18 December 2021

SUBJECT/S: Voice to Parliament and Covid-19 in the Barkly


KIRSTEN AIKEN, HOST: Moves to create a new system of Indigenous advisory bodies to consult the government on policy decisions affecting First Nations people have been welcomed by community leaders and campaigners.

DAVID LIPSON, HOST: The government's unveiled its blueprint for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice to parliament yesterday amid calls to enshrine it in the Constitution. Malarndirri McCarthy is a Labor senator in the Northern Territory and joins us now. Welcome to the program. Do you welcome this step that's been made by the government?

MALARNDIRRI MCCARTHY, LABOR SENATOR FOR THE NORTHERN TERRITORY: Good morning, David, and good morning to your viewers across the country, this report has been long awaited. It sat on the Minister's desk for six months I understand David, so it's quite disappointing. It's been released on the eve of Christmas, but even more disappointing because the government has promised a voice to the parliament. And that's not what's in this report.

LIPSON: They are potentially able, though, to legislate a voice to parliament before the election. We don't know for certain. It's less than what was originally proposed, which was enshrining it in the Constitution. But, you know, legislation is surely better than nothing.

MCCARTHY: Well, let's see if it actually happens, David, you see that's the problem here. This government has from ever since Malcolm Turnbull was prime minister and called it a third chamber of the parliament, and now we have Scott Morrison kicking the can down the road. They are not fair dinkum about this. And if they had been, Labor has always offered a bipartisan approach. We certainly have not been able to have that bipartisan approach, and that's been incredibly disappointing given the amazing people who have worked on this report, like Professor Marcia Langton, like Tom Calma, people who are distinguished Australians. And yet we could not share this journey together, and we are incredibly disappointed with the way the government in particular, the minister, has handled this.

LIPSON: So, so people like Thomas Mayor, for example, is saying that this is a step in the right direction. You don't agree with that assessment.

MCCARTHY: Look, I spoke to Thomas, and I wanted to know what his views were. Naturally, they want to see a voice eventually to the parliament. But we are the politicians who know that the other politicians on the other side are kicking the can down the road, and we have to call them out for it and that's what's happening here. They still kicking this can way down the road, and this is not about having a constitutionally enshrined voice to the Australian parliament. And that's what Labor wants. That's what Labor has supported, and we will continue to bring that should we be successful in the next election.

LIPSON: At this point, you know, Aboriginal people are not even recognised in the Australian Constitution as First Peoples. So, if you were going to enshrine a voice to parliament through a referendum in the Constitution, would Labor approach that the other, what many people consider to be a bigger issue? Would that be tapped into this referendum as well, or should it? Just recognition of First Nations people in the Constitution. You know, the sort of going back a step separate to the voice to parliament. But would that be something that you know, Labor would get behind? And if you were going to go ahead with a referendum on a voice to Parliament, would that be something that makes sense as well?

MCCARTHY: Well, there is so much inequality in our current constitution, David, there's no doubt about that. But we need to stay focussed on the fact that this is about the Uluru Statement, the Uluru Statement from the heart that was here from the Northern Territory on Anangu country in 2017 and the people of Australia, the First Nations people of Australia have said what they want, and the Australian Labor Party wants to deliver that.

LIPSON: I just want to turn to COVID and in your home state in the Northern Territory. We've seen cases rise there in Tennant Creek, which has been locked down other areas too. What's your assessment of some of the more vulnerable communities, their vaccine rates and with the rise of Omicron? Are people worried?

MCCARTHY: Look, it's really important, and I do reach out to the residents in the Barkly through your programme, please get vaccinated. Take this opportunity now with the surge workforce that is there in Tennant Creek and with the Aboriginal Health Centre, please get vaccinated. David, I've travelled through that area. I drove through the Barkly and central region over three thousand kilometres, urging our communities to get vaccinated. And sadly, that area is the lowest rate of vaccination. So mixed messaging and messages that didn't get out in time to encourage people to get vaccinated. So, I'd certainly reach out to them now. This is serious. We are very concerned not only of the Delta strain and obviously, as you pointed out, Omicron.

LIPSON: And you know, should we be seeing more intervention from the federal government? I know that's a loaded word, and I didn't mean to link it with anything previous. But just in terms of vaccine rates and boosters as well, would you like to see more of a coordinated response by the federal government in some of those vulnerable communities?

MCCARTHY: Yeah, look what we first always had to do and haven't done I think as a country and certainly something I've pointed out with the federal government is the messaging in languages, David. We have over 100 Aboriginal languages up here and the lack of the First Nations media organisations having that opportunity and funding and sufficient funding, not just piecemeal funding, but sufficient funding to get on social media to counteract the negative messages that have been consistently going on social media. We have had a gap and that gap was fuelled by these negative messages. So, I would keep pushing the federal government. That messaging is critical in language. Please, please fund firmly those Aboriginal organisations and health organisations to do that. But secondly, of course, we need to look out for our health workers. We've got people here in PPE gear in 43-degree heat. It is the hottest time of the year and I'm very conscious that we've got incredible staff, but we do need more people on the ground to give those staff some time to have a bit of a break.