Australia is having a referendum on October 14 about amending the Australian constitution to establish an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice to government. This feels like it has crept up on me - I regret to say that I haven’t discussed it with as many of my friends and family as much as I would have liked to. But I feel strongly that Australia should embrace the voice by voting yes in the referendum, and here I will explain why as best I can.
Australia as it is today was populated by Aborigines for at least 60,000 years before it was invaded and colonised by the British in 1788, 235 years ago. The British colonists spoke of “Terra Nullius” - the lie that the land wasn’t inhabited, and that what they were doing was not an invasion. Following this there was a long period of armed conflict, in the form the Frontier Conflicts, mostly in the early 1800s. The colonial forces were sometimes government military/police organisations, and sometimes private forces. Private individuals were often rewarded with land grants for the work of driving out and/or massacring the local indigenous population. A great read on this subject for me was the wikipedia article on the Bathurst War, fought between the Wiradjuri people and the colonisers. It’s an area that’s familiar to me, and the article tells the story very well. If you get through it, also check out the one on Abercrombie House - built on the 3200 acres given to the head of NSW Police at the time, who oversaw the massacres. That one is just an article about some loverly colonial architecture, but hits a different way when you read them in that order.
Having killed an estimated minimum of 100,000 Indigenous people in the Frontier wars, the Australian state began stealing the children of Aboriginal families in what is now known as the Stolen Generations, to be raised in missions or in white families. This was done to somewhere between 20,000 and 100,000 children between 1905 and 1967, which is 56 years ago. Many of these children are alive today.
I’m not personally responsible for doing any of these things and probably neither are you. But we all share responsibility for how Australia operates today, which includes how it moves forward from this history. That includes acknowledging the history, recognising the impact it has on how Australia is today, and helping Australia to do what is right today.
Despite the struggle to survive in colonised Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are still active today. They have languages, traditions, and communities that have lived through colonisation. Also, the Australian government still makes decisions that affect them. Sometimes explicitly and deliberately, through policies like native title laws or the Northern Territory intervention, and sometimes implicitly or accidentally, for example in the provision of government services like COVID vaccines to areas with a high proportion of indigenous people. These are practical decisions that our government makes today, which it could make better with the direct input of first nations people.
The Uluru statement from the heart is an open letter from the first nations people of Australia to all other Australians. It calls for a constitutionally enshrined voice. It calls for Australia and first nations people to come together after a struggle, and to build a fair and truthful relationship.
I think considering that we still share this land with it’s original inhabitants and owners, the voice is a fair and modest request. And considering the grotesque treatment that Australia has subjected first nations people to, the offer to come together is a brave and generous one. It’s an offer to recognise our best intentions and to work with them.
The voice proposal was made with a consultative process with first nations people across the country. According to two polls, it is supported by about 80% of aboriginal people. It gives first nations people a guaranteed ability to speak to our government, which is a very powerful thing. It does not provide any direct decision making power. The referendum question and the amendment to the constitution are both very short and simple and you can read them here.
I think the choice to have a referendum is the right one. The Uluru Statement calls for the voice to be enshrined in the constitution. This makes sense. Having only the right to speak, the power of the voice would come from people listening to it, and particularly from the government’s awareness that the population wishes for it to be listened to. It’s important that it exists with the explicit support of Australians. If it is born from that explicit support (via a referendum), then it follows that it should be enshrined in the constitution, because its existence would be a decision by the Australian people, not open for governments to change without popular support.
I think it’s also the right call that the constitutional amendment doesn’t specify the exact model by which the voice will operate - i.e. things like the process for choosing representatives. That structure is something that will need to evolve, and it isn’t obvious that it would be perfect from day 1 - i.e. it’s not something which could be worked out with a binary question in a referendum. A yes vote in the referendum isn’t a vote for a particular model, it’s a vote for the existence of a voice. A yes result is Australia making a commitment that we will find a model that works.
The decision we make in the referendum is powerful and it will be respected. There are two choices only. Neither choice is the default, and we are each responsible for the choice we make and its predictable impact - both symbolic and practical. We will decide if Australia welcomes the Uluru Statement from the Heart and commits to listen to indigenous people on issues that affect them through the voice as proposed, or alternatively, that Australia rejects that idea for a generation.
I would really like to wake up on October 15th as a proud Australian, knowing that collectively we have looked to the future and made a commitment to our first nations people to listen to them, and to build the honest and truthful relationship that they want to have with us. It has to start by voting yes.