Joint committee a significant move for Indigenous affairs

By Tom Ravlic

August 1, 2022

Tony Burke
Leader of the house Tony Burke. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

COMMENT

The federal parliament moved one step closer to dealing with First Nations peoples’ challenges more holistically when leader of the house Tony Burke moved for the creation of a joint committee for Indigenous affairs.

Burke moved that a new committee to be known as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Joint Committee be made.

This is significant for several reasons.

The first is that it would provide an opportunity for First Nations senators and members to be a part of the committee process. A committee that only resides in the house of representatives has the obvious disadvantage of senators being unable to participate in its activities as committee members.

New senators such as the Coalition’s Jacinta Price and the Australian Labor Party’s Jana Stewart, for example, along with other First Nations senators could be appointed as members of the joint committee and participate in inquiries.

That opportunity would not be available to them if such a committee remained a committee of the lower house.

Another key advantage to having a joint committee is that concerns of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities would be heard by the entire parliament via this committee as opposed to only one chamber. 

It is a sign the entire parliament sees the issues as needing the same prominence as corporations, financial services, and intelligence and security.

The fact there was only a lower house committee on Indigenous affairs across three terms ought to be seen as a matter of some embarrassment by all concerned.

A joint committee can start the process of considering and seeking community input on matters related to the mechanics of a Voice to Parliament – prime minister Anthony Albanese unveiled a draft question for the referendum at the Garma Festival over the weekend – and look at other pressing issues impacting on First Nations communities across the country.

It is important to remember that committee hearings take evidence from witnesses and the evidence is reflected in both the Hansard and in audio and video recordings of the hearings.

The latter point might appear unremarkable, but it is worth highlighting for these reasons.

Hansard’s written record as well as its recordings provide important primary source historical documentation of the work of the committee as well as giving Australians a picture of the history of and contemporary challenges faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

The elders in the Indigenous communities will not be with us forever and it is critical that their stories be recorded in a permanent form someplace. A suitably scoped inquiry would provide the opportunity for this to take place.


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