Former Referendum Council co-chair Pat Anderson has urged the federal government to move quickly on an Indigenous 'Voice to Parliament'.
Speaking at a hearing on constitutional recognition on Tuesday, Ms Anderson told the Joint Select Committee the calls for a voice to be put to a referendum are urgent.
“Our mob are dying, you all know that,” she said.
“We won’t be here in another 20 years, 50 years – you won’t be able to find a blackfella the way we’re going. So there is some urgency,” she said.
Her calls come as the Joint Select Committee considers a raft of submissions on how to move forward on constitutional reform.
In a joint statement, Ms Anderson told the committee the details of a voice can come after a referendum.
“The referendum only needs to contain the broad contours or parameters of the voice to the constitution,” she said.
“The decision to defer is a well-known constitutional approach.”
This means the workings of a voice will not be known before a public vote but the process for ascertaining its design will be identified, a process based on the Referendum Council’s First Nations dialogues.
“This will be sufficient information, in our view, for the purposes of a public campaign and a successful referendum,” Ms Anderson said.
Her calls were backed by former Referendum Council member and constitutional lawyer Professor Megan Davis and Associate Professor at UNSW Law Dr Gabrielle Appleby.
Dr Appleby also agreed much of the detail will need to be designed exclusively through a First Nations process.
“It's better to leave the process initially in the hands of First Nations people, who themselves may seek the input and deliberation in the process on the appropriate questions from non-Indigenous Australians and technical experts,” she told the committee.
“The desired function of the voice and what it can achieve within communities, for instance, are things that should be driven by First Nations, as they are uniquely placed to inform these questions.”
But committee member and Labor MP Warren Snowdon warned against having 'rose-tinted glasses’.
“It seems there is no acceptance of the real politic here. It is very unlikely that if we come up with a set of words that we all agreed with that we would get a referendum. That's reality," he said.
To which Ms Anderson replied: “We’re doomed then.”
“Well at the moment we are because the government said there will be no referendum,” Mr Snowdon said.
“The determination of whether there will be a referendum comes from this place.
“Given where we are at the moment, we’ve been told by the current government that they will not support a referendum so until and unless that changes either now or into the future we’d end up with a divisive debate where you can almost certainly guarantee the outcome of that.”
Mr Snowdon questioned whether the current process of the committee is ‘it tilting at windmills’ or if something concrete can be put to the prime minister in November when it provides its final report.
Committee co-chair Pat Dodson was more encouraged.
“I'm not as pessimistic as some of my other colleagues might be, but there are realities that we've raised,” he said.
“If we were not to get support for a referendum, would the fallback to that be some kind of legislative response that sets the voice up? That's really what I think Mr Snowdon was alluding to, and therefore all the good input we've had to date from many submissions is helpful in relation to what that legislation might look like."
National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples co-chair Dr Jackie Huggins told the hearing she hoped the committee would not be in vain.
“But of course it is incumbent upon you as our parliamentarians to actually help us too, to give us some solutions along the way,” she said.
“I hear what you say Mr Snowdon in terms of the process and where it’s got to go and of course we are so frustrated and so sad in what’s happening in our country right now in relation to our people.”
Ms Anderson expressed concern about what the future might bring if Indigenous Australians kept waiting for some result.
“In this house anything can happen. We could have a new prime minister soon,” she said.
With a federal election to be held by May next year and polls favouring Labor, a new leader could very well be possible.
'Many of us don’t get younger in the process but we are thinking about future changes for future generations.'
National Congress co-chair Rod Little said an incoming government could pose further delays.
“The new incoming government will need to consider the report from this hearing today and their findings,” he told NITV News.
“Now the time will come for a government to decide what to do next.”
Mr Little said some of the frustration comes from First Nations peoples having to repeat themselves.
“Consultation after consultation,” he said.
“[There is] frustration on how long it takes to have some real change and many of us don’t get younger in the process but we are thinking about future changes for future generations, not just in our communities but for the nation.”