Opinion piece published in The Examiner, 24 March 2020 (available here).
Difficult times give us the opportunity to display our best selves. The coronavirus pandemic is an opportunity for us to shine. Let’s grasp it.
We have a choice. We either put our selfishness into overdrive or we consider the needs of others. The Biblical injunction of “Do unto others as you would have them to do to unto you” is not only a worthy saying, but a practical guide for social and individual life, especially in the current circumstances.
Difficult as the coronavirus situation is, and the uncertainty of its consequences for all of us medically, socially and economically we can make things worse for everyone by foolishly panicking, abusing shop staff and ignoring the expert advice on hygiene and social distancing.
A few facts may help:
- We produce more than enough food (for 75 million people in fact and more than enough toilet paper for that matter) to ensure we won’t go without – so no need for stockpiling;
- Limits on purchases are only necessary because of the selfish few foolishly stockpiling – let’s only buy what we genuinely need;
- The limits are not the fault of the workers in the shops – don’t let them bear the brunt of any frustration;
- We enjoy excellent aged and health care systems – let’s assist them;
- Let’s remember that whilst the coronavirus may have originated in a particular country it’s not the fault of the people within our community who may have originally come from that country – we’re all in this together irrespective of our ethnic origins;
- Our democratic parliaments have risen to the occasion to deal with the arising issues in a considered, calibrated and caring manner with the best interests of the potentially most vulnerable in mind.
We all need to pull together, work together and support each other in these times so that after it’s all over (as it will be) our minds will be full of the acts of civic mindedness rather than punch-ups in shops and the trampling of a 13 year old girl (in Perth, WA) in the toilet roll aisle. How would we want our children and grandchildren to remember us? – The one lending a helping hand, or one filmed fighting for toilet paper – neither dignified today nor a worthy legacy.
We can all do our bit. We can remain patient with staff in shops and service sectors who need to tell us bad news. We can extend a helping hand and support to do the shopping or assist in other ways.
- Our banks giving interest rate/loan relief;
- Councils giving rates and other fee relief;
- Landlords giving give rent relief;
- The State Government giving payroll tax relief;
- The Federal government giving tax relief with business activity statements;
- Employers striving to hold onto jobs and workers reciprocating to help keep their employer afloat;
- Unemployed or displaced workers filling the void in agricultural sectors that are too reliant on overseas seasonal workers.
The potential list is endless. Whilst our governments are doing everything they reasonably can, we all have a role to play.
The current times also remind us that it is always wise and prudent to save for a “rainy” day. Not to put all our eggs in the one basket – especially economically. Over reliance on one cohort of customers may provide great short term yields but also risks over exposure with potentially dire consequences. Thirty years recession free may have given us too great a feeling of security. Yes, lessons need to, and will be, learned but in the meantime we need to work together co-operatively for our common good.
In the words of our longest serving Prime Minister, Robert Menzies:
“We believe that under the blessing of divine providence and given the good-will, mutual tolerance and understanding, energy and individual sense of purpose, there is no task which Australian cannot perform and no difficulty which she cannot overcome.”
We face a difficulty and we will overcome it.
For coronavirus updates, please see https://www.health.gov.au.
Opinion piece published in The Mercury, 24 January 2020.
A BIG contributor to this summer’s bushfire crisis has been the fact that as a nation we have not dedicated enough effort to fuel reduction burns.
Fires need fuel to burn, and the amount of fuel that has built up in a fire-prone area is of enormous importance to the scale and severity of a bushfire. Managing fuel loads is therefore critical to combating the threat of bushfires. In the words of Victoria’s Chief Fire Officer, “By reducing fuel loads, we won’t stop fires from starting, but we can reduce their spread and intensity when they do, making it easier for our forest firefighters to bring them under control quickly”.
Figures on the Green Left have taken faux exception to the valid identification of the role played by environmental activists, often with ties to the Greens Party, in obstructing fuel-reduction burns. They say that because the Greens do not control majorities at any level of government, they cannot bear any responsibility for preventing fire mitigation.
The Greens, who politicised this summer’s fires by blaming the Coalition for what they claim is a lack of seriousness to the so-called “climate emergency”, now complain their party is being criticised.
