Those of you not following along at home may not be aware that one of the most significant reforms to First Nations political affairs in history is currently under way.
The government's attempt to design and implement a Voice to Parliament has significance beyond just what a Voice means for First Nations people. Undertaken correctly, it will provide a strong foundation for this country to progress towards true First Nations justice. It is so important that everyone becomes aware of what is going on with this process, and how it is failing.
I have articulated previously in these pages the benefits of a constitutionally protected Voice to Parliament. It would give us an irrevocable voice in the halls of power, allowing First Nations people to participate in decisions made about us, as well as set us down a path towards Treaty and truth-telling. An enshrined Voice "creates an opportunity for truly reforming the politics of First Nations issues, by taking them out of the regular political melee," I wrote previously. It is an opportunity to truly begin to restructure the politics of our nation, and start towards justice.
Both major parties went to the 2019 election with the commitment to design a Voice, and to take that design to the people via a referendum. While the government has since been conspicuously silent on the question of holding a referendum, it did launch a Voice co-design process, in the form of a series of committees led by Professors Tom Calma & Marcia Langton. Since delivering their interim report, the co-design groups have travelled the country, spruiking their model for a Voice, and seeking feedback on what mob in community and the general public want with a Voice (big hint: it's a referendum).
Last Tuesday, this Voice to Parliament roadshow reached Canberra. Much like other sessions, which have been not well attended, and with the number of submissions from First Nations people also very low, it was not surprising to see so few people there. These forums are ostensibly to explain the government's proposal on a Voice to Parliament (because let's be frank, very few people read the 240-page report), and to seek feedback on what a Voice should look like in line with that.
The government has agreed to an extension to the process, something welcomed by many in the community, who have felt they have not had the time or opportunity to meaningfully engage with this process. However during the three hours of the session I attended, it became painfully clear that many key questions still remain around the direction of what the government has proposed, despite all the work put in thus far.
There were few answers in response to the community's many genuine questions about the direction a Voice is taking. How will the Voice be funded? "We don't know that yet." Arbitration for disputes? "Something we will have to consider." What mechanisms are there to ensure consultation occurs where it is required? "There are none yet." How will members be elected? "That isn't up to us to decide." Will there be a referendum? "That's not what this process is." The answer repeatedly was that the co-design groups weren't sure, hadn't thought about it, or were leaving answers for later.
Community have been very clear for many years on what our views are. There have been six years of this process going back just to the 2015-17 Referendum Council, which led to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. We are all tired of this, even while recognising its importance. The one thing we want from government is the one thing they are unable to hear us on; giving us a Voice, giving us a referendum. Both the Prime Minister and the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, have repeatedly dismissed as unnecessary the idea of a referendum for a Voice. However, they have also repeatedly promised to consider the legal options for a Voice, including constitutional enshrinement.
The importance of this issue is impossible to ignore, as even Professor Calma admitted to when asked about how we can ensure a Voice is not repealed, like the many legislated bodies that have gone before (a key concern of community). "There is no ultimate protection ... but yes, a constituted body would be better protected," he said. An argument against constitutional protection and a referendum this is not.
Going down the legislative path concerning a Voice is a dangerous road. Anger lies that way. A legislated Voice, whether effective or not, will kill off any hope for constitutional enshrinement, and will waste decades of work from and by community. A Voice that has the stability that constitutional enshrinement provides is a model First Nations people prefer, by wide margins. It is a model experts agree is essential to its success. The government has made commitments to consider this issue, and to put it to the people. We must hold it to these promises.
Professor Megan Davis of UNSW, inarguably the leading expert on a First Nations Voice, has called what we are facing a "constitutional moment": a once-in-a-generation time for transformational change. To see this moment not become a fleeting one, we need to act. We need to show up, and make our voices heard.
The government's submission process is still open until April 30. Take the survey. Write a submission. In-person sessions are occurring through until May. Find out when they are on. Attend. Participate in this process. I know community are disengaged, and the regular Australian public unaware, but the government knows this too. It's counting on it.
We need to make it known that in order to achieve true First Nations justice in this country, the first step in this process is a Voice to Parliament. That can only be achieved effectively through a referendum. Tell the government to let the Australian people have a say.
- James Blackwell is a proud Wiradjuri man and research fellow in Indigenous policy at UNSW's Centre for Social Impact.