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Constitutional Recognition Relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples
Matters relating to constitutional change

VANSTONE, The Hon. Amanda, Private capacity


CHAIR: Welcome. Although the committee doesn't require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and, therefore, has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I now invite you to make a brief opening statement before we proceed to discussion.

Ms Vanstone : Thank you very much. As you know, Chair—and you may have conveyed this to Senator Dodson—I wasn't initially of a mind to come today but, after my conversation with you, I thought it was perhaps a good idea. I don't personally feel as if I have any great insight into how to fix this, 'this' meaning the problem we have—and we do have a problem. Not enough non-Indigenous Australians understand the breadth, complexity and depth of Indigenous culture and, therefore, don't have the opportunity to be proud of it because they don't understand it and don't know enough about it. There are a significant portion of Indigenous Australians who feel as if their culture's not recognised and past misdeeds haven't been recognised—you could fill in those signs. There needs to be some sort of work to come together.

My own view is it is a mistake to think there's a single solution—magic bullets just don't exist; that's why they're called 'magic'—so that necessarily means step-by-step. I can hear some Indigenous leaders saying, 'Oh no, here comes the "incremental" argument again.' I don't mean it in that context; it's just a practical reality that I've witnessed over my life. There are no magic bullets, and we all have to work on these things together.

Having said that, another difficulty faced in this area is that non-Indigenous Australians today are so fundamentally different from the non-Indigenous Australians who perpetrated what they did in the past—the wrongdoings, the misunderstandings about whether this was terra nullius and largely, but not entirely, some of the dreadful things that happened after that. We are now so multicultural, so mixed up and we have so many people here whose forebears had absolutely nothing to do with that or people like me, who are predominantly of Irish extraction, who don't feel any particular affiliation with the British—I never thought of Ireland as the mother country. So to talk to those Australians as though they have some responsibility, that it was their forebears is, in my view, a mistake. I don't know people who are non-Indigenous who don't Australians to find a more peaceful way in which Indigenous Australians can fully share in the economic and social benefits of Australia. I don't think anyone can argue that right now—they all do. So in my view there is a very positive goodwill on behalf of non-Indigenous Australians. But that should not be misread as meaning they will vote for and endorse anything that is put up, because they want something that will work or a number of things that will work.

I should tell you that I didn't find my experience of the reconciliation council a terribly positive one. Committees that meet occasionally necessarily have to leave a lot of work to their co-chairs in between, which is then endorsed and, necessarily, things have to be gotten on with. So to imagine that everybody there could spend 24/7 or was able to spend 24/7 over that time on that issue was a mistake. Having said that, I think the idea of Indigenous consultation is a good one but it ends up in a bad place. It ended up with us, the council and Australia, in a situation where there was a statement from the heart, as it was called. It was pretty much: that's what we want or that's it. And that is a bit divisive. I don't blame Indigenous Australians for that; it was set up to work that way—to have consultations and then a final statement. Although I do note with the touch of, I don't know what, when I am told that Indigenous Australians are sick of symbolic gestures. Well, naming something a 'statement from the heart' when you hold a conference in the heart of Australia strikes me as some somewhat symbolic—I don't blame anyone; I would probably do the same if it were me.

So in a substantive sense I look at it and, from the little opportunity I have luckily had to interact with Indigenous Australia, it seems to me to be extraordinarily complex from the very remote communities in predominantly Queensland, Western Australia, the Territory and the north of South Australia to people in capital cities whose lineage back to great-great-grandfathers as Indigenous Australians from all over Australia and non-Indigenous Australians as well. We apparently had our first Indigenous ophthalmologist qualify recently. That would be in stark contrast to going to one of the remote camps with someone of the youngish man's age who has not left, say, Kalumburu. So we have a complex situation to deal with.

Indigenous people have their own particular groupings—for example, in the Woomera protected area, I think there are four or five—and each cannot speak for each other. That is very clear. So it has occurred to me that a better way to proceed—I could be wrong—would be to start having agreements at a very local level, recognising Indigenous people at the local level, meeting with them, coming to agreements with them about whatever is substantive for them over a not very long period of time. The practice of that happening everywhere would build up and people would get confidence to build agreements at a higher level. It just seems to me to be the way it is—that Indigenous Australians come from particular regions and that's where we should start. I think that will give confidence to others to go further down the track.