Let us examine the facts, which prove the truth about fuel loads prejudicing our capacity to minimise bushfires.
To take one example, the Environment East Gippsland group became the centre of attention this month when some members were caught celebrating the destruction of the Eden Woodchip Mill on the NSW South Coast, a business that had provided hundreds of jobs. The group is headed by former Victorian Greens candidates and staffers and organised protests in 2018 and 2019 against burn-offs in Gippsland under the guise of protecting biodiversity. As readers will be aware, Gippsland has been savaged by fires. Had it been possible for local authorities to perform proper controlled burns to manage fuel loads, the fires need not have been so large and uncontrollable.
Consider the dissenting report presented to a House of Representatives Select Committee into Recent Bushfires by Greens MP Michael Organ. Mr Organ quoted approvingly an academic who claimed “broadscale hazard reduction is threatening biodiversity conservation and must therefore be avoided by land managers and resisted at a political level”.
He concluded that “broadscale hazard reduction must be replaced”. Mr Organ’s report opposed prudent measures such as large-scale fuel reduction burns and expanding fire trails.
In Tasmania, the Greens have a similar track record of obstruction, notwithstanding former state minister and now senator Nick McKim saying in 2013 that “the Greens, in all the history of our political party, have never opposed a fuel-reduction burn, ever”. Yet in April 2013, the Tasmanian Greens voted against a motion by the then-opposition Liberals for the state government “to adopt in principle an annual fuel reduction burn target of 5 per cent of suitable public land”, a target that matched the expert recommendations of the 2009 Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission established after Black Saturday.
The previous year a Greens media release said the residents of Maydena “deserved better” than the “burn-offs that they were subjected to this week”, adding that “this practice has simply got to stop” and “we’re all better off when this Neanderthal practice stops and disposing of forest by-products is done far more responsibly”.
How responsible is it to let forest by-products accumulate on the ground to provide fuel for a conflagration.
Paul O’Halloran, when a Greens MP, had declared burn-offs were a threat to health and wellbeing, moaning that “once again Tasmania’s beautiful autumn days are blighted by the dense smoke plumes blocking out the sun and choking our air” and blaming the forestry industry.
In 2016 former Greens federal leader Bob Brown attacked autumn burn-offs, stating “the picturesque autumn scene is filled with manufactured smoke. It’s outrageous. These forest-destroying burns should be banned”.
The Greens claim in their official policy they support burn-offs for the purpose of saving lives and reducing the intensity of fires. In practice, they always find a reason to oppose each proposal. Not once have the Greens publicly endorsed or promoted a fuel reduction burn. Given recent protestations I look forward to their first public support for a fuel reduction burn. Because of the scale of the fires this summer, it is more important than ever the Greens’ track record of contributing to the problem is exposed.
Ill-informed calls to introduce “pill testing” at Australian music festivals, such as the impending the Falls Festival in Tasmania, need to be resisted. Drugs kill and harm. No “ifs”. No “buts”.
Pill testing is in no way a proven way of preventing drug-related deaths. The evidence we have about how pill testing works in practice, both overseas and in Australia, should give policymakers strong reservations.
The UK first began pill testing in 2013 and, with government sanction, it operates at many major music festivals. If the argument that pill testing prevents deaths was correct, we would expect to see a reduction in the number of fatalities since 2013. Instead, the opposite occurred, with ecstasy-related deaths in the UK more than doubling from 43 in 2013 to 92 in 2018.
A study from the Australian National University into a pill-testing trial at a festival in the ACT gives further genuine cause for concern. It unsurprisingly found that testing resulted in a “significant overall rise in patrons” intention to use the tested drug”.
In other words, testing made people more, not less, likely to consume drugs. Pill testing gives a false sense of security and legitimises the use of a highly destructive substance.
Pill testing promotes drug use by changing individuals’ perception of the very real risk involved. By giving the illusion that testing means drugs can somehow be safe, individuals are actually encouraged to take them. But there is no such thing as safe ecstasy use, and to give young Australians any illusion to the contrary is irresponsible.
