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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

Sovereignty was never ceded.

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5 minutes

Recognition and Consultation

Paul Wright
Last edited: March 28, 2023

It is a simple proposition – confirmed by Prime Minister Albanese in his announcement about the specific wording for the Referendum Question and constitutional change – a First Nations Voice will be the embodiment of Australia’s recognition of the First Nations peoples of this continent and will be established to speak for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on issues that are important to them. 

I’ve had a few attempts at capturing my thoughts about where Australia is at, regarding our pending vote on the First Nations Voice. My thoughts have fluctuated between deep frustration at the cynical obfuscating that is the mission plan of those that would deny Voice, and a rising panic that it might work to scuttle the best chance we’ve had to change the story between First Nations Peoples and non-Indigenous Australians since 1788.

I have drafted and redrafted the arguments that dispel the tenuous reasons or misleading questions of detail. As people have cottoned on to the tactics, the public responses have rightly shifted from engaging on the detail that would only come after a successful referendum, to a realisation of the simple truth that this is the right thing to do. No more excuses, no more obfuscating, no more time wasting, no more kicking the can. 

I am asked every week if ANTAR supports a First Nations Voice to our Commonwealth Parliament and if so, why. After 25 years of standing with our First Nations sisters and brothers, our friends, colleagues, family – how could we do otherwise? 

In August 1963, from a gaol cell in Birmingham Alabama, the Reverend Martin Luther King penned his famous letter responding to the ever cautious, compromising and underwhelming response of his fellow (white) clergy leaders in regards to addressing the enormous civil rights rifts that were tearing America apart. Dr King talked wrote 

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

In directly challenging the ‘moderation’ of the religious leaders, that would have perpetuated the unacceptable status quo, King drew a line in the sand. For the many of us who would consider ourselves allies and friends of the cause for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander justice – a justice denied since 1788 – this is no time for lukewarm acceptance, or half hearted support. The opportunity to create a permanent, standing place for Voice in the heart of our Commonwealth is finally here and we must not let it pass. Dr King also said

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

First Nations peoples have, without wavering, demanded their freedom and the respect of their rights as the First peoples. They did so in 1938, they did so in 1967, in 1988 and again in 2017 through the Uluru Statement from the Heart. But the realisation of those rights depends on all of us now. The referendum to decide on a First Nations Voice is the second part of a process of exchanging gifts between the two still separate peoples of Australia. The first gift was made by First Nations peoples, articulated in the words of the Statement inviting us to walk together in a great ‘movement of the Australian people for a better future’. This gift is the answer to the question of reconciliation, the keys to addressing the wrong of our shared history since colonisation began. 

The second gift is in the hands of the Australian people. The gift is a response worthy of the  invitation made. It won’t be the politicians that decide to accept the gift but every Australian that steps into the voting booth on referendum day. 

It is a simple proposition of our values. 

The recommendation of the working group with agreement of the government is to ask Australians to amend the Constitution to include: 

‘In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia:

  • There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice;
  • The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; and
  • The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.’

And as Prime Minister Albanese has said

Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in our Constitution is the best chance this country has had to address the injustices of the past and move Australia forward for everyone, and the best way to do this is to give people a voice.

I am confident that on the day of the Referendum, Australia will decide emphatically to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the way they have asked to be recognised. Australia will, because we must, make place to have First Nations Voice at the heart of our national dialogue. To prime our ears for hearing, understanding and acknowledging the Voices that have been dismissed and marginalised for so long. 

Last words to paraphrase late great Reverend Martin Luther King… I hope this message ‘finds you strong in the faith.’

Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all of their scintillating beauty.

Paul Wright
National Manager for Policy, Advocacy & Government Relations at Mission Australia

Paul is National Manager for Policy, Advocacy & Government Relations at Mission Australia. He was ANTAR’s National Director from 2018 to 2023 and has many years of experience working in both Government and non-government sectors – covering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, health, immigration and social services. Paul studied politics and international relations at the University of Canberra and has a Masters of Strategic Studies from the Australian National University. Prior to his role with ANTAR, Paul was the Executive Officer for the Close the Gap Campaign Secretariat and the National Health Leadership Forum at the Australian Human Rights Commission. In 2021, he became a PhD Researcher at the Western Sydney University (Social Sciences).