Constitutional reforms to recognise Australia’s First Nations and the question around the establishment of an Indigenous Voice to parliament dominated conversations on the opening day of the Garma festival at Gulkula in Eastern Arnhem Land on Friday.
Speaking to media before the official opening ceremony, the Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt praised the festival and said he looked forward to a weekend of critical conversations about “the changes that we need in our nation”.
Pressed on the Coalition government’s position on a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous Voice to federal parliament as called for in the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, the minister said any approach would “have to be very pragmatic”.
“Why would you take a question to the Australian people if the majority will not support it and the majority of the states and territories don’t support it,” said Mr Wyatt.
“Every constitution referendum where the question has failed has been sent into permanent retirement,” he said. "Not one of those question have ever been resurrected.
“That’s why if we go on a question of constitutional recognition we have to get it right … It’s too critical to fail.”
Mr Wyatt said while the proposal of a Voice to parliament was still a viable option, he was “going to look at the pragmatic ways forward”.
“We have to be very considered, very measured. But we have to consider all the other options as well.”
Mr Wyatt said he and the Prime Minister were “walking together” in their commitment to achieving constitutional recognition
“He may have ruled out .. a Voice entrenched in the constitution, but let me tell you he is committed to seeing a difference made in respect to this issue,” said My Wyatt.
Last month, The Australian newspaper reported that Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he would veto any move to enshrine an Indigenous voice to parliament in the Constitution.
On Friday, Mr Wyatt said proponents for Indigenous recognition needed to “take on board” the PM’s stated opposition to enshrining the Voice and find “other solutions to get around it”.
“If it’s not going to be entrenched than we don't entrench it. If it’s going to be considered then we consider it. But he made a statement, conversations need to occur, and lets see what evolves.”
The minister also said while the Voice to parliament concept was well supported in academic and leadership circles, many Indigenous people at grassroots level didn’t fully understand what was being proposed or what it meant for their lives and communities in tangible ways.
“When you sit and talk to people at the community level and ask them to explain it, you’ll find that they say, ‘we don't know’. Some will, … but there are some too that won’t,” he said.
“And that’s the silent Australians that we need to reach, silent Indigenous people whose voices we are not listening to. They have to be part of this whole equation.”
Speaking on a panel afterwards, Labor Senator Pat Dodson said there wasn’t time for political equivocation on the issues of constitutional recognition, establishment of an enshrined representational Indigenous Voice to parliament, the setting up of a truth and reconciliation commission, and a Treaty.
Mr Dodson called on the government to act swiftly.
“Time slips away let me tell you,” he said. “Another consultation process is going to take a bit of time. My fear is that we may run out of time. Particularly to deal with the three things that have been asked for.
“It’s a matter that could be done relatively quickly with goodwill across the political divide.”
Later, while officially opening the 21st Garma Festival, 71-year-old Gumatj Elder Galarrwuy Yunupingu said an Aboriginal representative voice needed to inform any part of constitutional recognition or the document should be “thrown into the sea”.
The remarks were made in the presence of the minister for Indigenous Australians after the Gumatj clan pointedly included Mr Wyatt in their ceremonial Baru dance that opened the festival.