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Darren Chester opposed to proposed referendum to enshrine Voice to Parliament in Australian constitution

Darren Chester opposes constitutional enshrinement of a 'Voice to Parliament' due to concerns over divisive nature, potential for testing in High Court, and preference for alternative solutions.

By Portal Admin - 13th April 2023 - Back to News

I have been contacted by many Gippslanders seeking my view on the proposed referendum to enshrine a 'Voice to Parliament' in the Constitution and here is my explanation for intending to vote 'no'. I've participated in many media interviews and made the basic point that this is an issue where entirely reasonable people can examine the same facts and reach a different viewpoint, and we need to respect each other's differences as this debate progresses or it will divide our nation further.

Darren Chester's reason for opposing is his concern about race-based bureaucracy making representations to Cabinet, leading to legal battles and no change in communities

Darren Chester's reason for opposing is his concern about race-based bureaucracy making representations to Cabinet, leading to legal battles and no change in communities

Recognise the diversity

It's extraordinarily unhelpful for the Premier to be describing people as 'mean and nasty' or the Greens leader saying you are 'racist' if you don't intend to vote yes. The Prime Minister suggesting that the 'decent thing' is to vote yes, is also implying that Australians will be acting indecently if they oppose the Voice!

The Prime Minister needs to reset the tone of the public debate and recognise that there are diverse views on this complex issue. I must admit that I was both sad and frustrated when I read the question that will be put to the Australian people for constitutional change in relation to the proposed Voice.

Sad because I believe we are set for months of divisive and racially-charged arguments that could ultimately lead to a 'no' vote succeeding which will cause further social and political disruption. And frustrated because it didn't need to be like this if the Prime Minister would stop lecturing Australians because they have legitimate concerns about such a major change to how decisions are made by their government.

Rejecting model, deceptive tactics

As experienced political commentator Paul Kelly wrote recently, "Do cabinet ministers understand what they signed off on Thursday morning? This is constitutionally empowered group rights tied to constitutionally empowered unlimited representations. It is unprecedented in a dual sense. If carried, it will change our governance and society."

"There is no way the Coalition could support this model and retain its integrity. It is a sad conclusion from Albanese's latest remarks that he seeks to carry this referendum on a tactic of deception - relying on goodwill, emotions and the injustice Indigenous people have faced for so long."

"This is an intellectual and moral deception. And that needs to be said now because if this referendum is defeated its origins will lie with the decisions Albanese announced and the defeat will be his responsibility as the prime decision-maker." Mr Kelly said.

Empowering indigenous voices

Mr Kelly added, "Don't blame the Indigenous leaders. Having lacked political power for so long, when they saw a compliant Prime Minister they went for broke. The trouble is that Albanese has saddled himself with a model riddled with problems that guarantees a tactic of constant undermining by the 'no' side."

"The Voice is an institution based on group or racial identity but empowered to make representations across the ambit of general laws and policy making affecting the whole community since Indigenous people are part of the community. This is unprecedented in intent and scope."

"We are told by Albanese this will unite the country. How does that work? If the Australian public understood what this institutional arrangement involved would they vote for it? That's why Albanese's campaign says the two issues are recognition and consultation. But that's misleading," he said.

Constitutional recognition support

It's my strongly held view that Indigenous Australians should be recognised in the constitution. I would fully support changing our constitution to formally acknowledge in the founding document of our nation the simple fact that this continent had been inhabited for thousands of years before European settlement. That would demonstrate respect and a national commitment to reconciliation.

The previous Coalition government should've made that move when we had the chance after extensive public debate on the topic but unfortunately it wasn't resolved prior to the 2022 election. I would also happily consider new legislation being drafted and put to the Federal Parliament for a transparent vote on a new advisory body to help the government of the day deal with the complex and well-known issues facing Indigenous Australians, as long as it was focused on practical outcomes.

Bureaucracy, constitution, division

Of course, we already have the National Indigenous Australians Agency which was established by an executive order signed by the governor-general in May 2019. But enshrining that new bureaucracy in the constitution is a step too far, ties the hands of future governments, and if it's successful, the Voice to Parliament will divide our nation on racial grounds with powers that will be tested for years to come in the high court.

This is the wording that will be put to the Australian people to vote in a referendum later this year: "In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia:

  • There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice
  • The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to the Parliament and the executive government of the commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
  • The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures

My issue is primarily around a new race-based bureaucracy making representations directly to 'executive government' which is the Cabinet. In the event of Cabinet Ministers disagreeing, it is set to become a lawyer's picnic and nothing will change in the communities where help is needed.