I sat at the council and heard some people complaining about the Victorian government talking about treaty, and I sat at further meetings of council where people kept saying that treaty was everything we needed to move to. So we all change our minds. I'm not being critical of that; I'm just pointing out that minds change. What's said today might not be what's said in another month or two months. But I am sure of this: we won't get very far if we keep allowing this to be in the political arena. Even in a sense saying, 'This is the Statement from the Heart; now what are you going to do?'—it's a boxing match; it's a ping-pong game.

Really, to solve this, we're going to have to start working together rather than coming up with ideas and bashing each other around the head, if you like, with those ideas. I heard the statement when the Prime Minister said he wasn't going to accept what the report said: 'Oh, that's a kick in the guts.' Well, maybe not. Maybe he's got a better idea—he hasn't, actually, because he said you guys ought to look at it, but maybe he's got the idea that there's a better way to come to a solution. I just think the political football stuff is disastrous and it's not going to help Indigenous Australians at all. That's about it.

CHAIR: Thank you, Ms Vanstone. You bring to us three key perspectives that I think would be interesting: (1) obviously you were a senator of long standing; (2) you've actually been minister for Indigenous affairs and (3) you were on the Referendum Council as well.

Ms Vanstone : Look, I probably shouldn't say this on the record, but why not; it's late in the day. I knew that's when Howard wanted to get rid of me—when he took Indigenous Affairs out of Community Affairs and put it in with whatever Nick Minchin had. I thought, 'He's just trying to annoy me.' Anyway.

CHAIR: It's a good spot to ask you a little bit about both the Referendum Council and your experience as to how a voice or voices might work in the context of actually being the minister. That's not a perspective that we've had yet. We're seeing some other former ministers as well. I take it from your qualifying statement at the Referendum Council that you felt two things about Uluru: (1) that this was a completely different direction, that Australians weren't necessarily ready to vote in a referendum to endorse that direction; and (2) there wasn't enough detail spelt out about what it was that the voice would do and so on. Is that a fair summation from your position?

Ms Vanstone : Absolutely. I was stunned to hear senior Indigenous people on the council suggest that the report could be handed to the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, they as two good blokes could come together and agree with it, and they could take it to Garma and come back and the bill could be passed through parliament so that we could have had a referendum on 26 January this year. It just was never going to happen. You could put something that everyone wanted and it wouldn't happen in that time frame. The suggestion that the leaders, having had the Indigenous consultations, which hadn't been had before and should have been held, could then say to the party rooms, 'Guys, get lost. We know you're elected for the rest of Australia, the vast majority of Australia, but we're not going to give you a say. We, the two guys, are going to go to Garma, we're going to shake hands and have our picture on the front page of The Australian and this is all going ahead on 26 January'—no. I didn't say much other than, 'That is not going to happen.'

CHAIR: And, indeed, it didn't.

Ms Vanstone : I was just stunned.

CHAIR: We have been given the task, as it were, to try and put some meat on the bone of the voice and look at what it might look like. Many people have said to us, as you've just said, that the important issue is what happens in the local communities, and people want a voice, want a say about what's happening in their local communities. Looking at regional structures as well—some people have spoken to us about the success, saying that one of the good things about ATSIC was the regional structures. I wonder if you want to say anything about that.

Ms Vanstone : You're testing my memory, because I'm getting on a bit. But certainly I didn't have as negative a view of the ATSIC regional structures as of the central one, but if something's going to go, you really have to make a clean job of it. In hindsight, that might have been a mistake. I don't suppose we'll ever really know. But ATSIC at the time didn't have a lot of support from Indigenous Australians. I say that critically. I think it was about 20 per cent. Having said that, I should perhaps watch my p's and q's, because I'm not sure how many Australians would vote if it weren't compulsory. I'm not sure I'm entitled to make that critical assessment.

CHAIR: We saw a marriage plebiscite that got about 86 per cent of the vote or something of that order.

Ms Vanstone : That's not a high endorsement, is it? 'This is our body and only 20 per cent vote for it.' The concern I have with something like that is that it's on decisions so far removed from the people on the ground. These are the people who most need a say, I think.

CHAIR: As somebody who's been the minister, what would have been of assistance to you in rolling out policy on the ground in terms of useful consultation with Indigenous people?