These concerns have been raised by toxicologists Andrew Leibie and Dr John Lewis, who note that any claim that pill testing increases the safety of illicit drugs is dangerously misleading.
This is because the methods used in pill testing are imprecise. They are poor at detecting mixtures of different substances in a pill, are not able to detect newer varieties of drug, and, crucially, cannot measure the dosage.
Leibie and Lewis make another vital observation that is willfully ignored in the debate — the six individuals who died after taking ecstasy last summer died from its side effects, not because they took contaminated pills. Testing the pills would have only confirmed them as ecstasy.
These shortcomings expose both the danger and uselessness of pill testing.
Policymakers should not do anything to encourage young people to take drugs in the false confidence that they are doing so safely. And this is not to mention the serious long-term health impacts of ecstasy use, or the incidences of injury or death caused indirectly by its consumption (such as car accidents).
When the wellbeing of the next generation is at stake, good intentions in public policy are never good enough.
We should not be seduced by trendy policy ideas that implicitly endorse the use of drugs, by suggesting it can be done safely.
The only proven and guaranteed way to prevent harm from drugs is to not use drugs. We need the strength, courage and conviction of policy-makers to protect our young from the devastating impact of drugs.
Opinion piece published in The Australian, 4 December 2019
It’s time for the federal government to seize control of fire mitigation and management in our nation. The human, financial and environmental costs of bushfires are immense. The states have largely failed in this area because of the insidious green influence in our state bureaucracies, locking up vast tracts of land, destroying access tracks and refusing permission to reduce fuel loads. A new federal approach would prise the management of fire mitigation from the states and, if done properly, offer a counter-intuitive way to restore effective local control.
Now the most recent fires have abated, it is time to reflect on why we continue to allow them to devastate us and our landscape without proper mitigation strategies.
For the 2007 federal election I prepared on behalf of the Howard government a $10m bushfire mitigation fund, announcing it in the ruins of the Wielangta Forest in Tasmania after a massive burn. This was an area the Greens wanted “preserved” from forestry. With sustainable forest practices and a ready workforce, the devastating fire could have been extinguished before it took hold, with wildlife and habitat preserved. Instead, habitat and wood production were both lost.
The important role of local mitigation strategies has been neglected in relation to the recent fires due to an exaggerated focus on climate change. Yet this interpretation fails to provide any explanation for the recorded history of fires in Australia from the first days of European exploration. Captain James Cook described Australia as “this continent of smoke” during his maiden 1770 voyage. My home state of Tasmania has the Bay of Fires, given its name by Captain Tobias Furneaux in 1773 for the obvious reason.
Since European settlement destructive bushfires have been a regular occurrence. The biggest remains Black Thursday, in 1851, which affected a quarter of Victoria and burnt five million hectares. This compares to 1.5 million hectares burnt in NSW in the most recent fires. Bushfire has been a constant menace in our history, as even the most casual examination of the record will reveal.
Even if we accept the mantra that the recent fires are principally due to climate change, however, then this surely suggests that more stringent mitigation activities need to be undertaken to reduce the risk. But that would require something the inner-city Greens don’t want to acknowledge — an uncompromising reduction of the fuel loads in our forests. Yes, the cold burns would put CO2 into the atmosphere, but the forest litter ultimately will be burnt in a hot fire or slowly decompose releasing the trapped carbon dioxide in any event.
There is no doubt that cold burns will reduce CO2 emissions over time and also preserve trees for sustainable harvesting, providing a much-needed, genuinely renewable resource and habitat for wildlife. I’ve seen “reserved forests” preserved for koala habitat, denying forest workers and their communities a livelihood, being turned into an eerily silent scorched landscape without a single ant or bird left, let alone a koala. Yet koalas had cohabited with forestry in the region for more than 100 years.
Recent experience proves that locking up our forests neither preserves biosecurity nor our native wildlife. In fact the opposite is true. Policies formed on a lack of basic understanding in our cities stifle locals from clearing their land, reducing fuel loads, removing trees from nearby houses, and so on. As a result, there is considerably more fuel for fires that break out, increasing their scale and severity.
