Bill's Transcripts







SUBJECTS: Constitutional recognition for Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander Australians

BILL SHORTEN, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Good afternoon everybody. It's fantastic for I, and my Labor team, to be here at Garma to talk about constitutional recognition of our First Australians in the nation's Constitution. Today, I was proud to be able to promise people that Labor offers its unequivocal support for the recognition of our First Australians in the Constitution. Today, I was pleased to extend the hand of bipartisanship to Mr Turnbull and the Liberal Party by proposing a process whereby the Parliament could consider the very important recommendation of the Referendum Council, and work from how we can get to having a genuine choice as easy and as early as possible next year. 

Now we say to Mr Turnbull, over to you, it's your move, Labor is offering bipartisan support, unequivocal support, for helping make the Referendum Council’s goals and aspirations a reality, what we want to do now is have the Parliament consider it, that's an inevitable requirement in order to get to a referendum.

For too long our First Australians haven't been on the nation's birth certificate. Labor is happy to be a willing partner with Mr Turnbull and his Liberal Government to be able to, at last, put our first Australians into our Constitution. I'm happy to take any questions.

JOURNALIST: The Prime Minister has just said that your timetable is very ambitious - history would suggest it's very ambitious. He's also said that we'll consider the matter carefully through our own Cabinet processes. Is that a rejection of your suggestion? 

SHORTEN: I don't know what he means by that frankly. We can't make this happen without Mr Turnbull and the Liberals. But what he has is what Australians want to see in our national political debate. We are happy to work with the Government on a bipartisan basis to give Aboriginal people a voice in our Constitution. We're up for the argument, we're up for making this a bigger, brighter, more hopeful future for our First Australians and all Australians. We are ready to be willing partners. I can't control when the Liberal Party makes a decision, or what decision they will make. Mr Turnbull can dictate the timetable - whether or not what we're saying is ambitious after ten years of discussion is for others to decide. I can lead Mr Turnbull and the Liberal Party to water but I can't make them drink. That'll be up to them.

JOURNALIST: Back on the time frame itself, he also says this is a relatively new proposal, that if you want to get majority support and take all of Australia with you, you need a longer period of time to convince people of this this proposal. Is your time frame too ambitious in that context? Do you think most people would support a voice to Parliament in the Constitution? 

SHORTEN: Let me just answer your four questions, Patricia.

First of all, I don't think it is a new proposition to include our First Australians in the Constitution. Really, it's about 117 years overdue as it is. There's been discussion about constitutional recognition in specific form for the last decade, including, but not limited to, the expert report, earlier parliamentary reports, now the Referendum Council. I think when you strip away all of the rhetoric and some of the fear mongering the proposition that the Australian people could be asked the question: is it legitimate to give Aboriginal people a say in decisions that affect them?

I don't actually think that's a revolutionary proposal. 

I think it's an idea whose time has come. But please, I say, don't let Mr Turnbull or the Liberals quibble over timetables. We are ready.  We're ready to dance. It's up to him if he wants to accept the invitation. I can't make him do what he doesn't want to do, but let's work on this together. Setting up a joint parliamentary committee, I think that's overdue. Mr Howard, a former Liberal Prime Minister scrapped that.

I think that the issues around how you create a voice for Indigenous Australians, whilst there are some contentious issues, they're not overly complex. Every day in Australia we let local governments have a voice, we have State Governments with a voice, we give the national Parliament a voice. I think the idea of creating a forum whereby Indigenous Australians are consulted on decisions which affect them - this is not rocket science friends. But we are controlled by the timetable of the conservative government. It's up to Mr Turnbull, all I can do on behalf of the Labor Party on behalf of Australia is say to this Government, we're ready, and when you're ready that'll be great.

JOURNALIST: Was there politics in your announcement though? Because ultimately you know that he has to go through a Cabinet process, you know that there are people on his backbench who are constitutional conservatives who are concerned about some of these proposals, haven't you pushed him to a point of asking him for a response before he's been able to take his party with him? 

SHORTEN: Fair is fair Patricia, Tony Abbott and I set up the Referendum Council two years ago. This is not a surprise announcement, this is not some sort of meteor from outer space. This is something which has been in the works for two years, and I haven't asked Mr Turnbull to even agree on what the constitutional change is. I've done something which is pretty modest, which is say let's set up a committee of the Parliament, a joint committee, we do that every day actually, and let's look at the specific proposals of the Referendum Council. So I hope Mr Turnbull doesn't say well he doesn't like the fact Labor's had an idea. But by the way, I am not going to wait for putting up ideas until I get the tick off from the right wing rump of the Liberal Party and the National Party. If we waited for those people, nothing would ever happen in this country, would it?

JOURNALIST: Bill Shorten, how far are you prepared to go on a voice, what would you allow and where is the line in the sand for you?

