Australian governments still have a “missionary zeal” of wanting to “deal with Aboriginal people” that hasn’t changed, and unless there is an Indigenous voice advising governments the present dysfunction will continue, the former minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt has told a parliamentary committee hearing in Perth.
Wyatt, a Yamatji man, said the dysfunction has led to what he called “a futility syndrome” among Indigenous young people, who feel despair that they have no future in the nation because they are never listened to.
“And what do you do, if you are not listened to? You rebel,” Wyatt told the joint committee on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice referendum.
Wyatt quit the Liberals earlier this month after its federal party room decided to campaign against the Indigenous voice to parliament.
At the hearing, Wyatt cited the Closing the Gap agreement as an example of how the voice might operate.
“[It was] the first time in this nation’s history that this country has ever decided collectively on a federated basis to agree to having Aboriginal peoples [as] equal partners at the table, negotiating every element within the Closing the Gap strategy,” he said.
“Each state and territory signed off to a document that was underpinned by the principle of allowing Aboriginal people to sit at the table and to negotiate the best strategies and most appropriate outcomes that could be achieved.
“The voice is about that.”
Wyatt said it was commonplace for external groups to influence legislation – but his own analysis of Coalition party room papers during his time in government found that Aboriginal groups were rarely among them.
“Amendments to the social security legislation streamlined participation. Some 20 organisations [were] listed and not one Indigenous, and yet they have profound impacts on Indigenous families and communities.
“The national health amendment enhancing the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme bill, [there was] no Indigenous involvement, but everybody else was able to provide input to the minister at the time before it went to the party room,” he said.
Wyatt said the resistance to an Indigenous voice had a race component.
“It was not a challenge when we became multicultural Australia. When we established advisory bodies at state and territory levels for different ethnic communities, it was accepted. We accepted a national body – and yet I did not hear, from my recollection, a swell of backlash from this nation of Australians when we did that,” Wyatt said.
Wyatt appeared alongside another former Liberal minister, Fred Chaney, who said he was there in a private capacity, but he had also been the Aboriginal affairs minister “43 years before Ken”.
Chaney said “Aboriginal issues are a permanent part of the national agenda” and that a voice to parliament was “the next step” for Australian governments working in partnership with Aboriginal people.
Chaney said disadvantage across remote Australia “arises from decades of neglect of remote communities and from the failure to listen to the people of those communities”.
“I have very strong direct and personal experience of the failure of Canberra to listen, and the lack of interest in the on-the-ground realities, in Canberra,” he said.
“I think the treatment of remote communities has been an absolute disgrace to Australia, and the present dysfunction is a direct result of government negligence and neglect.”
Chaney said he thought the voice was a modest proposal that was unlikely to lead to court challenges. He said the high court has always been “very cautious” about not interfering with the role of parliament, but he did not want to enter into the “gunfight at the OK corral” currently under way among constitutional lawyers arguing about the justiciability of any decisions the voice might make.
Chaney said he saw the voice as the “right to put a view” to government and parliament, and that his opinion had been formed over more than 60 years of watching governments fail to listen to Aboriginal people.
Wyatt added: “There is a history across this nation [where] every time a government changes, Indigenous advisory structures are abolished, and significant national bodies have been abolished when they have given advice that a government hasn’t liked.
“So it’s a reason they want it enshrined … they want it protected.”
The hearings continue on Monday in Canberra.
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