Later this year, Australians will go to the polls to vote on whether the First Nations peoples of this continent will be granted constitutional recognition. We will also vote on the constitutionally enshrined establishment of a permanent committee comprised entirely of First Nations people to act as a consultative body to the parliament on legislation that affects their communities.
Rev Glenn Loughrey, a Wiradjuri man, refers to the upcoming referendum as a gift to non-indigenous Australians. He writes, “What is that gift? The absurd compassion of the open hand and walking together to a better future for this nation. The absurd compassion of allowing you to accept the invitation with a yes and then allowing you, through your democratic processes, to shape your yes into legislation fit for purpose.”
The question is, will we accept this gracious gift? Will we seize this opportunity to act with grace and generosity, to right a wrong, to constitutionally recognise the original custodians of the lands now called Australia?
You would think this was an uncontroversial issue, but currently there is fierce debate about how Australians should vote in this upcoming referendum. Well, I’ll be voting YES. Here are some of my reasons:
YES to the symbolic importance of the Voice
The fact that the Australian Constitution does not currently contain any reference to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is frankly embarrassing. They were the stewards of the lands that comprise this continent for at least 65,000 years, a period that predates the modern human settlement of Europe and the Americas. And yet there is no mention of them in the defining document of our nation.
Enshrining First Nations peoples in the constitution recognises a process of joint or shared sovereignty with power, embedding the spirituality of kinship and agency within the legal sovereignty of the Crown.
The Law Council of Australia has said “A successful referendum will have significant value as a symbol of recognition and unity between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-indigenous Australians.”
That recognition not only seems fair and just but is well overdue.
It would be a tragedy for this nation and all its people, and our reputation on the world stage, if we were to reject the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and the Voice to Parliament.
YES to the good sense of the Voice
Those arguing against such recognition and the establishment of an advisory body known as the Voice to Parliament say the Voice will add yet another layer to the already complex system of government, slowing down the passing of legislation. Others are anxious that such an advisory body will have veto power over any legislation passed by the parliament. Some say it is “racist” or akin to “apartheid” to have such an advisory body made up exclusively of members of one racial group.
However, former High Court judge Kenneth Hayne, Professor Anne Twomey, and Professor Megan Davis have all supported the current wording of the proposed Voice to Parliament and found no cause for alarm.
Former High Court chief justice Robert French has said there is “no substance” to the claim that the Voice will have a de facto veto power, saying, “It would be no more than advice.”
Eminent constitutional expert Bret Walker SC described the claim that courts would be clogged with meaningless cases caused by the Voice as “too silly for words.” And the National Law Council of Australia said it “unwaveringly supports” the current proposed wording.
The Voice to Parliament will not have a program delivery function, but will be a consultative body, offering advise and perspectives from the point of view and lived experience of First Nations people.
Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples report that they regularly encounter non-indigenous people who claim to know better than them what they need. Those of us who are not First Nations people do not share their lived experienced. We have no way of truly knowing what it’s like to be a First Nations person in Australia. The Voice is designed to channel First Nations perspectives directly into the highest corridors of power in this land.
Rev Glenn Loughrey writes, “That doesn’t mean you are to remain silent, but the process of dialogue needs to change to what we call whinangarra – listen, hear, and reflect – which doesn’t include action, not even speaking. It takes a long time to learn to listen before you hear what is being said in such a way you can reflect on what is heard. The big task in this interaction is to remember this – you do not have a voice if no one is listening, hearing, and reflecting.”
It just makes good sense to give our government direct access to the perspectives of First Nations peoples when determining legislation that will affect their daily lives.
YES to Reconciliation
In May 2017, over 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders from across Australia met at Uluru in the heart of the continent to draft a statement detailing the steps required to kick-start the process of racial reconciliation that had stalled in recent years. You can read the Statement here.
They were calling for a renewed commitment to makarrata, a Yolgnu word for “coming together after a dispute.” Specifically, they believe that the journey to true makarrata, or reconciliation, involves three steps:
- Voice: This was the most supported element in the statement signed at Uluru. Glenn Loughrey says, “It is the completing the circle which has remained unfinished due to the exclusion of our people from the birth certificate of our nation in 1901.”
- Treaty: Once they are constitutionally recognised, First Nations people want an agreement as to how we are to work together to live respectfully in this place. As many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders say, you cannot make a treaty with people who do not exist. Once recognised, the next step is to agree on how you are going to live together in this space.
- Truth: The third request in the Uluru Statement is for a kind of truth and reconciliation process similar that what happened under Desmond Tutu in South Africa after the end of apartheid in that country. It would involve a coming together to tell the truth of what happened in this land. Loughrey describes it this way, “We reflect on how we got to where we are and provide the foundation to resolve what can be resolved, forgive what can be forgiven, and a commitment to work together.”
Those who drafted the Uluru Statement have said there is Unfinished Business to resolve in our country. The way to address these difference — and find makarrata — is through agreement-making. This involves dealing with hard stuff. It involves uncovering the dark history that has led to Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians sharing this space.
This first step in reconciliation is listening. True, deep, attentive listening. And listening can only happen if the other party truly has a Voice.