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Speech on The Voice to Parliament Referendum

On Tuesday 23 May 2023, I made a speech in Federal Parliament in support of the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Voice, and of further constitutional recognition of First Nations peoples including truth and treaty. You can watch the speech here or read the full transcript below.

E WATSON-BROWN: First Nations people have been bravely raising their voices for decades, for centuries, from the resistance in the frontier wars and the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association in the 1920s to the Tent Embassy in the seventies and the Australian Black Lives Matter and sovereignty movements today, alongside countless other instances of local organising and campaign work led by First Nations people. If you had to draw up a balance sheet, you'd have to say that they have, on the whole and despite progress here and there, been shamefully not listened to by both sides of politics. In fact, the dispossession that came with colonisation has continued in many ways.

In some ways, things have actually been getting worse. We are seeing growing, absolutely disproportionate incarceration rates. They have doubled in the last three decades. First Nations children are now jailed at 20 times—20 times!—the rate of non-First Nations children. Eleven-year-olds are being locked up and abused for minor offences. Over 540 First Nations people have died in custody since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. This all connects with the absolutely shameful lack of housing for First Nations people, the poor funding for Aboriginal legal services, the lack of support for First Nations-led education across the country, the abysmal health outcomes that stem from underinvestment in First Nations-led health and underinvestment in our universal health system more broadly, particularly in regional areas.

When social issues emerge from this, the response from governments, both Labor and Liberal, has been the opposite of empowering First Nations people to co-design and to lead their own solutions. They have been paternalistic disasters, like the Northern Territory intervention. On top of this, governments of both persuasions have allowed the ongoing destruction of First Nations country for the profits of coal and gas corporations. Queensland Labor swung its support behind the Adani's Carmichael mine against the wishes of the Wangan and Yagalingu mob. We've seen destruction of sacred sites, like Juukan Gorge, for the profits of these fossil fuel corporations. We've seen the destruction of sacred sites like the Djab Wurrung birthing trees in Victoria and at Deebing Creek Mission, near my electorate, which are the sites for highway expansions and for the profits of big developers.

Against all of these injustices, First Nations people have fought back. They've raised their voices, only to have those voices silenced and ignored. So the idea that alongside truth and treaty Australia will have a Voice to Parliament is an important and timely one, and the Greens support the campaign for yes. In fact, the Greens were the first to support the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full, and we see Truth, Treaty and Voice as intimately bound up with one another.

A truth-telling process can set the record straight on the crimes and the impacts of colonisation and can unite the nation around a shared understanding of our history, not sweeping it under the rug. A treaty can unite Australia on a shared future, helping empower First Nations people to be in charge of their own destiny and formally recognising their sovereignty. A Voice alone won't be enough. We need truth; we need treaty. But a successful referendum could be the start of a decade of change for First Nations people as we move towards this truth-telling, this treaty-making and towards self-determination—and that self-determination concept is absolutely critical here.

We need to ensure that this Voice is properly democratic and reflective of the interests and the will of everyday First Nations people in this country, that it represents the grassroots of First Nations communities who fully understand their own lives and the way forward for their own communities. We also need to make sure that the government listens. To do that, we all need to join up with First Nations movements to build the community power that will hold the government to account, to open up space for real change and build solidarity between First Nations and non-First Nations communities. Because at the end of the day, the same big corporations that are ruining the planet for profit and undermining all of our futures are the same big corporations destroying First Nations country. The system that puts the profits of huge multinationals ahead of everyday people's needs is the same one that systematically puts First Nations communities last. Thank you.

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