Reconciliation through partnership

We are still no clearer to understanding how the 25 members of the Voice will be chosen, because they won't be democratically elected, and how they will be somehow representative of all Indigenous Australians? And the special access the members of the Voice will enjoy directly to the Cabinet, which no other group based on race, religion or special interest can also achieve, gives rise to further concerns.

It's completely contradictory to our democratic system of government, will create suspicion about how decisions have been made, and will divide our nation. I've said before that this is an issue where entirely reasonable people can examine the same facts and reach a different viewpoint.

I believe there is a shared passion in our nation to improve the circumstances for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and we need to harness that goodwill and work in partnership to achieve positive outcomes for generations to follow. I have spoken many times in Federal Parliament and the media about the need for ongoing, practical reconciliation measures and programs to improve opportunities for Indigenous Australians.

Media oversimplifies challenges

My view is the media coverage of the Voice is simplistic and urging people to vote for a 'vibe' that will supposedly change outcomes for Indigenous Australians is intended to assuage our guilt and make us feel better. If only it was that easy. The truth is, the complex challenges require days, weeks, months and years of constant hard work by health and education professionals, in partnership with local community leaders.

In my time as a Federal MP I have worked in partnership with the Indigenous community across Gippsland in a spirit of active reconciliation. There has been significant progress in many areas but a lot of work is still required to achieve the social, economic and cultural goals we share.

As a regional MP, I strongly believe in localism. I believe that local people are best placed to overcome local challenges, obviously within a structure of national and state laws, plus government support where a need is identified.

Practical partnership success

From my experience, centralised decision-making across a range of key issues continues to undermine the success and prosperity of regional communities, including Indigenous people and the Voice will entrench that disconnect. By refusing to even release the draft legislation or independent legal advice before the vote occurs, the covernment is effectively asking for us to vote for an incomplete proposition. It lends weight to a simple proposition: if you don't understand it, vote no. If you do understand it, you would never vote yes!

Symbolism is important but the key to addressing the serious issues is by the government delivering frontline evidence-based solutions and practical programs which aim to lift Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people out of poverty, and stimulate economic participation in Indigenous communities.

This includes dedicated initiatives to help raise living standards, generate employment, address domestic violence, improve education, stimulate growth, boost home ownership, support small business and encourage entrepreneurship. By doing this, together and in partnership with local people, we have seen some success, and we can continue to address the 17 Closing the Gap Targets.

Recognising representation

It is simply wrong and incredibly disrespectful to so many hard working professionals and community leaders to suggest that nothing positive is occurring across our nation today. From my experience as a Minister, there is always more to be done in every area of public policy but we should also recognise the success stories. I want to thank everyone who has already dedicated their time and effort to improve outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

Imagine if all the programs from federal and state governments that are already funded by taxpayers weren't in place today? We have to acknowledge there are some great initiatives in place and from my experience, the programs which are locally-run and directed at local problems, tend to have the best outcomes.

Representation concerns

It is also important to keep recognising that Australian voters have already provided a 'voice' for Indigenous people with the current Federal Parliament including 11 MPs and Senators across all political parties. Our political reality in recent years is the political parties, and Australian voters, have recognised the lack of diversity among elected MPs and taken steps through the democratic system to begin remedying the situation.

I have significant concerns that a constitutionally enshrined Voice would actually work against future Indigenous leaders seeking a role in our Parliaments, in that their political opponents could argue they should be running for the Voice alone. In that way, the proposed Voice denigrates the inherent capacity and talent of elected Indigenous MPs to be effective voices of their electorates, and to advocate on behalf of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Empowering local leadership

At this point in the debate across Gippsland, there appears to be mixed views with strong support for empowering local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders to develop programs and deliver services as a better approach, rather than a centralised bureaucracy with ill-defined powers. It's my strong view from 20 years of political experience at all levels of government that devolving decision-making power to regional communities which have a better understanding of local issues is a better approach in a range of policy challenges.

Critically, the point of a referendum is for everyone to have their say and at this stage, I have no plans to actively campaign for a 'yes' or 'no' vote in my electorate but will respond to legitimate requests for information from locals and the media. In expressing my opinion here today, I'm not asking anyone to change their minds.

I trust my statement clarifies my position on this important issue for those who are interested, and I encourage everyone to treat each other with respect and kindness in this potentially divisive debate.

Pictures from Darren Chester Facebook page.


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