The counter-productive impact of green and red tape imposed by state governments in the name of environmentalism needs to be acknowledged. Realistic and practical approaches should be the order of the day and the warm, fuzzy, feel-good policies leading to disaster after disaster, and which have led to so much destruction, need to be rejected.
When it comes to our approach to bushfires, we can no longer afford the status quo. The cost to taxpayers, not to mention the human cost, is profound. We need to pursue a coherent national approach that will combine the weight of the federal government with local knowledge and expertise. The guiding role played by the federal government under such an approach would enable a comparison of performance and practices in different areas, with the aim of compiling a national repository of knowledge local practitioners could draw on to learn from experience elsewhere. This will ultimately save the taxpayer, life, limb, property, wildlife and habitat.
It would be a far more impressive bottom line than the charred devastation with which we are left under today’s approach.
Opinion piece published in The Mercury, 12 October 2019
The Prime Minister’s timely and cogent Lowy Lecture has sparked a lively debate among readers of the Mercury.
The speech surveyed a number of critical changes in the international environment that will shape Australia’s future, including strategic competition in our region, the rise of artificial intelligence, and the threat of terrorism.
As the PM declared, “a new economic and political order is taking shape”, and Australia must adapt in order to continue thriving in a changing global environment.
Some correspondents took exception to the PM’s criticism of “a new variant of globalism that seeks to elevate global institutions above the authority of nation states to direct national policies”. One reader, referring to the Government’s approach to border protection and climate change, fretted over Australia “losing its status as a respected international citizen”, claiming we are becoming a “pariah nation stuck at the bottom of the world”. This sense of shame associated with being Australian is so strong, we are told, that some feel compelled to identify themselves as New Zealanders when overseas.
Sentiment of this kind is a 21st century version of the cultural cringe — discomfort over how Australia may be perceived overseas. Yet the embarrassment felt by some of the cultural elite to our country is, increasingly, coming to define them. They are highly sensitive to the opinions of their elite peers elsewhere in the world, but not concerned about the views of our fellow Australians — those who overwhelmingly support the Government’s policies on border protection and rejected Labor’s radical climate change policies at the May election.
Most Australians are rightfully proud of our country. The ABC’s Australia Talks national survey, published this week, found that huge majorities agree with the statement: “Australia is the best country in the world in which to live”. I am one of them, and am always thankful to be able to call myself an Australian, especially when travelling overseas.
As Ron Cornish correctly pointed out (Letters, October 8), it makes no sense to claim that Australia’s international status is diminished when so many people are desperate to migrate here. Those who criticise Australia most harshly are invariably those who have the privilege of calling it home.
What I take particular exception to is the suggestion that there is something morally flawed about considering the interests of Australians. That is what the Australians want and expect us to do as elected representatives. The moral failing would be to not advocate for the interests of those who decide who will represent them in parliament, or to prioritise an ill-defined internationalism over real concerns of Australians.
Standing up for Australia’s interests on the world stage is not incompatible with pursuing an international order that promotes our values, including the rule of law and democracy. In the changing world we inhabit, there will be many areas in which we need to collaborate with international partners to solve common problems.
Australia must continue to work with our allies and partners on defence, trade, environmental and other issues. It is because of the greater need for co-operation that it is so important to assert our nation’s sovereignty, so our international engagement takes place on terms that do not compromise our national interests or democratic values.
It is our obligation to the Australian people as elected representatives.
Samuel Griffith Conference presentation, 11 August 2019
I have chosen the title of this paper as a tribute to Sir Harry, who in the earlier years of the Society delivered several typically erudite papers on topical constitutional matters, such as “A Republic: The Issues”, to the 8th conference, and “A Preamble: The Issues”, to the 11th conference.
In the first of these papers, Sir Harry began by saying:
“I remain unconvinced that the Constitution of Australia would be made more democratic, efficient or just by breaking the existing links with the Crown, and I regard as fanciful the suggestion that under a republic the Head of State would give Australia a sense of unity and would heal the divisions that are said to exist in our society. However, this is not the occasion to press arguments of that kind. My present purpose is to discuss what issues would have to be decided before our Constitution could be converted.”
