New Liberal senator backs Indigenous voice to parliament in maiden speech

Andrew Bragg supports constitutional recognition and rejects argument voice would be third chamber of parliament

The Liberal senator Andrew Bragg has used his first speech to parliament to provide strong backing for constitutional recognition and a voice to parliament, declaring he is committed to walking with Indigenous people on the journey.

In a contribution that will reignite internal debate within the Coalition, Bragg on Wednesday flatly rejected arguments from colleagues that the voice would be a third chamber of parliament, and rebuffed suggestions that constitutional reform would divide Australians on the basis of race, given the founding document already contains a race power.

“A First Nations voice would not be a third chamber,” Bragg told the Senate. “It will not have the standing, scope or power of the Senate or the House of Representatives”.

“Further, the campaign that race has no place in the constitution may sound good, but it is a campaign that should have been run in the 1890s, as we crossed that Rubicon in 1901.”

Bragg also warned conservative colleagues that if the renewed recognition push by the minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, failed “more radical concepts could be proposed such as reserved seats, as already exist in New Zealand and the US state of Maine for first peoples”.

“Or we could face a bill of rights, which would be a terrible transfer of power from elected persons to unelected judges.”

Bragg endorsed recent arguments from the former chief justice Murray Gleeson, who said “a constitutionally entrenched but legislatively controlled” capacity for Indigenous people to have input into the making of laws about Indigenous people or Indigenous affairs “hardly seems revolutionary”.

Gleeson noted in July that given the constitution currently makes people the potential objects of special laws by reason of their Indigenous status, “the referendum council considered that an appropriate form of recognition of such people would be to provide them with a voice to parliament”.

Bragg told parliament late on Wednesday that Australians would always be equal “but we cannot have Indigenous people feel estranged in the land of their ancestors”.

The new Liberal senator said given almost every comparable nation had landed on some form of recognition of first peoples, Australia should not delay the reform any longer. He acknowledged internal divisions, but said “the Liberal party is used to opening the batting on difficult issues”.

“That’s why we made the first moves to abolish White Australia, opened trade with Japan in 1957, and delivered the Indigenous referendum of 1967. We are the party of senator Neville Bonner.”

Bragg said he would not support change at any price. He said any proposal must capture broad support from Indigenous people, focus on community-level improvements, maintain the supremacy of the parliament, maintain the value of equality and “strengthen national unity”.

Wyatt put constitutional recognition back on the national agenda during Naidoc week. The first Indigenous person to hold the portfolio promised to work towards holding a referendum on Indigenous recognition within three years.

The minister has signalled he wants to persist with creating some model of the voice from the Uluru statement, but he indicated a representative body might be legislated, rather than enshrined in the constitution, which was the position outlined in the Uluru process.

Despite Wyatt’s caution, internal contention broke out within the Coalition almost immediately, with conservatives objecting on the grounds the change could divide Australians on racial grounds.

Craig Kelly told Guardian Australia setting up separate structures, even if the representative model was legislated, risked creating “a reverse form of what South Africa was a few years ago”.

At this week’s party room meeting, the Queensland senator James McGrath asked Scott Morrison to clarify what the party’s position was on constitutional recognition.


Katharine Murphy Political editor

The GuardianTramp

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