Sometime during 2023, a referendum will be held to determine whether constitutional provisions can be approved to create an Indigenous Voice within the process of democracy in Australia.
Its passing will not alone solve the many cultural, social and economic challenges that face Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, but it will constitute a step forward along a pathway to find solutions to some of the more significant divisions in our society.
At the annual Garma Festival held recently in the Northern Territory, Anthony Albanese announced the words that are proposed to be included in the Australian Constitution if the voters of Australia approve them.
They are –
1. There shall be a body to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
2. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to Parliament and the Executive Government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.
3. The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have powers to make laws with respect to the composition, function, powers and procedures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
Consultations will be held around Australia before the final wording is put to us at the Referendum when we will vote quite simply – YES or NO.
I intend to vote YES and to publicly campaign strongly for a majority of voters to do likewise.
How did we reach this point in our history?
Except to state in the Constitution that Aborigines are a responsibility of State Governments, the Founding Fathers in 1901, ignored them.
There was a widely held belief that they were a dying race and would have no part in the future of the nation. Indeed, the indigenous population was declining at that time, but this is not now the case. The reverse is occurring. 3.5% of the population of Australia now identify as being indigenous.
At that time, New Zealand withdrew from participating in the proposed Federation as they had already signed a treaty with the Maoris at Waitangi in 1840 and made them full citizens, something that the Australian States did not ever attempt to do and were not willing to do.
To our eternal disgrace, indigenous people were not given the right to vote until 1967, when a referendum gave approval with a vote of 97% in favour.
Then, in 1992, the High Court of Australia held that native title existed for all indigenous people.
Far too many Australian Governments have believed that they could achieve peace with aboriginals by buying their goodwill with money. Although billions of dollars have been spent in this way, little has been achieved.
Then, just a few years ago, the Uluru Statement from the Heart was prepared by the most significant gathering of Indigenous people in the history of Australia and presented to the Federal Government. Malcolm Turnbull declared that the voters of Australia would never accept it. Anthony Albanese believes otherwise.
So it is that you and I will now decide.
I wont set out here the case for either YES or N0.
This will be presented to us in the official referendum documents before we vote. I will now just comment on the draft wording that the Prime Minister has presented to us for consideration.
I find it to be acceptable except for two words.
The word ‘powers’ in the second line of paragraph 3, could cause the referendum to be lost. Paragraph 2 gives the Voice power to make representations only. Paragraph 3 gives Parliament power to give more power to the Voice. In my view, this can only be done via another referendum. The word should be removed from the paragraph.
The word VOICE is a strange title to give to a constitutional entity. It would be far better to call it an ASSEMBLY. This gives it the stature it deserves and we can more readily understand what it is.
Let me make an additional comment.
Once this new body is formed, I hope that it will of its own accord reach out to every nationality now living in Australia to mutually agree of ways and means of becoming a more cohesive society. There are now more than 100 nations represented here and each could send one delegate to a gathering of goodwill organised by the Voice once every parliamentary term.
Finally, may I note with dismay that Pauline Hanson has announced that her political party will campaign for a NO vote. I had hoped that political parties would stay out of it so we can enjoy a genuine exercise in democracy that will bring us together as a nation. Sadly it wont be so. Racism will raise its ugly head and divide us.
After all, we are simply acknowledging that people whose ancient heritage of 65000 years, the longest in the history of the entire planet, should be recognised in our national constitution.
Its just a small step to take.
PS. Buy my book DINNER WITH THE FOUNDING FATHERS from my website
It tells the mighty story of how our Constitution was written and approved back in 1901. Sadly it reminds us that only 20% of referendums to change or add to our Constitution have ever received the approval of voters. I hope that this one adds to the list of winners.