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After the Voice… so, what now?

Katie Kiss
Last edited: May 22, 2024

The rejection of an Indigenous ‘Voice to Parliament’ has left a void in the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. We must find a way forward, writes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Katie Kiss.

Albert Einstein argued that the “most important question facing humanity is, is the universe a friendly place?”

For me, it is impossible to even consider Einstein’s question without reflecting on the position of our First Nations peoples.

The traumas of dispossession and dispersal go back to first contact in the 1700’s, but this was not a moment in time that stopped then. First Nations Peoples face ongoing challenges and entrenched threats to our existence and our survival every day.

The devastating recent death of a 10-year-old Aboriginal boy in state care, who took his own life, has caused anguish and anger in equal measure. It sparked renewed focus on the practice of child removals, and the high rates of suicide in First Nations communities. But I fear that after the immediate outrage, the news cycle will move on, leaving his family and community to deal with the loss of this little boy alone, and without adequate response to prevent this happening to other children.

This is the consequence of systemic failure and structural discrimination that First Nations people navigate in every aspect of their lives. We experience over-policing of our communities where racism is normalised, lower life expectancy and higher levels of chronic illness, and First Nations women are murdered at up to 12 times the national average.

Punitive approaches to youth justice and ever-increasing incarceration rates rob our children of their childhood and our people of meaningful futures. Racist stereotypes that reinforce these systems are perpetuated by mainstream media, systems that impose worldviews and practices that conflict with our values, and ways of knowing and being.

Australia is at a crossroads. We asked for a Voice embedded in our Constitution so that First Nations communities would have a say in decisions that affect our lives. Months on from the referendum, we are left with the question, ‘So, what now?’

After the hurt inflicted over the course of the referendum, the mis- and dis-information, the overt racism, and racial hatred promoted by key figures in our community, it would be understandable if First Nations peoples concluded that the universe is not a friendly place.

The Referendum outcome exposed the unfinished business between First Nations peoples and the Australian community. It highlighted the need for a reframed, respectful, and reconciled relationship that builds a “village” capable of transcending the division and disunity stoked in the lead-up to the referendum. A relationship grounded in truth, justice, and healing for First Nations and the Australian nation.

We have been asking for this since the first colonial arrivals. Successive Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioners have been recommending this since the role was established 30 years ago in response to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart calls for Voice, Treaty and Truth. The rejection of a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament does not equate to a rejection of these three pillars. They are necessary for a reconciled nation.

I come into the role of Social Justice Commissioner standing on the shoulders of giants. Not only the five Commissioners who came before me, but our Ancestors who protected these lands, waters and all that existed within them for more than 65,000 years. I am inspired by their pride, strength, determination, wisdom, and dignity.

The philosophies and value systems of Indigenous peoples provide guidance to Einstein’s social dilemma. In the ways of the Yolgnu people from Northern Australia, Yothu Yindi Chairman Djawa Yunupingu identifies this as ‘djambatj’ – the vision of perfection – where we get things right.

In the coming months, I will seek the views of First Nations peoples to understand the most pressing matters facing them, and encourage communities to rebuild the village so that together we can be accountable to each other, and take responsibility for recognising, respecting, and realising human rights.

I will seek to elevate and empower First Nations peoples to assert, exercise, and enjoy their right to self-determination and the unique rights we hold as Indigenous peoples. And I will seek to work with the Federal Government to ensure it upholds its international and domestic commitments and duty of care to First Nations peoples.

Despite the challenges before us, I am determined and optimistic. In Australia, First Nations people have been part of revolutionary moments, including the 1967 Referendum, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the Bringing them Home Inquiry, the Mabo High Court Decision, and the Apology to the Stolen Generations, where we have shed light on the impacts of colonisation.

We share our experiences in the hope of creating change built on understanding and empathy.

We have generously accepted invitations to contribute to the design of policies intended to improve our people’s lives, only to find that policies and laws did not reflect our views, resulted in irrevocable harm, and left those who gave their time feeling misled and exploited.

During COVID-19 we saw the nation unite in a way it has never done before, prioritising and protecting vulnerable First Nations communities from the potential devastation of the pandemic. The rapid and focused response by governments, informed by affected communities, was heartening and reassuring.

It gave a glimpse of what is possible when we work together. But did it also contribute to a false sense of security?

If we wish to answer Einstein’s question in the affirmative and help make the universe a friendly place, we must bring the best of ourselves to create the conditions where all can enjoy the opportunities our country has to offer.


This article was first published on New Matilda and is republished with permissions from Commissioner Kiss.

Katie Kiss
Social Justice Commissioner, AHRC

Katie Kiss is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner with the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). Commissioner Kiss is a proud Kaanju and Birri/Widi woman who grew up in Rockhampton, Central Queensland on the lands of the Darumbal People. She was previously the Executive Director of the Interim Truth and Treaty Body supporting Queensland’s Path to Treaty, and held senior positions in the Queensland Government, including Chief of Staff to the Minister for Seniors, Disability Services and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships, and Senior Advisor to the Deputy Premier. Commissioner Kiss also worked for eight years at the AHRC, where she was the Director of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Team.