The referendum on the First Nations Voice to Parliament will be the most significant national moment of this generation. Many Australians first heard of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the Voice to Parliament when the Prime Minister committed to the Statement in full during his victory speech at the most recent federal election. However, nearly a decade's work sits behind the Uluru Statement itself.
The First Nations Voice is the first reform called for in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The Uluru Statement, issued to the Australian people on 26 May 2017, is the result of genuine engagement and consultation with more than 1200 First Nations peoples on the ground in communities. As part of the 12 Regional Dialogues, those consulted were put forward by their own regions and communities. The delegation held cultural authority, with a majority being traditional owners and people who had the authority to speak for their country and people. It was a robust process grounded in self-determination. It is also the most representative and proportionately significant consultation that has ever been undertaken with First Peoples in our shared history and the first time our people have been consulted in relation to the Constitution.
The Regional Dialogues presented an opportunity for substantial constitutional reform and the delegates were adamant that they would not waste it. The key question asked of the delegates was what meaningful constitutional recognition meant to them. The dialogues were deliberative and various forms of constitutional recognition were discussed. After a lot of listening, considering and debating the various options, there was an overwhelming consensus that meaningful, substantial recognition in the Constitution must be achieved through the establishment of a Voice that gives First Nations peoples a say on the matters that affect us. More than 97 per cent of the delegates from the Regional Dialogues to the Convention voted in favour of the Voice. Approximately seven of the 250 delegates did not agree to constitutional recognition or to the Voice. Just like everyone else, First Nations peoples are not a homogenous group and we don’t all think the same. What is important to note, however, is that the process consulted grassroots people, had cultural authority, was robust and was inclusive of all voices. First Nations support for the Voice continues to be strong and recent polling by IPSOS confirms that 80 per cent of First Nations people support a Voice to Parliament enshrined in the Constitution.
Delegates to the Regional Dialogues were acutely aware of the issues our people and communities face. Government-imposed laws, policies and decisions that fail us – that fail to address the disadvantage in our communities, fail to achieve positive outcomes for our mob and fail to close the gap – fail because our voices, our lived experiences, our knowledge and our solutions are not considered in the decision-making process. This is why consensus on the Voice was formed. Delegates who called for the Voice were pragmatic and understood that by having a seat at the table, providing real advice to the Parliament and informing laws and policies that affect us, we will start to address the gaps and issues that exist in our communities. This will be achieved through having better-informed policies and laws that will result in better outcomes for our mob.
The Voice will be a representative body of First Nations people, selected by First Nations peoples ourselves, to represent our views. The Voice’s core function, to give advice or make representations to the Parliament and the government on matters that relate to First Nations peoples, will be captured in the amendment that Australians will vote on at the referendum. Enshrining a First Nations Voice in the Constitution will standardise a process of consultation with First Nations peoples when the Parliament or the government of the day are deliberating on laws, policies or decisions that affect our lives. It requires the Parliament and the government to listen to us when it comes to the matters that affect us and provides politicians with integral knowledge and understanding of matters on the ground so they can make informed decisions.
I believe that Australians generally understand that the way governments ‘deal’ with First Nations affairs is not working, and money continues to be pumped into programs and services that don’t achieve outcomes for First Nations communities. They know something needs to change. I find, when I have conversations with everyday Australians, once they understand where the Voice proposal comes from, how it will work and what it seeks to achieve, they understand how practical the Voice proposal is.
Australians have the opportunity to shape the nation, to create a better future for all. The answer to the referendum on the Voice will be telling – are we mature enough as a nation to begin to deal with the unfinished business of the past, in order to move forward towards peace with justice? I encourage you to inform yourself leading up to the referendum. It is going to be up to you to sort out the facts from the misinformation. But when you walk into the polling booth on referendum day, you will have to make a decision that you and your conscience are satisfied with.
For more information about the First Nations Voice to Parliament and the Uluru Statement from the Heart, visit ulurustatement.org.