It is in this spirit that I approach the subject of a proposed “Indigenous Voice” to the Commonwealth Parliament, and in so doing highlight some of the many issues that will need to be addressed if this proposal is to be progressed, let alone succeed at a referendum.
In so doing, there are three key issues I wish to traverse:
The first is to offer some reflections on the concept of indigenous “Reconciliation”. – What does it actually mean? What has it meant? And, what may be the implications of an Indigenous Voice?
Second, I will outline some of the issues relating to the details of the proposed Voice, or more precisely, the current lack of details.
And, finally, I will offer some hard-headed and pragmatic views on the prospects of success for ‘the Voice’ at a referendum’.
Given time I won’t touch on the issue, and desirability, of identity politics and having separate classes of citizenry.
In considering the debate around a ‘Voice’, it is important to recognise its origins, which means going back to the concept of “Aboriginal Reconciliation”, which has been a topical issue for over some decades.
Reconciliation begat constitutional Recognition, which, according to its advocates, became necessary to achieve Reconciliation in its desired form.
Recognition in turn begat the Voice, which, according to its advocates, is now the only way to achieve Recognition in a form acceptable to Indigenous Australians.
Reconciliation is like motherhood, it’s highly desirable but can mean many things to many people. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines reconciliation as:
“The action or act of reconciling a person to oneself or another, or estranged parties to one another; the fact or condition of being reconciled; harmony, concord”
In the context of the current debate, I think it is timely to illustrate two approaches to reconciliation and constitutional recognition. The first was articulated by Nelson Mandela, who said:
“Take your guns, your knives and your pangas and throw them into the sea,’’
“If you are negotiating you must do so in a spirit of reconciliation, not from the point of view of issuing ultimatums”
An alternate, and rather different, approach was articulated earlier this month by Indigenous leader Galarrwuy Yunipingu, when he “made what he describes as a final demand for substantive constitutional change, threatening that the Yolgnu people of Arnhem Land will throw the constitution into the sea if change does not come soon.”
The quest for Reconciliation has a long history. The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation Act 1991 was based on the objective of reconciliation by the centenary of Federation 10 years later. Its legislation empowered the Council to:
“consult Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and the wider Australian community on whether reconciliation would be advanced by a formal document or documents of reconciliation.”
There was no suggestion that such a document should have constitutional status.
The Council was replaced in 2001 by ‘Reconciliation Australia’, which still exists today. On its website are a number of helpful links, including one entitled “What is Reconciliation”. Sadly, at the time of writing, the link was broken so I was not able to inform myself as to how Reconciliation Australia currently defines the concept.
Reconciliation in Australia has at various times meant various things:
It can be a temporal concept, with what we would now term a ‘hard deadline’. Or, it can be an ongoing, and presumably indefinite process of living together in greater harmony
It can mean the achievement of specified goals, such as ‘Closing the Gap’ on quantifiable social and economic measures. Or, it can be measured in less tangible ways.
It can be ‘symbolic’, ‘practical’ or a combination of the two.
In 1991, it was felt that Reconciliation could be achieved through a non-constitutional document.
By 1999 discussion had moved beyond this to the concept of constitutional recognition. Indeed, a referendum was held to amend the Preamble to include a modest statement of recognition. Prime Minister Howard described it as:
“a fair attempt to say what everybody wants to say.”
Notwithstanding the defeat of this proposal, since 1999, proposals for constitutional Recognition have become more ambitious, to now include a Voice, and the concept of what is required to achieve Reconciliation has also become more expansive.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart states that “Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda”, and that this ought to include ‘agreement-making’, commonly understood as treaties, the recognition of first nation’s sovereignty, and ‘self-determination’, all of which is now presumably the new yardstick for the achievement of Reconciliation.
The most important issue to consider in relation to the proposed Voice is that of the details of how would it actually look and function in practice.
So far, no advocates of a ‘Voice’ have, to my knowledge, put forward with specific detail how such a body would be constituted, or made any attempt to outline what its powers or procedures might be.
It is over two years since the release of the Uluru Statement from the Heart first proposing the Voice, and still no details have emerged.
