indigenous Australia outline what they think is important and I think what we've done is guarantee that process. There's a lot of goodwill I think amongst Australians for saying well of course our Constitution should recognise Indigenous Australians and I think we made another step towards that today.

JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten given that you want to have  I think up to 40 of these community consultations, is 2017 really a viable date in which to possibly hold a referendum?

SHORTEN: Well the date is - a timetable I think is important, we can't be too prescriptive but you know I think Australians tend to work towards deadlines as we do in our daily lives, and from most matters if we've got a deadline we then know what we've got to get done and when. In terms of this, some people will say it's too slow, as an earlier question said you know really why is it taking us as long as it is. What I recognise is that over the next 12 months - or not even 12 months but you know the last quarter of this year and the first half of next year, it is important we get out to all of Australia. Australia just doesn’t stop at the CBDs of Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, we've got large regional centres, we've got Indigenous populations dispersed all over Australia and we've got lots of Australians everywhere, so I think that having a number of community conferences is  going to take a while but I think it can be done on a pretty regular and committed basis.

What I also think is important in an ideal world, in an ideal world and if it doesn’t happen, you know, it's not the end of it but I think it would be good if we had as much of the detail of a proposed referendum change locked away before the next election. If the Government goes its full term I think we have an opportunity to nail down some of the detail, that way it moves it out of the cycle of politics and the nation can know that whatever happens at the next election, this is one issue which has been dealt with above politics and beyond politics. So that's why I think the last half of this year and the first part of next year for these community conferences is important, and again on the question of convention at the end of it, I suspect in principle this will have to take place but let’s see how our conferences go, let's see how we go towards it. Last question thanks.

JOURNALIST: One of the Joint Select Committee's recommendations was for an all-day sitting of both houses to debate that, does that fit into this schedule?

SHORTEN: To be fair we didn't talk about that in this meeting but I'm very open to that, I'm not going to lock the Prime Minister into that, so we've managed to I think create a new level of bipartisanship on this question which is pretty healthy. I think it makes sense but again I, you know if the Government does then I'm not going to sort of throw the toys out of the cot but I do think it is a good idea. Thanks everyone, see you later.