SHORTEN: The Parliament is sovereign, let me be clear. Only the Parliament is the sovereign body in terms of making laws, so this would not be giving veto powers, so before we start seeing some sort of lunar right proposal that it's a third parliament, it is not, and the people who wrote the Referendum Council report have made it clear. So let's altogether kill that sort of rubbish before it gets any oxygen. But having said that, in terms of representative structure, we'll just let the Parliament work that through. You know what's nice about what I'm offering Mr Turnbull? We're not saying it has to have A, B and C features in it. We're not being determinative at all. We're saying we've got a report, the Parliament is meeting, we should set up a joint committee. I think there should be a joint committee of the House anyway, looking at all sorts of matters with Indigenous affairs, and I should, in particular, congratulate Malarndirri McCarthy, Linda Burney and Pat Dodson. They've been pushing to have a joint parliamentary committee for longer than this announcement, and in fact, I think you'll find I wrote to Mr Turnbull some months ago on this very question - so it's hardly a new idea. And just going back to that earlier question that Patricia said, are we being political by asking Mr Turnbull to make a decision - for goodness sakes people, he's the Prime Minister of Australia. It's not enough for him to say anymore, I'm the Prime Minister what do you expect me to do. It's up to him to timetable. It's entirely in his court, what we're doing is we're saying we're ready to work. Australians want us to be constructive and we are.

JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, don't you think that a voice to Parliament should be the only proposal taken to a referendum? Or are there other changes to the Constitution that you'd like to see made? 

SHORTEN: Historically, we've had concerns and plenty of experts have had concerns about the race powers in the Constitution, but to recognise the Uluru Statement from the Heart, their unequivocal position is that the number one cab off the rank full stop is a voice, so we're prepared to recognise that that is the priority and that's what we would ask the parliamentary committee to work on in the first instance. 

JOURNALIST: The Prime Minister did refer in his speech to the Indigenous Members of Parliament as a voice to Parliament. Could I ask one of them, do you agree with that, is there a difference between Senator Dodson, your position in Parliament and the sort of voice that's being -

SENATOR PATRICK DODSON: As an elected person, and I represent the State of Western Australia as a Senator, so you sit in the Parliament and you actually deliberate upon laws, and you're part of the law making process, and this processes that is being proposed here for a voice, is not to be part of that process, it's to stand to one side of the Parliament and actually give advice to the Parliament when it wishes to make laws in relation to one head of power or another. And that advice is not even justiciable, it's not even reviewable, so it just gets tabled. Every day of the week in the Senate reports are tabled of all sorts of things, and we get up and we speak to the report and we make comments about it or we take the report and we take it to Senate Estimates and we quiz the particular minister and his department as to the effect of this and the public policies - this will have none of that. This is what we do every day of the week in the Parliament as elected representatives, as part of the parliamentary process. But people haven't asked for that, and that's fine, because there are many things, many things of a broader nature that Indigenous people are concerned with, and they want to be able to put those propositions to the Parliament, under their rules and laws, that would be legislated for by the Parliament - they want to be able to do that in a way where they feel they're empowered. 

JOURNALIST: And Senator do you feel that the Parliament would actually take on that advice?

DODSON: The Parliament is the Parliament. I can't tell you what the Parliament's going to do - I sit in the Parliament, we sometimes agree, we sometimes disagree, we sometimes have unanimity and we sometimes have very serious disagreements, and we'll sit and debate those things, particularly in the Senate, because I can only speak of the Senate. We'll sit and debate those to the wee hours of the morning, and we may come to some consensus, or we'll wait until the Government's made a deal with the crossbenchers. And then, then we'll be allowed to go home. So we understand how the process works.

JOURNALIST: So you're right on board with the idea of a voice in Parliament - 

DODSON: Absolutely.

JOURNALIST: Should it be elected, or appointed?

DODSON: Well that's a matter for working the detail out. They're detail questions, as the Leader has said, these are not complicated issues. They do require further conversations and clarity to get the detail fixed, and to do that in a way with the Indigenous people. But the first step is you've got to bring this matter into the Parliament, and that's what we've offered through our Leader today, to set up a parliamentary committee, a joint parliamentary committee, so that we can actually start the work. To get to that position, the Prime Minister quite frankly, has to take seriously what's been said to him, by Galarrwuy and other leaders here today, and act on this. We cannot shilly shally around any further. Now that's up to him. We can only keep prodding him, promising our support, which we will give, and we'll work very hard to make sure this becomes a reality.

JOURNALIST: So what would be your preferred option of a way to have that voice that's been called for very loudly now?

DODSON: The only way you can have it is to clarify what it is?

JOURNALIST: Isn't it very clear from the Uluru Statement?

DODSON: No, it's not, have you read the Uluru Statement?


DODSON: Well it's not clear. It's not clear when you come to a parliamentary process. Could you walk into the Parliament, could you walk into the Senate tomorrow and guarantee you can pass this? You can't. 

JOURNALIST: So can you do all this by the end of the year?

DODSON: I think you can, with the support - if the Government is keen, serious about this, you can do it. You can do it easily. 

JOURNALIST: You've been a lifelong supporter of Constitutional reform, do you feel as though we're a step closer these past two days and months really, once the council's report was delivered to you?

