Staff Writer | Palladium - Sep 15 2023
Australia's Vote on the Voice is Critical for Indigenous Communities

Image: Al Jazeera

On 14th October, the people of Australia will vote on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice Referendum. If approved, “the Voice” will alter the country’s constitution, allowing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to advise the government and parliament on issues that directly impact their community (such as native title, employment, and housing issues).

As debates and discussion on the referendum heat up across the country, Palladium colleagues have been engaging with Indigenous people and other leaders in the fight for Indigenous rights to explore the potential impact of the vote, what it means to them, and why it’s important for Australians to be aware of its consequences.

“Palladium is fully committed to creating positive impact both with and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Communities,” says Sally Falls, Palladium Director of Infrastructure, based in Australia. “We’ve created platforms for engagement on the Voice, hosting panel discussions and lunch and learn sessions for our staff. Our intention is to inform, educate and create space for a range of voices.”

The History

“This is the first time that the Voice would be embedded in the constitution,” explains Kim Wilson, who served the Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs under former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke. “I think that’s a model that has application wherever you’ve got competing rights and interests, not just for indigenous people, but in conflict situations. People who have lost their power or been dispossessed in some way will always want to be recognised.”

As in many places, the loss of rights and dispossession has a long history in Australia. Since the colonisation of Australia by European settlers, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have experienced extreme hardships, from the loss of traditional culture and homelands to the forced removal of children and denial of citizenship rights. This history of injustice has meant that many Indigenous people in Australia have struggled with access to basic human rights, such as healthcare, housing, employment, and education.

Recent reports and polling indicate that support is wavering for the referendum. Eleven percent of voters report being undecided, while several politicians have launched opposition campaigns arguing that the vote is a distraction from achieving practical and positive outcomes, without fully resolving the issues at hand.

But for Wilson, it all comes down to acknowledging people. “The main issue is recognition and if you have any concerns about the vote, are they so great that you’re going to deny people recognition? A ‘no’ vote would signal to the rest of the world that Australia has buried its head and gone back to the 50s,” he says. “Personally, I would find that really difficult to live with.”

Education and Progress

For Ross Williams, a Bindal leader (Townsville) on his father’s side and a Meriam (Murray Islands) descendent on his mother’s, the referendum is a massive opportunity. “If you look historically, we’ve never had a voice for more than 230 years, so this is the opportunity for Australia to grow and mature, to rectify the situation, and allow us the opportunity to have a voice.”

But he contends that it’s not necessarily political; instead he sees it as educational.

“It’s an opportunity to express our desire to make changes to Indigenous people’s lives, to provide our narrative, and to correct history, because without understanding history in its entirety, you’re not going to understand the general population.”

Indigenous and Torres Strait Islanders make up about 3.2% of the Australian population. They’re citizens, and yet gaps exist between their lives and the national averages. From a 10-year gap in life expectancy and a suicide rate twice as high as the national average, to overrepresentation in the prison population and deaths in custody, to high levels of child mortality and disease, it’s clear that injustices faced by Indigenous People in the past are present and are still the foundations of intergenerational traumas today.

History is told by the conqueror, but in this case, says Williams, those that are telling the stories don’t have all the information, simply because Indigenous peoples haven’t had a voice to share their own stories. “I want to wake up after the referendum and say that my grandchildren now have a positive future because they’ll have a voice, and that voice will come straight from the community and go to the big house in Parliament and give them a better legacy and more opportunity than I had.”

Moving Forward

“We should be part of the constitution. We need to be mentioned. This is our country and we were here first,” states Leah Close, Skills Training Coordinator for the Pacific Labour Facility and proud Wahlubal woman from the Bundjulung nation located on the far north coast of New South Wales.

She explains that the Voice is only part of the answer; that it’s also on organisations to ensure there’s a level of cultural safety for Indigenous employees and groups and to embrace First Nations people and what they can offer. While she’s adamant that recognition is critical for the country to move forward from history, Close is less sure that one governing body representing all of Indigenous people is the solution.

“Our people, we’re still stuck somewhere in the various policies since colonisation, and if anything, I think we as a people need to decolonise ourselves,” she says. “There’s an impact of ongoing generational trauma, but at what point do we stop relying on governments in advising a lot of these issues we’re facing?”

Ultimately, the referendum is a complex matter, one that for some is a fix to generations of wrongdoing, and for others, doesn’t do enough to address that history. But as Australians prepare for the vote, it will be critical for them to do their research, and as many of those close to the issue have encouraged the team at Palladium, talk to Indigenous people to understand what the vote means to them.

“It’s important that people educate themselves, engage on the topic and consider the implications of a yes or no vote before we head into the referendum,” says Falls. “What does it mean for us as a Nation and how do we acknowledge the past and move forward together to a brighter future for some of our most disadvantaged communities?”

Whatever your views, the request for a Voice can’t be ignored; it’s incumbent upon everyone to carefully consider these questions as they head into the polling booths.