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Indigenous voice: 'I am not interested in culture wars,' says Linda Burney – video

Linda Burney says Indigenous voice not about ‘culture wars’ such as abolishing Australia Day

Minister says referendum is about addressing life expectancy in Aboriginal communities in emotional plea for voters to support voice

Linda Burney says the Indigenous voice will not bother itself with “culture wars” like abolishing Australia Day as she launched an impassioned plea for voters to support the referendum as a way to address poor health outcomes and life expectancy in Aboriginal communities.

The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, branded the Coalition “sad” for targeting Burney for a second straight day in question time, as the Indigenous Australians minister stressed parliament would still have the final say over any issue the voice decided to make representations on.

“This is not about culture wars, this is about closing the gap. This is not about division, this is about bringing people together,” Burney told parliament.

“This is not about tokenism. It is about making it practical and making a practical difference.”

Quick Guide

What is the Indigenous voice to parliament and how would it work?


What has happened already?

The Albanese government has put forward the referendum question: "A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?" 

The PM also suggested three sentences be added to the constitution:

  • 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.

How would it work?

The voice would be able to make recommendations to the Australian parliament and government on matters relating to the social, spiritual and economic wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The voice would be able to table formal advice in parliament and a parliamentary committee would consider that advice. But the voice co-design report said all elements would be non-justiciable, meaning there could not be a court challenge and no law could be invalidated based on this consultation.

How would it be structured?

The co-design report recommended the national voice have 24 members, encompassing two from each state, the Northern Territory, ACT and Torres Strait. A further five members would represent remote areas and an additional member would represent Torres Strait Islanders living on the mainland.

Members would serve four-year terms, with half the membership determined every two years.

For more detail, read our explainer here.

Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP
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The Coalition peppered Burney with questions this week on whether the voice would give advice on changing the date of Australia Day or military purchases.

Burney accused the opposition of “underhand” tactics, stressing the voice would focus on issues that affected Indigenous people differently. On Wednesday, the opposition again tried to get Burney to rule policy areas in or out of the voice’s remit, as well as continuing criticism of comments made by yes campaigner and referendum working group member Thomas Mayo.

The government has been clear that parliament would retain supremacy over decisions and that it would not be obligated to follow the voice’s representations.

“The voice is advisory. It won’t be Moses handing down the tablets from the mountain,” Albanese told parliament.

“The parliament will still be the democratic centre of our national life, the parliament will still be supreme in matter of policy and law.”

The no campaign have repeatedly said the voice could theoretically give advice on such topics, noting the strong feelings of some Indigenous people about celebrating 26 January.

Burney said on Tuesday that the voice wouldn’t give advice on changing Australia Day, and on Wednesday, she said it was not the government’s policy to alter Australia Day.

“It is the parliament that makes those decisions … the voice may give advice, but the parliament retains its primacy,” she said.

Following further sustained questioning on technical details of the voice, about whether there would be any restrictions on the policy areas it advises on, Burney appeared at one point to hold back tears.

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“I have been to communities that are crying out for a different way of doing things. I have been to communities where there are 30 people living in two-bedroom homes. I have been to communities where babies are drinking sweet cordial, instead of water, because it’s cheaper,” she said.

“I have been to communities where you cannot get in and out because of the road conditions. I have taken a friend, who died at 43 of renal failure, to visit his son in jail. I have seen friends die in hospitals, because … their conditions in their life when they were younger were terrible.”

“So do not tell me what I do or do not know about Aboriginal Australia. Do not tell me [the voice] is not needed in this country. I am not interested in culture wars. I am interested in closing the gap.”

Indigenous voice to parliament: what is it and how would it work? – video explainer

Albanese has accelerated his own efforts to promote the voice since the passage of the constitutional alteration bill this week, joining a press conference from Burney and attorney general Mark Dreyfus as well as undertaking multiple commercial radio and TV interviews to promote the referendum.

The prime minister and Labor MPs have also prominently worn “yes” campaign T-shirts this week.

Labor’s Jana Stewart will wear a gown and cape emblazoned with “vote yes” and the words of the Uluru statement from the heart to Wednesday night’s Midwinter Ball in Parliament House. The Victorian senator said the dress – designed by her sister-in-law Laura Thompson, co-founder of Aboriginal social enterprise Clothing The Gaps – was an example of “wearing my values”.

Labor senator Jana Stewart models her ‘vote yes’ dress on the forecourt of Parliament House in Canberra ahead of the Midwinter Ball.
Labor senator Jana Stewart models her ‘vote yes’ dress on the forecourt of Parliament House in Canberra ahead of the Midwinter Ball. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

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