LINDA BURNEY: I think we are closer, and the question that was asked earlier in terms of those of us that are Indigenous politicians, of course we are elected by everybody, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and our responsibility is to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but it is also to the broader Australian community and the 140,000 people in the electorate of Barton that have a say about who will represent them, and that's important to understand. I made a very clear statement in 2003 when I became a Member of Parliament, is that you do not change who you are by walking up a new set of stairs. And I think that's a very important thing for some of us to understand in terms of our aboriginality and who we are and what our responsibilities are. We understand them from two world perspectives. In relation to is this any closer, what has happened at Uluru with our Leader Bill Shorten, and the Labor Party politicians and people who have visited out here, as well of course the Prime Minister, is that we have made very clear statements, and Bill Shorten has made a very clear statement on behalf of Labor. We are up for this discussion. We are supportive of what has been put forward at this forum and at the Uluru convention, but it will take a process. It is a nonsense to think that you can just put this to the Australia people, remembering a referendum is voted on by everyone, without putting some meat onto the bones, and that's what the process will involve over the next few months, is working out exactly how this body would be elected, appointed, what it would do and how it would operate and what it's role will be within the Parliament. That is the most respectful thing we can do is to be clear, absolutely clear, on what we're asking the Australian people to sign up to. 

JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, what's been the response from Garma from the Referendum Council and Indigenous views of your proposal?

SHORTEN: I think people are pleased that one of the two major parties is saying that they're up for action. I think it was a pretty powerful metaphor when we heard from one of the directors of the Yothu Yindi Foundation when she said, the Prime Minister and I are in a canoe, she said we both need you to paddle. Well the good news for First Australians and all Australians is I'm ready. We've got to see about the other chap. Any last questions on any other matters?

JOURNALIST: Are you really going to have a referendum question on 51 26 on the race powers? Or will you just be focusing on -

SHORTEN: The referendum council said its first priority is that - 

JOURNALIST: So you're ruling out a referendum on race?

SHORTEN: If you're asking me to rule out forever and a day, questions on constitutional change, that's not a question anyone can answer. Let me speak straight. That's what you're looking for. I understand your question. The Referendum Council's priority has been to enshrine a voice in the Constitution - we regard that as the first order of business. They've also said they would like to see a makarrata or a truth telling commission. We're happy to look at how that would work as well. Mr Pearson said, do you do it in a sequence - we're up for that. And can I just go back to where the question started from? I say through you, to Australians, and to Mr Turnbull, we're proposing a timetable, if you don't like the timetable, come back to us. What's your timetable? But what we are being unequivocal about is our support for recognition of our First Australians in our Constitution. The Labor Party is ready, we think Australia is ready, we want to do the parliamentary work, and we don't think that should take forever and a day, we're not going to kick into the long grass of delay - full stop. 

JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, these processes in the past have blown out for quite a number of years, and its not impossible to say that this could still be going in the next term of Government, if that term of Government is Labor led, can you guarantee a timeframe, not just on this referendum but on makarrata process, treaty, looking at the race powers -

SHORTEN: Let me guarantee, if we win the next election, there's a whole lot of stuff we're going to get done. I mean, the Government, currently, they almost act like they're outraged when the Labor Party acts like an alternative Government, offering up our policies. We are determined to offer strong policies, not just constitutional recognition, not just on the makarrata, but on a whole range of issues. Be under no illusion if we are successful, and people give us a chance to form a Government, we'll get on with this. We'll also get on with Closing the Gap. We also want to do something about the unacceptable rates of incarceration, especially of young Aboriginal men. We'll do something about the terrible dialysis shortage of services in regional Australia. We'll do a lot more on the employment of young Aboriginal people. We'll do a lot more to tackle family violence. And it won't just be in the matter of our first Australians that we'll do a lot more.

If this Government is not capable of sorting out the circus over marriage equality, we'll just legislate it in the first 100 days. And what's more is, we'll do a lot of other things, and whilst I won't take up the rest of the afternoon with our long list, we will repeal the cuts to penalty rates. We won't go ahead with the tax cuts for millionaires. We won't hand away $65 billion of unsustainable tax giveaways to corporate Australia. We're going to do all re sort of things which working and middle-class Australians want, but that does include constitutional recognition, and I'll finish on this point. Some conservative politicians say we can't look at matters to do with the Constitution we've got other pressing matters. We will be a government who can do more than one thing at a time. Full stop.

JOURNALIST: Bill Shorten, if you become Prime Minister, will you also remain Indigenous Affairs Minister, because you've got an Assistant Indigenous Affairs (inaudible). 

SHORTEN: I've got a remarkable team. Let's cross the hurdle of winning the election, but I have got I think, and I think even by the respectful way in which you listen to some of their contributions, my Party is determined to give Aboriginal people, not just a voice in the Constitution, but a voice in the Parliament itself. But you've got to admit, when we present, with Linda Burney, Malarndirri McCarthy and Senator Pat Dodson, First Australians know whose side we're on. Thanks everybody.


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