Ms Vanstone : Being able to talk to people on the ground—you can do a bit of that. I visited what people said was a lot of communities, but I know it was just a lick. When you're making policy, you might have visited that community 12 months ago; you're not speaking to people regularly—so some way of being able to be sure you were getting the views of people at a very local level and not spokespeople who wanted to go one way or another. You see that. People are critical and say you see that in Indigenous Australia. Ho-hum! You see it in non-Indigenous Australia too—self-appointed spokespeople for their view. I think I've heard the phrase, 'I speak for my base.' It's not my base, the base that person speaks for, and we belong in the same party. So it's a common problem. For a minister to know that that is what the people on the ground really think would be good, and that will require, usually, a diversity of opinion. I don't know how many people are in this room—say there are 10. We wouldn't all order of cup of coffee the same way, so why would you expect a remote Indigenous community to all agree? If you want to do this in relation to, say, art centres, as an example, and you say, 'We're going to provide funding for five new art centres. We've consulted with them and this is what the local people think,' it would be nice to be told that there are some different views about how it ought to work—this way or that way—not just, 'We've consulted and this is the view.' That doesn't inspire confidence.

CHAIR: How do we seek to empower a range of different people in local communities? We've heard this from some Indigenous people who have appeared before us: the usual suspects who always speak out aren't necessarily representative of Indigenous voices. Is there anything we could put in the voice that would ensure we were hearing more of a plurality of voices?

Ms Vanstone : If you had that magic wand, you'd be worth your weight in gold.

CHAIR: One of the things that's been suggested is having gender equality, because often in more successful communities the women have a stronger voice and sometimes the 'big men' theory in some communities—

Ms Vanstone : It might be a stereotype—and, Senator Dodson, I apologise if you think it is—but, in my own experience, if I went to a community and it was pretty organised and shipshape, there were a lot of women around in charge. If I went to one that didn't look so good, generally speaking the blokes were. So I'm all for giving women a say.

CHAIR: Let me ask you about the practicalities of dealing with either a local, a regional or a national voice. It seems to me that if you were a minister and you wanted to have some fresh thinking about how you might deal with truancy, going to the voice and saying, 'Over six months, give me policy,' that would be a good use of the voice. But, as we know, in the parliamentary process sometimes you don't get luxury of that much time. How could you avoid the situation where effectively you weren't dashing Indigenous expectations about being consulted because this decision needed to be made pronto?

Ms Vanstone : Well, you can't control when things come up and when they have to be made pronto, but a lot don't. What you just said brings to mind another concern about having a single voice at the end—a comment on legislation. It's almost too late. My own experience is, once it's into the party rooms, it's done. There can be some tinkering, sure. I'm just thinking more: what if you have a voice and then it's an argument between that parliament and the voice? You really want the advice to come in. To get change in any area or to get your policy right—put it that way—you want it early on.

CHAIR: And that gives people a real chance to have a real input into the voice.

Ms Vanstone : Yes, before it gets to the party room. It's not tinkering at the end. It should be before it gets into legislative format. Also, there are quite a few things that can be done, as we all understand, that don't require legislation. There are buckets of money set aside for one thing or another, and advice on how to deal with that is something that can be given. It would be ideal if it were given early on. The person who comes up and says, 'I could have told you a better way to do that,' is not really very helpful.

CHAIR: In your opening statement, you spoke about local agreements. Do you think that in some respects we should be looking at agreement making ahead of looking at a voice, in terms of the rollout of this process? When you say 'agreement making', do you mean just engagement of local people?

Ms Vanstone : No, I don't mean just engagement of local people. I mean with local councils and sometimes with state governments—whoever's got the power to deliver whatever it is that's being discussed. My focus there is on the individual community. If that community is like that, it should be empowered to be negotiating and making agreements with all the local people that it needs to. It probably does now, but we should be in some way extending that so that we can use those communities to put forward views on other areas as well.

CHAIR: As you point out, a lot of the policies that affect Indigenous people are actually matters that are the responsibility of state, territory and local governments.

Ms Vanstone : State and local governments, yes.

CHAIR: Is there a way—we've been grappling with this as a committee—that we could make some recommendations that, if we set up a voice or a series of voices, that can be harnessed by the state and territory governments? Are there some factors that—

Ms Vanstone : I haven't turned my mind to that, so I can't help you. I'm sorry.

CHAIR: Thanks, Ms Vanstone.

Senator DODSON: Would you mind going back to the question of agreements at the local community level, involving all the people, and with local governments? Would that be with the service providers, both Commonwealth and state?

Ms Vanstone : Yes.

Senator DODSON: And then you'd set up some accountability structures for outcomes for the outlays?

Ms Vanstone : Yes. I can't remember the name of the policy, but I was the minister at the time. I think we called them social responsibility agreements; I'm not sure. But I can remember two things that come to mind. One was when we made an agreement with a crowd in Western Australia. I think they were somewhere near Balgo; I'm not sure. They came up with the idea that they wanted a petrol bowser, because they thought that if they had a petrol bowser—

Senator DODSON: It sounds like Mulan. There's a community out in the desert called Mulan.

