Just outside the little town of Delungra in northern New South Wales, as you head out towards Warialda, you’ll find a turn-off on the left that takes you to the old cemetery. Go through the wrought iron gates and down along a dirt path lined with gum trees and you’ll find yourself in another world, disturbed only by the usual bush noises and the occasional crack from the local pistol club. It’s a place I sometimes go to, not just when I’m down visiting my relations in the area. I pay respect to the generations of Hamiltons and Kents who are buried there, but I also reflect on the country that was and will be. The last time I went there I took my daughter, Adeline, with me. As we were standing there she asked the obvious question: ‘Dad, why is the cemetery split down the middle?’ It’s an innocent enough question, the sort of thing kids ask, and it makes you more and more curious as you stand there and observe the different family groupings on each side. On one side you’ve got the clearly identifiable Irish Catholics—the Mc’s and the O’s. On the other side you see a spattering of the squares and compasses of the freemasons among the Protestants.
It’s really difficult to explain to our children the divisions of the past, why our divisions mattered so much to us that we even separated ourselves in death. It’s difficult, but it’s important to do. It’s not accidental that the old cemeteries around the nation are divided like that. The living nation of the time was divided. We were ‘us and them’. As time has gone on, that ‘us’ has grown bigger and more inclusive. It means more. And whilst that big scar that split Protestant from Catholic Australians is still visible, there’s a divide standing there that we don’t see. What becomes apparent as you stand in that old cemetery in Delungra is that there are no Aboriginal Australians buried there. We were divided in ways we didn’t even want to acknowledge back then. I’m very proud to say that that’s not the nation we are today. That’s not the nation my daughter was born into, and I’m very proud of that.
At every step along the national journey we’ve taken, we have not just politely but vigorously ignored our differences. Instead of focusing on that which could divide us, the national will has been to seek strength in that which unifies us. At every opportunity, we have sought to create an egalitarian society where all are equal before the law, where all have the same liberties. It has not always been easy going, but we have pushed on together. As I stand here today, what I’m most proud of when I think of Australia’s national journey is that I come to this place and I can stand side to side with 11 senators and members of Aboriginal heritage, and I am their equal. Our vote in this place or the other carries the same weight. While outside this place there is much to do to ensure equality of opportunity is spread evenly across our continent, and I remain as committed as ever to that endeavour, here in our parliament we allow no imperfections in our equality. Thankfully, we are beyond that.
Australia’s past holds our divisions. Australia’s future must be a place where the bonds that unite us are made even tighter. I do not support the proposed Aboriginal Voice to Parliament on principle. I am fundamentally opposed to any move that seeks to distribute different rights and responsibilities through our Australian citizenship on the basis of race and, worse, that such division might be placed in our most important document, the Constitution.
Beyond my position on the substantive question of this debate, I’m dissatisfied with the government’s conduct in bringing it about. I do not believe that this referendum is being brought upon us by the government in good faith. The issue of changing the Constitution is one that Australians have never entertained lightly, with only eight of 44 referenda passing in our 122-year history. The nation has expectations of a government that seeks the people’s support for a change to the Constitution, and they are not being met. I find it extraordinary that this proposal can be put without the usual process of a constitutional convention where proper and fulsome debate can be had, and it leaves me questioning the motives of the government as to why they would deliberately deny the proposal the national scrutiny it deserves. I don’t doubt for a second that there are many who have formed their position of support with good intentions, but as legislators we are not in the business of intentions. Rather, it is consequences that must guide our decision-making. The purpose of the constitutional convention is to flesh out those consequences, and this debate on an amendment to the Constitution is poorer for its absence.
How can this government advocate for an Aboriginal voice to parliament yet deny their voices the opportunity to debate it in a constitutional convention? Imagine if that right had been stripped from Neville Bonner in the 1998 convention on the republic, when his powerful speech condemning those who sought to speak on behalf of Aboriginal Australians carried the day. Under this Prime Minister, Bonner’s voice would never have been heard on that day. But Bonner’s voice was heard, and it echoes through today:
… my heart is heavy. I worry for my children and my grandchildren. I worry that what has proven to be a stable society, which now recognises my people as equals, is about to be replaced.
