Leader of the Australian Greens Senator Christine Milne and Greens spokesperson for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Issues, Rachel Siewert, addressed the press to speak on the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and also on the low $2.90 increase in Newstart.
Subjects: constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, Newstart
CHRISTINE MILNE: There's been a discussion around many issues recently which go to the heart of the question what sort of country do we want to live in. We're all proud to be Australian, we're proud of the egalitarian views that most people hold in this country, that we want everybody to be given a fair go, to be cared for and there has been overwhelming and growing support in recent years for recognition of Australia's indigenous people in our constitution. So when we signed an agreement with the Gillard Government to give the Prime Minister confidence and supply, part of that agreement was to move to a referendum to give constitutional recognition to our indigenous people. As a result of that the Government did act in good faith and set up an expert panel and my colleague Rachel Siewert has been passionately engaged with this issue on the expert panel ever since. And I will hand over to her in a moment or two to talk about that.
But we're really disappointed that there has been a consensus reached amongst the Aboriginal stakeholders in the expert panel and more broadly that if a referendum was held with the 2013 election then it wouldn't actually succeed, and it's in that knowledge that the Greens are prepared to accept that we can't have the referendum in conjunction with the 2013 election. The Greens are totally committed to having this referendum but it's going to take more time than we've got to achieve the level of support that it needs to get a majority of votes in a majority of states. Successful referenda in Australia have been few and far between. And that's because it Is difficult to get a majority of votes in a majority of states and it certainly requires tripartite support. I think the real question here is why has Tony Abbott gone out of his way to undermine the success of having constitutional recognition in our constitution by not supporting this? At the same time the Prime Minister whilst setting up the expert panel in accordance with the agreement hasn't taken this on as a passionate issue in advocacy either. So we haven't had the leadership that we needed from the major parties to build the national mood and consensus and momentum to achieve this outcome in a referendum. The Greens will continue to work with Aboriginal people around the country, with stakeholders everywhere, with the broader community to continue to advocate for this because it is only a matter of time but it won't be in conjunction with 2013 and to that extent we'll certainly take anything in the meantime as a step towards that outcome but we'll continue to work for the referendum.
RACHEL SIEWERT: As Christine said I've been a member of the expert panel, I was a member of the expert panel where we carried out a very thorough process of consultation, discussion through a very intense 12 months and I think produced a report that has the support of particularly the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and contains very, very important recommendations. It's with a very heavy heart that I'm standing here today acknowledging that we won't be able to achieve a referendum by the next election because there's not enough understanding of the issues in the broader community. There is very strong support for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Islander community and there is in a section of the community that is aware of these issues but there is still some way to go before we achieve a broader community understanding. Now the expert panel made it very clear in the recommendations that we needed to go to a referendum when the conditions were right and that we couldn't afford a no vote in a referendum and we have always also made it plain as the Australian Greens that our priority was getting a successful outcome and that we weren't prepared to go and push a referendum at all costs because at all costs would mean that there was a potential that it would go down. It is disappointing that we haven't seen the strong advocacy that we expected from the major parties and that we hoped that they'd learn a lesson from this in that they need to now commit and show that strong advocacy and leadership as they set out a timetable for a constitutional referendum for recognition. That's why we will be looking very carefully at the act that the Government is proposing to bring forward because we need to make sure that that sets out not only a timetable but a process by which they're going to set forth between now and when we do have a referendum. That is essential. That will help keep this issue well and truly on the political agenda. It is disappointing to hear Mr Oakeshott try and blame, it appears that he is trying to blame advocacy groups for the failure of this process. I think advocacy groups and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have been working very hard to achieve constitutional recognition but if they lack that political support, it is not the two sides working together to achieve an outcome. This is a very important agenda for us, it will remain very high on our agenda, not only are the Greens committed to this but I am personally committed to this. We put a lot of effort into getting this into our agreement with the Government in the first place, we have thrown ourselves, our heart and soul into this as I know many other people have. But you have to face the realities and I think the Government's announcement of an act as the next step is a way of keeping this on the agenda. Now obviously the important thing is to make sure we have a good outcome from that act and we will be engaging in that process very strongly.
JOURNALIST: Senator Siewert if the Government did actually want to get this done by 2013 could they have mounted a big enough campaign by now to do that?
RACHEL SIEWERT: I think if the Prime Minister in particular had been out very strongly advocating and putting this very high on their agenda there is a potential there but of course you also need the support from the Coalition as Senator Milne said tripartite support is essential and if you look at the history of referenda, of which I have looked at extensively as part of this process, it's very clear that it's only when you have across-the-board political support. In the old days it used to be bipartisan support, of course now it has to be tripartisan support. It's only when you have across the political spectrum support for referenda do those referenda get up. And that is a very important point that it is essential that the Coalition also listens to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island community and realise that there is enormous support in the community for constitutional recognition and they need to get on board and accept that instead of holding back and trying to use it as a politically divisive tool, and that is one thing that we have been very conscious of all along and that is to try and progress the political tripartisan support across the board for this because we can't afford to play political games with such an important issue.
JOURNALIST: Senator Milne you said earlier today that you were disappointed as this was part of your original deal with Labor to form government, how do you assess that overall deal now in terms of various promises made and the overall relationship with Labor?
CHRISTINE MILNE: Two of the key components of our agreement with the Prime Minister have been delivered. The clean energy package was a huge negotiation over quite a considerable period and it will be the biggest economic, environmental and social reform in Australia, it'll be what this Government is actually remembered for. So that has been delivered. Any changes to it for the most part have been negotiated, the contracts for closure was an exception in that regard, as to Denticare that was another major component, that we would achieve real advancement and reform in dental health, that has been delivered, we achieved the Parliamentary Budget Office, that will be for the first time at this next election where all political parties have got the opportunity to have their policies costed and I notice that Tony Abbott is running away from that as well. So a large number of the articles of the agreement have been delivered. This is one that won't be delivered and we are agreeing that we ought not to press on with it because we don't want to see a failure, so it's more important to us to support the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community in the aspiration of having constitutional recognition than actually suggesting that the letter of the law has to be kept in relation to the agreement, so this is one where we've agreed to modify simply because we want the outcome and we want it whether we can get it in 2013 we now can see that you can't so we want it the longer term.