Ms Vanstone : they would get more traffic through and they could set up a store; it would do quite well for them. They proposed that, having heard of this. I don't know who'd passed on to them that there was this new policy where the Commonwealth government would come and make an agreement directly with a community, but anyway they did. Apparently there's a local Catholic school there, and they came up and said: 'Well, why don't we do the same as what they do for trachoma? Our kids have to wash their hands when they get to school and a couple of times during the day—yada yada. Implement that policy.' I could tell you the name of the journalist—but I'm not feeling nasty enough—who said, 'Well, what are you going to do when they get the petrol bowser and then don't do what they say?' I said: 'Well, look, between you and me and the rest of the world, if you're going to look at it as whether non-Indigenous let Indigenous down or the other way round, I think we all know where the problem lies, and it's not with Indigenous people letting non-Indigenous Australians down; it's with governments letting Indigenous people down. So let's not worry about what's going to happen if they don't follow through.' That was a very negative attitude, I thought. There was another example of an agreement; it's just slipped my mind for a moment, and I'll come back to it.

Senator DODSON: Thanks for that. I think it was called mutual obligation or something like that.

Ms Vanstone : Sorry, I've just thought of the other one. You might help me with the community too. It's in the Territory. It's not Daly River. It's the people who are going to have involvement with the mining people—there are lot of them in Western Australia, aren't there?

Senator DODSON: A lot in the Territory as well.

Ms Vanstone : Anyway, the Howard government divided Australia, giving ministers responsibility for certain communities, and this was one that I had. The then Chief Minister in the Territory—the woman from the ABC, what was her name?

CHAIR: Clare Martin.

Ms Vanstone : Yes. I quite liked her. I thought she was quite reasonable to deal with. She'd tell you what she thought, what she could do and what she would not do, and that was that. You knew where you stood. We went out to sign this agreement about what we were going to do. They were going to bring all the kids to school, and your heart would sink: first day of school, all the kids would show up and there weren't enough chairs. I'm not being political here, but the Northern Territory government just didn't provide enough. There wasn't place to put them. That reinforces the point I make about who lets who down. I can remember these women coming up to sign the thing, so carefully, making a big deal: we've got this agreement. They were let down on day one. While I'm on the subject, let's not kid ourselves that agreements on their own fix things. You've got to live up to them. Sorry.

Senator DODSON: That's fine. I was wondering whether any kind of thought has been given to a leveraging fund—so people don't come as if they're beggars to the table for a service to be delivered to them—where they could set certain priorities that need to be undertaken in the region for the common good but they have some funds to put towards that identified good outcome, because the funds in the bureaucracies aren't necessarily going to be allocated to the priorities that they might see.

Ms Vanstone : I'd see that as something that could be negotiated with the local people, quite rightly: 'Apart from what we need,' the services that you negotiate for, 'we the local Indigenous community want to talk to you the local council about what we think can and should be done in this area for the common good.' Meetings and discussions about that should be largely public. Obviously, every now and then someone will want to have a quite chat with someone, but you know what I mean. Generally they would be public. I think some people would be surprised at how welcome those discussions would be.

Senator DODSON: Can I go back a bit to some of the technicalities around the Referendum Council. The question of the recommendations that came out of that—I was part of the chairing of the expert panel at the time, way back in 2012—were they weighed and considered by the Referendum Council? Leave aside what the Statement from the Heart and those dialogues have to say. Were they weighed and considered? I think at the end of the day there were just one or two recommendations that came from the council.

Ms Vanstone : Hindsight's pretty easy, although I notice that Mr Abbott apparently said when he was Prime Minister that he didn't want consultations because it would end up with a wish list. I don't think that is what we ended up with, but we did end up with 'this is what we want', not properly described as a wish list. That was sort of the end of it when there wasn't a follow through to see how that could be done.

My view is that the consultations, when I say took up too much time, couldn't be done any more quickly I think—I'm told, anyway. But there's more to be done after that to say, 'Okay, what shape would this take?'. The draft that I saw of the work done by, I'll loosely call it, Cape York—who were paid a considerable amount of money to come up with a proposal of what it might look like—I looked at and thought, 'This is going nowhere fast.' It had a couple of people from each Indigenous language group and then for each state the representative of each language group would elect a couple of people—God knows how you'd sort out who would be entitled to go where—and then some other mechanism for people who were no longer part of language groups and then off we'd go to a national body. I thought, 'That's just so far removed from the people who are living their lives in that area who want to be recognised as a community.'