How dare you? I repeat: how dare you? You told my people that your system was best. We have come to accept that. We’ve come to believe that. The dispossessed, despised adapted to your system. Now you say that you were wrong and we were wrong to believe you.
I’m not going to pretend to conflate this: Bonner was speaking of the republic, not of the Voice to Parliament, but he spoke powerfully and independently. Under this Prime Minister that voice wouldn’t have been heard, because this Prime Minister denied Australia a constitutional convention.
It’s equally wrong of this government and this Prime Minister to advance the debate this far in the absence of details—to deliberately keep from the Australian people what they need to know. Once again, I find myself questioning the motives of this government when they seek to constitutionally enshrine a new body with, to quote the Referendum Working Group’s Megan Davis, a ‘self-determined scope’. In denying debate and denying the details required to have the debate, it is my belief that it is this government’s desire to conflate Australia’s genuine desire for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal Australians with a voice to parliament and hope that Australia doesn’t notice. I repeat the previous observation of the Leader of the Opposition: it’s extraordinary that the first television ad of the ‘yes’ campaign spoke of constitutional recognition whilst failing to mention the Voice. I don’t think history will look too kindly on such underhandedness. I trust Australians. I trust their judgement. The government clearly does not. If they did, they would have given Australians the details and the proper forum to debate them.
There is no problem for which more government is the answer. On this we can be clear: the Voice is more government. The clear consequence of a constitutionally enshrined voice is that no issue would be beyond its scope and no unwelcome decision beyond an appeal to the courts. That is not democracy. That is antidemocracy. This creates an Australia split between those who are equal and those who are more equal. Sadly, it creates an Australia where we are once again split down the middle, with one class of Australians on this side and another class on that side.
With the most recent polling showing Australia split 53-47 and tightening, this shows that this referendum could not be more divisive. As a nation, we are being dragged back in time, back to the place where we’ve buried those past divisions, back to that old cemetery where Australia lays before us split in two—us and them—once again. This Prime Minister is no unifier. He is splitting the nation in two on the issue of race, his legacy a return to those dark times of us and them—everything we’ve worked for, the great ideas of liberal democratic nations, surrendered. The vast sweep of Western democracy’s arc, which has bent evermore towards freedom, equality and justice, is turned back on itself towards division and the will of the few. What a shameful legacy.
As a young boy, I was fortunate to have two very decent local political role models to look up to in Sir Llew Edwards and Senator Neville Bonner. Sir Llew had that great ease about him, that smile and warmth that I remember well, but it was in Senator Bonner that I found something I could really appreciate: the energy, belief and hardiness of someone who has had to fight for things. There were a lot of people in Ipswich at the time who had to fight for what they wanted—it was a hard town; it still is—but there were few who won as many of their fights as Senator Bonner did. In this way I was attracted to Bonner’s story: the guy who was born under a palm tree, raised on the banks of a river, suffered terrible discrimination and yet went on to become Australia’s first Aboriginal parliamentarian. Few people in Australia’s history have ever risen so far through Australian society, yet he never stopped doing things his way. He never played it safe.
A big part of me—call it boyish romanticism—wanted to align myself with Bonner’s story, to imagine myself carrying on in his footsteps, continuing his triumph of will over circumstance, forcing my way through doors which had been barred to me, but I know that’s not my role. It’s with great happiness that Australia can celebrate that, today, there are 11 members and senators with Aboriginal heritage who get to carry on his legacy in this federal parliament. His story, his struggles and his hopes, in part, live on in them. Bonner’s legacy lives on.
But there is a legacy from that story that I get to continue—that is, the legacy of the members of the Liberal Party who on three occasions voted to put Neville Bonner on their Senate ticket, who chose to judge him not on the colour of his skin but rather on his contribution to society, who chose to view him as a equal, and who chose to throw their support behind him and have him as their representative here in parliament. I get to continue that legacy, and it is those beliefs of equality, fellowship and the equalising power of democracy to which I subscribe. I oppose the Voice because it stands against my principles and the principles of the Liberal Party, which I proudly represent.