'We have to do this properly': Ken Wyatt defends Coalition's plan for a 'voice to government'

Ken Wyatt has rejected the idea the Coalition's 'voice to government' for Indigenous Australians goes against community demands for constitutional recognition.

Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt.

Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt. Source: AAP

Ken Wyatt has defended the Coalition's plan for a "voice to government" for Indigenous Australians against criticism the framework fails to meet community demands for constitutional recognition.

The Minister for Indigenous Australians on Wednesday detailed plans for a senior-advisory body to lead talks on a way forward for an Indigenous voice to governments at all levels.

Indigenous leaders Tom Calma and Marcia Langton have been named as co-chairs of the body to hold community consultation into the plan over the next 12 months.

Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt speaks during Question Time in Canberra.
Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt speaks during Question Time in Canberra. Source: AAP

The framework has been met with scrutiny for failing to meet community demands for a voice to Parliament recognised in the constitution laid out in the Uluru statement. 

But Mr Wyatt has backed the Coalition's steps towards the carefully worded "voice to government".

"Governments are the ones who control Parliament - it's not Parliament that controls Parliament - it is the government of the day," he said.

"If we are serious about a voice then we really do have to do this properly."

The federal government has already ruled out calls - most strongly stated in the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart - for an Indigenous voice to be enshrined in the constitution. 

Mr Wyatt wants to focus on a legislated voice to government and getting "this right" - before tackling constitutional recognition.

"What I would say to the people involved in Uluru - what's you've brought forward is a concept that really defines the need around listening to voice," he said.

Professor Marcia Langton.
Professor Marcia Langton. Source: AAP

The Central Land Council is among those Indigenous voices that have already come out against the basis of the framework demanding a "voice to parliament" be "protected in the constitution." 

"We want to be part of designing the voice to parliament ... [but are] concerned that a legislated voice can be abolished by the stroke of a pen," it said in a statement.

Indigenous rights activist Thomas Mayor said he doesn't expect the government to listen after rejecting the Uluru statement saying a "constitutional voice" is the only way forward.

"It's another co-design process where indigenous people are going to pour their hearts and souls into it and say what they think, and the government is going to ignore it," he told ABC Radio.

"It doesn't matter who they appoint, they're not going to listen."

The senior advisory body's co-chairs include Professor Calma - a former race discrimination commissioner - and Professor Langton, who was on the expert panel on constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians in 2012.

Professor Langton has previously been on the record advocating for a constitutionally recognised voice to Parliament for Indigenous Australians. 

Labor leader Anthony Albanese described the detailed framework of the "voice to government" as flawed. 

"The flaw is here is that the Indigenous community went through an extensive consultation process," he said.

"What they said was they wanted a voice to parliament enshrined in the constitution."

Ken Wyatt has laid out the framework for steps towards a voice for Indigenous Australians to government.
Ken Wyatt has laid out the framework for steps towards a voice for Indigenous Australians to government. Source: AAP

But he said it was up to Indigenous people to determine the fate of the consultation process.

"What first nations people have said very clearly - after an extensive consultative process - they came out with the unanimous statement from that heat that called for a voice to Parliament." 

Mr Wyatt has stressed the framework for a voice to the government would ensure that "Indigenous voices are heard" even if this is done through legislation.

"The co-design is planned to reach into late next year - because I want this process to be thorough - because our hopes and aspirations over a number of years have always talked about having the voice of people heard."

"When I've been out in communities - [they] have been saying the voice nationally is not as significant as the voices of our community - how do we get people to listen to us about what's happening here."

Mr Wyatt became the first Indigenous Australian to be appointed to the cabinet when he took on his ministerial position earlier this year. 

He said the voices of 800,000 Indigenous Australians across the nation must be heard.

“The best outcomes are achieved when Indigenous Australians are at the centre of decision-making."

Mr Wyatt said the consultation process is about hearing from communities and ensuring they can better deal with the challenges they face across the nation.

The framework will aim to empower communities to implement "practical and long-lasting" programs and policies" that address the needs of Indigenous Australians and allow them input in state and local decisions.

The senior advisory group will consist of up to 20 leaders and experts from across the country.

Separate regional and national groups will also be asked to come up with ways to improve local and regional decision-making and a national voice to governments.

Mr Wyatt said the co-design process would hinge on its community consultation.

"We need to get it right," he said.

"We know that for too long decision making treated the symptoms rather than the cause."

The government has budgeted $7.3 million for the process.

With additional reporting from AAP

5 min read
Published 30 October 2019 at 8:03am
By Tom Stayner