CHAIR: In my two years as a parliamentarian, I've found people are generally not very deferential to parliamentarians. But it seems that everyone in this process has been particularly deferential to parliamentarians, saying, 'We don't want to design what the body will actually look like; we'll just leave it to you guys.' I suppose in this process we haven't been overwhelmed by the range of different options people have put to us. We've teased some things out.

Ms Vanstone : Have you seen the one that Cape York was talking about?

CHAIR: Yes, we've seen that.

Ms Vanstone : I think it's a nightmare.

CHAIR: I think the submission that they've made to this committee doesn't necessarily reflect that. In fact, they've obviously had further thinking since that time.

Ms Vanstone : Good. That's probably all I can say, since I don't know where the thinking has gone. But I thought that was not going to get anywhere.

Senator DODSON: I have no further questions.

CHAIR: Thanks very much, Ms Vanstone. I really appreciate your time today.

Ms Vanstone : I have one other point, just to reinforce what I wanted to say about the political football stuff. The council had a meeting that the Indigenous members of parliament came along to—and I suppose the council will be touchy about me telling you this. But it was full on after that about how 'Oh, they're a sellout. They've been doing a deal,' and so on. I thought, 'Hold on; have a bit of respect. These people have been elected. They are Indigenous Australians and they're telling you from their hearts what they think about what your chances are and where you ought to go to get success, and you come out annoyed because they haven't told you what you wanted to hear.' We're never going to get anywhere with that attitude—when people can't listen to each other without going out of the room, shutting the door and saying, 'Oh, what a sellout!' What about: 'Maybe they're telling us the truth'? What about that?

CHAIR: One of the things that has been sheeted home to me since being part of this inquiry has been the way in which Indigenous people say to us, 'Policy seems to change all the time.' It's change fatigue, as it were. One of the things that we need, regardless of whether we're doing something constitutional or something not constitutional or a combination of both is a greater sense of bipartisanship or cross-partisanship about what we can achieve in common so there's a bit of stability in the policy area generally.

Ms Vanstone : The more discussion there is in a civil and friendly fashion about Indigenous affairs the better —rather than 'You whitefellas'. That just doesn't make people's ears go 'Yeah, please tell me.' And the more sharing there is, so people can understand a bit about the longest living culture, and certainly the most durable—is that the word?—the better.

CHAIR: Durable; resilient.

Ms Vanstone : Resilient—that's the word I was looking for. But a lot of Australians don't know much about Indigenous culture. They don't talk about it. They don't have Indigenous friends. Many haven't met an Indigenous person. So we've got a long way to go. We need to fix that aspect of it so that things are talked about more freely and openly. We'll get further ahead when it's taken out of this mat of 'You did a deal,' or, 'This is my idea. You don't like it; you're against me.' No; maybe I just don't like your idea.

CHAIR: You just raised a point there at the end that it might be worth exploring: the truth-telling aspect of what came out of Uluru. I'm trying to have a bit of a think about what that might look like as a way of better understanding what happened in terms of settler-Indigenous contact and what has happened subsequent to that time too. Do you have a view about how that might best be done?

Ms Vanstone : I'm pretty confident that many Australians don't know how many dreadful things happened and what they were, and we all should know that; that's a good thing. How you tell that story, I'm not sure. Does someone come along whose grandparents were part of one of these terrible incidents; is that the way to do it? Do we have historians come and tell us? You've got people alive who can do the truth-telling about things that have happened in the last 10 or 20 years. But it's a bit harder to know exactly how to talk about things that happened well before that and do it in a way that doesn't—and I don't suppose you can stop this—allow the media to use them in a way in which that sort of experience is not meant to be used; it's meant to be used as a unifying experience. It's the same with people who want to have this Indigenous voice seen as a unifying one. I worry that, if it's not worked out properly, it'll be just the dead opposite. Similarly, for Australia at large, I think, if you went for a national Indigenous voice, you could find it a not very unifying thing within Indigenous Australia, because it's a very complex group of people with different ideas. I just come back to the fact that we wouldn't all order a cup of tea the same way. Therein lies your problem.

CHAIR: Thanks very much. I don't think you've been asked to provide us any additional information, but if you have can you forward it to us by 16 July. You'll be sent copy of the transcript of your evidence and will have an opportunity to request corrections to transcription errors.

Ms Vanstone : I hope they tidy up the grammar!

CHAIR: Thanks, Ms Vanstone. I now declare this public hearing closed.

Committee adjourned at 16:50