In the interests of the discussion, I simply put forward a range of practical questions to ponder for any such ‘Voice’ and how it will be constituted and how it will function:
- If such a body was to exist, who would be eligible to be a member of it? How would indigeneity be defined? In the event of any disputes, who would be the arbiter?
- Would its jurisdiction be limited to simply ‘Indigenous issues’, or would it also have a say on broader national issues?
- Will it be elected or appointed?
- If the former, who gets to nominate for election, and who gets to vote?
- If the latter, who does the appointing, what are the qualifications to be appointed and what will the term of appointment be?
- If elected, what will be the constituencies – electorates, states, regions, relevant ‘First Nations’ or something else?
- If elected, will parties or other organised groupings endorse candidates with particular platforms? Will public funding be provided, as in Parliamentary elections?
- Where will it meet, how often and on what terms? Will its members be paid like Parliamentarians? Will they be free to hold dual citizenship or offices of profit under the Crown? How will potential conflicts of interest be dealt with? Will they also be entitled to paid staff, Comcars and travel allowances whilst on official ‘Voice’ business?
These questions relate only to the establishment of the Voice. There are a range of equally important questions that will need to be addressed in relation to its operation.
In raising these questions, I wish to borrow the approach used by Chief Justice French in his presentation to the society’s 29th conference, by starting with “an anodyne statement of the blindingly obvious”, namely:
Indigenous Australians are a very diverse people with a range of views on a range of issues, who are unlikely to adopt a monolithic consensus position on any given matter.
On this basis, we should ask proponents of the Voice:
- What will the procedures be for debate and voting with the Voice on particular questions?
- Will there be caucuses and whips to manage such debates and ‘do the numbers’?
- Will the Voice appoint one of its members as the ‘Prime Voice’ to speak on its behalf? Will other members be allocated particular portfolios on which they will speak – the Voice Ministry?
- In the event of disagreement, will there be scope within the Voice for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition Voice?
- If the Voice cannot reach a consensus in its advice to Parliament, what form, if any, will such advice then take? Will the Parliament receive a Majority Voice report and potentially multiple Dissenting Voice reports? If so, what if anything would the Parliament be expected to do?
- If the Voice cannot reach a view on a particular issue in a timely manner, or not at all because opinion is divided, what should the Parliament do?
- Will the Voice only consider issues before the Parliament, in response to proposals put to the Parliament, or will it have the ability to put ‘own motion’ proposals to the Parliament?
- In either case, what checks and balances, if any, will exist to stop the system being gamed by Members of the Parliament who refer matters to the Voice which have no realistic prospect of being enacted by the Parliament, or by members of the Voice itself in proposing measures that the Government of the day would clearly not support?
Prospects of success:
Finally, having flagged these real live issues I turn to make some observations on the prospects of success at a referendum for either Recognition or the Voice.
We are now in the 46th Commonwealth Parliament. By my reckoning, every Parliament since 39th, bar one, has entertained some idea of Recognition:
- The 39th Parliament passed legislation to provide for a referendum to amend the Preamble of the Constitution to, in part, recognise the history of Indigenous Australians. It was soundly defeated in all states and nationally
- In the 41st Parliament, Prime Minister Howard took a proposal to the 2007 election to put a referendum on Indigenous recognition in the life of the next Parliament if he was re-elected.
- In each subsequent Parliament the issue re-emerged, with the in-principle support of the Government of the day.
- Now, in the 46th Parliament: Prime Minister Morrison and Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, have committed to putting a referendum on recognition during the life of the Parliament, which may not include a constitutionally-entrenched Voice. Instead, they have floated the possibility of a legislated Voice.
During this time, there have been four specially constituted bodies to progress the issue and design a model for constitutional recognition:
- Following the 2010 Federal Election, Prime Minister Gillard established an Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians. The Expert Panel delivered its report on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians in January 2012.
- In November 2012, the 43rd Parliament established a Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition to consider the issues that remained unresolved following the Expert Panel process, and in December 2013 the 44th Parliament resolved to continue that committee. The Joint Select Committee delivered its Final Report on 25 June 2015.
