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Senior Australian of the year Tom Calma ‘disappointed’ at Lidia Thorpe’s intentions to oppose voice | Indigenous voice to parliament


The newly minted senior Australian of the year and co-chair of the Indigenous voice co-design group, Tom Calma, says he feels “a bit offended” by Greens senator Lidia Thorpe’s decision to telegraph opposition to the advisory body.

Calma told the ABC on Thursday establishing the voice to parliament was a critical step in maintaining progress on a range of fronts, so he was “disappointed” Thorpe had signalled that she would oppose the reform unless Labor provided “guarantees” that First Nations sovereignty would not be not ceded.

“It’s important that we as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have an opportunity to be able to contribute to policies that impact us, and programs and legislation – and that’s the first step,” Calma said.

He said other important matters would also be addressed, including truth-telling and a treaty. “Truth-telling is already progressing … some states [are] already looking at treaties within their own jurisdictions.”

Calma said First Nations people had never ceded “ownership of Australia” but the British colonisers had determined terra nullius existed in Australia, which was overturned in 1992 through the Mabo high court decision.

“I feel a bit offended when we’re starting to determine that support [for] … a voice is predetermined by whether you address some of the other issues in Indigenous affairs,” he said.

Calma said he hoped federal politicians were assessing proposals on their merits rather than playing politics. “We’ve got the Nationals at a state level who are supporting the voice. It’s the federal level taking that [no] position. We’ve got a position where the Greens in South Australia are supporting a voice, and yet they’re dilly-dallying at the national level.”

The voice to parliament is a constitutionally enshrined First Nations advisory body first proposed in the Uluru statement from the heart. The Uluru statement’s website notes that the statement says “First Nations’ sovereignty was never ceded” and that “sovereignty is not undermined nor diminished by Voice, Treaty and Truth”.

After a Greens party room meeting on Wednesday, Thorpe said she would not support the legislation for voice to parliament “unless I am satisfied that First Nations sovereignty is not ceded”. She added: “It would take a lot for me to change my personal and long-held view that I don’t think First Nations justice will come from being written into the coloniser’s constitution.”

Thorpe’s position on the voice has been equivocal for some months. Guardian Australia understands numerous Greens members had privately expressed concerns that Thorpe’s position could see the party oppose the referendum, and effectively line up alongside Liberal and Nationals opponents.

Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young has made it clear publicly she will be campaigning for a yes vote during the referendum campaign. The party will determine its formal position before the resumption of parliament next month.

Calma’s comments came ahead of Invasion Day protests around the country coinciding with the Australia Day holiday. The new senior Australian of the year expressed concern that some of the protests were also rallies against the voice to parliament.

Political debate about the voice has intensified over the summer in the lead up to Australia day, with the Liberal leader, Peter Dutton, demanding more detail about the proposal. The public jockeying has intersected with a significant law-and-order crisis in Alice Springs following a spike in crime after the cessation of alcohol restrictions.

On the eve of Australia Day, the prime minister called for unity. Anthony Albanese challenged political colleagues across the spectrum to put the Indigenous voice debate “above politics”, declaring that his “door is open” if leaders of other parties wanted to offer constructive suggestions on points of detail.

At a citizenship ceremony in Canberra on Thursday morning, Albanese said he was “proud to lead a government committed to the Uluru statement from the heart, in full”.

“As we gather to celebrate the next chapter in the success story of our great and diverse society, let us all recognise the unique privilege we have to share this continent with the world’s oldest continuous culture,” he said.

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