JOURNALIST: In terms of referenda failing generally if you don't get that overwhelming support, does that mean for something like this it might take not just leadership but almost generational change, it was never realistic from the start?
CHRISTINE MILNE: I'll let Rachel answer that in a moment but I don't think it'll take generational change, I think what it needs is a higher level of awareness and advocacy in the community to make everybody understand what it actually means. I think when people don't have that level of understanding they can be easily persuaded to a negative point of view and that's why it's critical that you have all the political parties out there on the same page telling the community and encouraging debate in the community but around an agreed understanding and I think that is the essential thing and I don't think it's going to be the next generation we are going to achieve this, we're just not going to achieve it next year.
RACHEL SIEWERT: I think that's right, there is a high level, for those in the community that are aware of this issue, there is a high level support for constitutional recognition and the news polling that was done as part of the expert panel's work showed that. So I don't think it will take generations but as Senator Milne says it takes a commitment to a timetable and sustained community discussion around these issues, so I would be very disappointed if people were resigned to a generational change, that is not the case here, there is strong support is in the community that's engaging and we need to broaden the discussion.
JOURNALIST: Senator Milne what would it take for you to walk away from your agreement with the Government?
CHRISTINE MILNE: Well we've said that we would give the Prime Minister confidence and supply and the agreement stands and we we'll continue to work to deliver all of the agreement as we possibly can between now and 2013. We've made that clear, we are the force for stability in this Parliament and we are making sure that we're delivering that and I think if you look at this period you'll see that the Greens have been absolutely solid and that any force for instability has come more from the Independents and a ruthless campaign by the Coalition. In terms of what's good for the Australian community, it's the judgement of the Greens that Tony Abbott would send us backwards on a whole lot of key policy areas including this most substantial reform in the area of addressing climate change. And that's why I've said that Tony Abbott won't lead the Coalition into the next election and it will be change the leader, change the policy or change both and I think change both is the likely outcome.
JOURNALIST: Does this particular referendum strike you as the sort of thing that either alternative leaders or previous leaders of the two major parties might be more forward on?
CHRISTINE MILNE: I would let Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd speak for themselves in terms of constitutional recognition and their support for it. I'm assuming that they would support constitutional recognition as indeed the Prime Minister does. It's only Tony Abbott who does not support it. The Prime Minister supports it but the advocacy required was at a higher level than has been demonstrated to date. Although having said that about Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd , both of them say that they support marriage equality as well but when the vote came they both voted against it so it's in fact contributing to the cynicism in the Australian community that people say they believe in one thing and then vote against it when it comes to do they have to weigh up their own chances of leadership in the party as opposed to ending discrimination in Australia and they both chose their own positioning in their political parties.
JOURNALIST: What sort of practical means can be taken in the community to get that extra support that you need and what's the next timeframe goal?
CHRISTINE MILNE: Again I'll let Rachel Siewert go to the specifics but it's been my experience in referenda over time and as part of the campaign for an Australian republic and of course being at the constitutional convention and seeing how the republic issue for example changed, the key element here is to get community discussion around an agreed, if you like, set of ideas particularly for the people advocating for the success of the referendum, and that's what we need. We need now the key element of success for constitutional recognition is to get the leadership of all the political parties in Australia to agree that they are going to go out and advocate for this, develop the materials, put effort and time into this campaign and I think if we did that we would be on track to get a successful outcome.
RACHEL SIEWERT: I think that's one of the things that needs to be laid out in the act that the Government's going to be bringing forward and that is setting up a timetable for the process and when is there's an agreement around when to hold a referendum but importantly on touching on the issue of constitutional conventions, a lot of people in the community are supporting the concept of a convention. Now the reason, one of the reasons the expert panel didn't go directly for that is because of the time frame we're trying to meet the time frame that was set out, but I think a community convention would be an ideal way of facilitating that, helping to facilitate the discussion and having a purpose and a focus for that discussion where people can then come and express their views, how that would be held, we would need to look into a bit of detail around that and I think putting that into the mix would be an ideal way of helping as I said to facilitate that discussion. I believe that processes should be set out in any act that the Government brings forward on this.
I would just like to address the issue of Newstart. Today the pensions and allowances will be indexed. The pensions will go up by around $17.90. Newstart and allowances will go up by $2.90. That is a vast difference. As people would be aware I lived a Newstart for a week in April and I bought a basket of goods. Last weekend I went to the same place that I had bought that basket of goods and priced exactly the same basket of goods again. The price went up from when I bought it in April $52.99 to just over $60. That's from April to September. That's a$ 7 increase in a relatively small basket of goods and yet per fortnight Newstart is going to go up by $2.90. Does that not suggest that the indexation of Newstart is inappropriate and it has to be the same indexation process that the aged pension goes through. It's very clear that Newstart is too low and the gap between the pension and Newstart is growing and it's now over $140 difference between Newstart and the pension, yet the pension is indexed at the higher rate of MTAWE and Newstart is only indexed at CPI. The CPI does not reflect the true cost of living for those people that are living on a very low income, it is about time the Government acknowledged this and addressed the need for increase of Newstart but also the indexation because it's very clear from my even very limited experience is that it's just not meeting the true cost of living for those trying to struggle to survive on Newstart.
For more information please also see the media releases issued by Senator Siewert