- In December 2015, the Australian Government established a bipartisan 16-member Referendum Council – a second Expert Panel by another name - to consult widely and take steps to achieve constitutional recognition. The Referendum Council released a discussion paper in October 2016 and delivered a final report to the Prime Minister in mid-2017. The proposal for a Voice emerged from this final report.
- In response, the Turnbull Government established a second Joint Select Committee to consult on the design of a Voice. It delivered its report in late 2018.
In less than a decade, we have seen two Expert Committees and two Joint Select Committees attempt to design an achievable model for Recognition, yet we are no closer to having one. In fact, with each succeeding Panel or Committee report, we seem to have moved further away.
The most recent of these reports, from the Second Joint Select Committee, included some observations on how the discussion has drifted to ever-more expansive proposals, stating that:
“the Uluru Statement from the Heart changed the direction of the debate on constitutional Recognition”
“the debate about the form of Recognition has widened to include local and regional Voice proposals.”
The report also concluded, in somewhat diplomatic language:
“In its interim report, the Committee suggested that … addressing questions of details would assist in the development of a proposal…
“The Committee sought further evidence from stakeholders, outlining a series of approximately 100 questions in relation to the design and implementation of local, regional and national voices.
“Very few submissions took the time to respond to the questions raised.”
The Committee therefore recommended a further “process of co-design” to consider “national, regional and local elements of the Voice.”
The challenge is now for this process – the 5th such process since 2010, to make progress where the previous four processes have not.
Conditions for success
Finally, it is worth stepping through the process that would need to be traversed for any referendum proposal to succeed.
There are two conditions precedent that are required for any successful referendum to be put in the first place:
- A degree of public impetus for such a change; and
- An Executive Government that considers the issue important enough to warrant pursuing, and which believes that such a change has some prospect of success.
Then there are five necessary conditions for it to succeed:
- A specific proposal endorsed by the Executive;
- That can attract the support of a majority of the House of Representatives;
- That can attract the support of a majority of the Senate; then, of course
- A national majority of voters; and
- A majority of States.
In this case, the history of this debate since the 39th Parliament shows that the first precedent has been satisfied for some time. That, however, is the easy bit.
The difficulties in satisfying the second condition precedent should not be underestimated. Of the 7 proposals floated in the last 8 Parliaments, only one achieved the first two conditions (1999), the others did not even get to first base.
Under PMs Gillard, Abbott and Turnbull, serious attempts were made to initiate processes to come up with a model for recognition that could attract widespread support. In each case they failed because it was clear that the Government of the day did not have confidence it could proceed with a model likely to be supported at a referendum.
Even if a Government was sufficiently confident, and introduced legislation under section 128, there is no guarantee that it would even pass the Parliament.
First, under a Coalition Government, each Coalition party would undertake its own, separate processes of evaluation to determine whether it could support a specific proposal. There is no guarantee they each would.
In the past 25 years there have been three bills to amend the constitution that were put to the Parliament. For the first two in 1999 (Republic and Preamble), Coalition MPs and Senators had a free vote. In the third in 2013 (Local Government Recognition), a number of Coalition MPs exercised the right bequeathed by the parties to cross the floor on significant matters and opposed the bill, notwithstanding the official position of their parties.
On this basis, and given the numbers in the House of Representatives, it is not assured that the Executive Government could even get a bill as far as the Senate. This is especially the case when the Opposition’s most recent position is that constitutional recognition must include a constitutionally entrenched ‘Voice’ or else.
Given this reality, let alone the challenges of securing anything close to consensus in the Senate, then a majority of voters and a majority of States, no one who supports a ‘Voice’ should be under any illusions about the size of the challenge they face.
One could also add that at any point in the five-stage process outlined above, when it comes to securing consensus – or even a bare majority – the argument that ‘well, Qantas, BHP and the AFL all think it’s a good idea’ is hardly going to be very effective.
So, in conclusion, advocates of a Voice to Parliament need to be clear on what they are ultimately seeking from a Voice – is it to bring Australians closer together regardless of race, or is it seen as desirable to have a permanent, separate structure for one race?
