It’s a long time coming. Opposing sides have filled our screens and airwaves with the reasons why we should vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. There is a lot of confusion on exactly what it is Australians are voting on. Even the political rhetoric from our national leadership has been unable to directly address how a voice in parliament will work. It’s a leap of faith. An exercise in trust. Trust, it seems, is in short supply for Australian politicians.
Referendums are notoriously unsuccessful. Only eight of 44 have been successful since 1901. The last successful referendum was in 1977. The change? Setting retirement ages for judges in the Federal court. The most recent referendum in 1999 received the support of less than 40% of Australian voters. The result of the referendums is not as simple as maintaining a majority. For the constitution to be adjusted, more than 50% of Australians have to vote in favour of the change and a majority has to be achieved in 4 of 6 states.
This will be the latest referendum to amend Australia’s constitution. An opportunity to officially recognise indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people in the document which shapes the foundation the government uses to operate.
The concept was proposed as a key recommendation of the Uluru Statement From The Heart. A 12-page document written and endorsed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders in 2017.
Sure, there are workarounds and policies legislated in a way to enshrine the rights of workers, and employees and how the judiciary and executive arms of government function. Changing the constitution, however, is a feat few governments have successfully navigated. Even fewer governments have navigated a successful referendum and managed to hold on to government at the next election.
We’re a conservative bunch in this sunburnt country of ours. The discussion around the recognition of those who were here, well and truly, before the country was colonialised can be traumatic for some. Perhaps our subconscious bias to maintaining the status quo stems from the majority of Australians repressing the fact saying ‘Yes’ is an admission of guilt.
An admission we, as a nation, categorically repressed the quest to correct inequalities. An admission we, as a nation, are for racial equality as long as we don’t need to make any compromises and face some harsh truths. An admission we need to stop making decisions designed to suit the majority on behalf of people who, in a lot of cases, have different needs and require longer-term strategies to bridge the gap.
Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders are more likely to die sooner, spend time in prison or face any or all of the issues around alcohol and substance abuse. Will a representative body adjacent to the federal parliament address any of these damning possibilities facing the worlds longest running and continuous culture?
In the short term - the answer is no. There is multi-generational abandon and inaction which has to be undone first. A lack of representation in the legislative process over the last century is going to take a while to correct. Of the 227 seats across both houses of the national parliament, there are only six sitting members who identify as indigenous. 2.6% of politicians making decisions on behalf of all Australians are indigenous. As of the 2021 preliminary estimates from the Australian Bureau of Statistics 3.8% of Australians identify as indigenous.
In the long term - it’s a start. The historic lack of representation across legislative and representative bodies will take time to correct. The exact details of the structure, responsibilities and scope of the voice are unclear. The government is asking for Australians to vote on the concept. The idea. The idea indigenous Australians deserve a representative body with a direct line to parliament to advise, assess and advocate for legislation and initiatives.
There are concerns from indigenous and non-indigenous advocacy groups lobbying for more clarity on how and what The Voice to Parliament will do. Poorly conceived or inadequate amendments to legislation involving indigenous matters can have dramatic consequences. In Western Australia, the government introduced, and just as quickly backflipped, laws to protect indigenous cultural heritage. The intent of the laws is sound and well-intentioned, but irreparably misconceived.
The campaign has been confusing. Mired by misinformation, from both sides of the argument, with emotional and passionate supporters of the Yes and No votes clashing at rallies in the lead-up to the referendum. Social media channels have been flooded with opinions and endorsements from influencers, celebrities and some of Australia’s biggest companies.
Australia decides on October 16th. Opinion polls suggest there has been a steady decline in support for The Voice the longer the campaign runs. Support for the Yes vote was as high as 60% in October last year, but now several polls show the Yes vote has less than 40% of the popular vote.
Australians will have their say, one way or the other, but what the result says about us as a country will paint a very definite picture of our aspirations to genuinely and seriously bridge the gap.