Former Labor frontbencher says party 'needs a soul’ and can’t win on economy alone

Katharine Murphy Political editor
Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

Former Labor frontbencher Daryl Melham says Labor in this term must devote itself to dealing with unfinished business with Indigenous Australians, declaring “we need a soul, we can’t win on the economy alone”.

While a number of frontbenchers are highlighting the primacy of campaigning on growth and jobs as the opposition waits for the release of the campaign review by Jay Weatherill and Craig Emerson on Thursday, Melham says Labor needs to drive the agenda in Indigenous affairs.

Melham – a former shadow Indigenous affairs minister who resigned from the shadow cabinet because of a dispute with Kim Beazley about native title – has used the Jack Ferguson memorial lecture to identify five issues Labor needs to address, including standing firm on the principle that the voice to parliament be enshrined in the constitution.

The Morrison government says it is prepared to countenance a representative body that is legislated – but not one that is enshrined in the constitution.

Related: What's next for Uluru?

Melham argued that Labor, which has signalled it will be constructive during the period of co-design even though it wants constitutional enshrinement, needed to hold firm on the position articulated by the Uluru statement.

“Without constitutional recognition, Aboriginal voices will be drowned out by the political considerations of each moment,” he said. “Any legislation recognising their particular rights and status could be repealed at any time by an unfriendly government”.

The former shadow minister said Labor also needed to revive a social justice package that was promised but never delivered after the Mabo decision, and undertake to deliver it if it wins the next election.

Melham said Labor should champion reparations for the stolen generations, which does not have to be compensation. It could be assistance to recover from the damage inflicted by forced separations.

He said Labor needed to revisit the report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, because its “recommendations are still valid today”.

Then there needed to be effort to encourage successful self-determination. “Instead of taking away funding, and imposing too much red tape, we need to target funding to assist Aboriginal people in their self-determination and create more Aboriginal community leaders.”

He said instead of closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, governments were trying to “plug the gap”.

“It concerns me greatly that spending on Indigenous programs has increasingly been directed, not to the preventative or developmental programs, but rather to those programs designed to fix the problem after that problem has occurred,” Melham said.

“To illustrate, there have been increases in funding such as prisons and youth detention, hospital services and unemployment payments in recent years. Surely increased spending would be better directed to community health education or labour market programmes or early childhood education?”

He said policies pursued by the Hawke government led to “dramatically improved educational opportunities for Aboriginal and Islander people” with rates of secondary school enrolments rising from 2,000 in 1970 to 20,000 in 1986, and retention rates increasing from 10% in 1982 to 22% in 1988.

He said Bob Hawke and Paul Keating left a substantial legacy because both took the lead within the party, “and at times this was in opposition to the fears of the caucus”. He said if Labor abandoned this tradition of leadership “we are all diminished – as individuals and as a party”.

“This is core business for Labor: we need a soul, we can’t win on the economy alone.”