When we speak of Reconciliation, does it now mean using the Voice as a vehicle to achieve treaties and sovereignty?
As John Farnham once said, ‘You’re the Voice, try to understand it’.
I am very confident that the Australian people won’t vote for a Voice they don’t understand. The onus is on its advocates to fully explain what it all means to their fellow Australians.
In terms of devising the basic necessary details of the proposed Voice and achieving sufficient public confidence for it to succeed at a referendum, I would estimate that, thus far, barely 1 per cent, if that, of the work that will need to done has been done.
And finally, will the advocates of the Voice be able to persuade practical Australians exactly how the Voice will lead to any better outcomes in social, economic, health, housing, employment and education indicators for those Australians for which it purports to speak?
What we need is as many statements from the head as we’ve been getting from the heart.
Freedom of speech, belief and association of freedoms for which our forebears sacrificed—they understood the importance of nurturing these freedoms. These freedoms have allowed us to explore, develop and nuanced ideas, philosophical, political, scientific and religious, amongst others.
Today, our society is in grave danger of losing this rich heritage, together with its attendant benefits. That is why I have taken this, the first opportunity the 46th Parliament has afforded me, to make a plea to defend our freedoms. To fail to do so is to squander the legacy bequeathed to us. Of late we have been witnessing elements, some arrogantly—most others I am sure are naively motivated, but to the same effect—silencing, punishing and intimidating people with whom they disagree.
Our universities, which should be the nursery of free speech, are often not only failing their own rich heritage in this regard but actively destroying it. From students to senior lecturers, there's a growing list of shameful incidents. The contest of ideas and research methodologies should be encouraged, not punished. As Justice Vasta to said in the Ridd case:
"Incredibly, the university has not understood the whole concept of intellectual freedom. In the search for truth, it is an unfortunate consequence that some people may feel denigrated, offended, hurt or upset. It may not always be possible to act collegiately when diametrically opposed views clash in the search for truth."
He also said that intellectual freedom:
"allows academics to express their opinions without fear of reprisals. … And that, at its core, is what higher learning is about."
We see the same corrosion of standards in sport. Rugby Australia's unprecedented and unprincipled dismissal of Israel Folau has become the latest ugly example. Mr Folau, our best rugby player, was sacked for taking to social media with a paraphrased quote from the Holy Bible. Rugby Australia now claims it was the threat of the withdrawal of sponsorship which motivated them. That turns the spotlight onto the corporate bullying, while not excusing Rugby Australia's cowardice. The abuse of corporate sponsorship to manipulate team selection, especially on religious views, is reprehensible. Trying the same corporate ugliness on Izzy's wife, a sportswoman in her right, for supporting him, is reprehensible writ large. In an exercise of Orwellian proportions, these sports stars were targeted for exclusion in the name of inclusion and discriminated against in the name of tolerance. You don't have to agree with Izzy to agree with his right to express his religious views, or his wife's right to back him. Today it's Izzy's religious views and his wife's loyal support. Yesterday it was the Professor Ridd's scientific views. Tomorrow it might be somebody's political view. The next might be someone's environmental view. This is a fight for freedom of speech which impacts us all. The government must, and I am confident will, respond to the expressions of the quiet Australians on 18 May and ensure our freedoms, which were bought with the highest of prices, are not sacrificed and squandered on the altar of political correctness. As Sir Robert Menzies so articulately encapsulated in 'We believe': 'We believe in the great human freedoms: to worship, to think, to speak.'
Freedom is worth defending. Freedom is worth nurturing. Freedom is worth championing. As our national anthem extols, 'Australians all let us rejoice, For we are young and free'. Let's keep it that way.
Labor Leader Anthony Albanese’s belated decision to expel John Setka from the Labor Party, following my call for him to do so over the weekend, is welcome but in order to be consistent, Mr Albanese must take action against other union heavies including Michael Ravbar.
New Labor Leader Anthony Albanese must take action to expel John Setka from the Labor Party following the most recent criminal allegations against him.
Former Employment Minister Eric Abetz has welcomed news that Israel Folau will launch action in the Fair Work Commission.