It’s ‘go time’ on the Voice –– here’s why in the words of advocates

Phaedra Engel-Harrison

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has announced – at Garma Festival on Yolngu Country no less – draft wording for the referendum question to enshrine a First Nations Voice to Parliament in Australia’s Constitution. 

It was a moment of immense hope and pride, after five long years of Government rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, to hear words that could potentially change the nation and lead us towards a fairer future for First Nations people and all Australians. 

While Labor party rhetoric on enshrining the Voice has been strong, and the expectation is that the Albanese Government will work to see the promise of the Uluru Statement from the Heart fulfilled, the draft question spoken aloud had a resounding impact.

PM Albanese proposed a ‘simple’ referendum question and three amendments to the Constitution:

“Do you support an alteration to the Constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice?”

“A straightforward proposition. A simple principle. A question from the heart.”

To the many, many First Nations leaders and advocates who have worked so hard and so patiently to bring this proposition to the table right now, what a momentous achievement. Despite the vitriol and disregard of successive Australian governments to the generous offer provided by the Uluru Statement, you did not lose faith or patience, you did not stop persevering. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, June Oscar expressed the hopes of many in regards to the overarching positive impact that the enshrinement of a First Nations Voice could have:   

“My hope is that [a Voice] would change the nation for the better. That we can live in a country where we have been part of a process that’s been respectful, that’s allowed us to be engaging in it through clearly understanding where this is taking us. And I think Australia can pride itself in the context of the world that we have the maturity, we have the responsibility, to provide a country that is respectful and inclusive so that our children and our grandchildren can benefit from the decision. And I think this is the time that we start on that journey.”

Long-term Voice campaigners Megan Davis and From the Heart Director, Dean Parkin (and many others) also responded positively, particularly to the Government’s engagement with the many years of work that have been done, getting us to where we are now with the announcement of the draft question and amendments. Dean Parkin commented

“It’s really encouraging to see those words and questions are familiar to people. They reflect a lot of very rigorous work that’s gone on by constitutional experts across the board. It’s showing the government has been listening, they recognise the work that’s gone before, they know they are on a strong foundation that can launch the next phase of the process that leads up to a vote.”

Megan Davis spoke on the extent of the detail that was required, countering commentary from either side of the debate regarding how much the public really need to know about the workings of the Voice to answer a referendum question on creating it: 

“Voters should be asked to approve the body’s basic purpose and function, and other details can be filled in later by parliament.”

‘It was always intended that detail on matters such as size, composition and resourcing would be left to the parliament. This recognises parliament’s supremacy in our constitutional system. It also enables the Voice to be tweaked over time in response to new circumstances. If a specific model appeared on the ballot paper, or was tabled in parliament before the vote, the flexibility and adaptability of the Voice would be undermined.’ 

Thomas Mayor, long time custodian of the Uluru Statement and dedicated advocate for the Voice, shared this opinion that the detailed workings of the Voice body is not what the referendum is about:

“The model of the Voice is not what the referendum is about, it is about ensuring that there will always be a First Nations Voice in the centre of decision-making, and that First Nations people are recognised and respected for our sovereignty that was never ceded or extinguished”.

And so, it will be a careful balancing act –– providing enough information on how the Voice will work so that the public can make an informed decision and also counter the argument that not enough is known about the particulars. On the other hand, not providing so much detail that the essence of what is being asked is lost –– that is, should First Nations People have a say on the issues that affect them?

Arguments against enshrining a Voice include that it boils down to a ballanda [whitefella] easy symbolic gesture (and they aren’t necessarily wrong), but it is so much more than that, to so many. The Voice is essentially an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-determined reform articulated clearly in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. 

Further, that there exist far more pressing issues facing First Nations communities, that a bureaucratically installed Voice body would do little to solve.

However, to those suggesting that a Voice referendum is tokenistic and won’t address the many real and serious concerns, PM Albanese said this:

“…perhaps the greatest threat to the cause is indifference. The notion that this is a nice piece of symbolism – but it will have no practical benefit. Or that somehow advocating for a Voice comes at the expense of expanding economic opportunity, or improving community safety, or lifting education standards or helping people get the health care they deserve or find the housing they need.

“Championing a Voice won’t stop us from upgrading all-weather roads, so communities can get the supplies and services they need. It won’t delay our plan to train 500 new Aboriginal health care workers…It won’t stand in the way of our new investments in lifesaving kidney dialysis treatment.”

“Let us all understand: Australia does not have to choose between improving peoples’ lives and amending the constitution. We can do both – and we have to. Because 121 years of Commonwealth governments arrogantly believing they know enough to impose their own solutions on Aboriginal people have brought us to this point. This torment of powerlessness.”

Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney has expressed her confidence that the nation is ready to vote YES to Voice and also holds hope that the referendum can be enacted with bipartisan support. She has suggested people should look further back when questioning if a Voice referendum could succeed, and spoke on the timeliness and sense of urgency that now seems to have swept up the Government, and indeed a large part of the nation:

“Australians are decent, they’re fair, and when you go back to 1967, the last time there was really a referendum question directly to do with Aboriginal people, there was the most successful yes vote.”

“If not now, when? A Voice to Parliament will make our nation whole. Because it speaks to values that we all share and honour – fairness, respect, decency.”

So many threads, let’s pull them together Australia, because now is the time. 

Let’s play on repeat until it is heard: ‘if not now, when?’. Let’s make this move that we can all be proud of for our lifetimes. 

In the words of Uluru Statement leader Sally Scales, ‘it’s go time.’ It really is. 

Phaedra Engel-Harrison

Phaedra grew up on beautiful Dharawal Country and now lives and works on Cammeraygal and Gadigal Land as ANTaR’s Communications, Support and Fundraising Manager. She has over a decade of experience in the ‘for purpose’ sector, working for humanitarian causes in Australia and internationally. She holds a BA in Media and Communications and a Masters of Human Rights from the University of Sydney. She is a dedicated campaigner for the full realisation of rights for First Nations people.

To read background on the Uluru Statement, the movement for constitutional reform and the enshrinement of a First Nations Voice, visit ANTaR’s campaign page

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