The Indigenous Voice to Parliament Referendum is coming up at the end of 2023 and is causing a prominent cultural conversation in Australia about Indigenous representation and rights.
In The Hills, India Club and the Community Foundation of North Western Sydney recently held a collaborative forum about the Voice that featured proponents for both sides of the referendum. The debate and discussion highly engaged over 100 attendees to think about the proposed change to the Constitution seeking to recognise Australia’s First Nations people.
The six speakers, all introduced by CFNWS’s Rajiv Chaudri, each delivered an impassioned, distinct speech that spoke to either the positives or negatives of the Voice to Parliament. The Yes and No camps took turns sharing their ideas, with three of each position present at the debate.
First up was Labor federal member for Parramatta Andrew Charlton, who said that his reasons for supporting the Voice were about fairness: “What drives me is the simple reality of Australia today. If an Indigenous man was standing next to me, his life expectancy would be 10 years lower than mine.” Mr Charlton continued, citing Australia’s unfinished journey to grant Indigenous Australians equal rights. In his view, the Voice is “a movement towards equality, not away from it.”
Mr Charlton directly addressed the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which the request for the Voice initially stemmed from, commenting that Indigenous Australians asked for some very simple things. He stressed that the Voice was not a veto; rather, a fair say for the Aboriginal people of this country. Mr Charlton ended his talk saying the No campaign’s attempts to portray the Voice as a risk to our democracy was wrong, and told atten dees it’s now in their hands “to create a national story we can all be proud of.”
The Liberal Party’s Alex Hawke, federal member for Mitchell, was next, expressing his serious qualms about the implementation of the Voice: “One of my key concerns about this proposed amendment is that, by definition, it puts a race-based right into the constitution.” Though stressing that he supports constitutional recognition of Indigenous people, Mr Hawke said the Voice is too risky a proposition for a permanent change to Australia’s founding documents.
Mr Hawke said he did not believe the Voice will meaningfully address the issues of Indigenous people: “Is the Voice going to be able to overturn bureaucracy in Australia on a local, state and federal level? My answer is absolutely not.” Mr Hawke ended by saying: “I still believe ultimately that everybody’s children, regardless of their race or whatever country they have come from, should be treated exactly the same in our constitution with exactly the same rights.”
Dr Shireen Morris, a senior lecturer of constitutional law at Macquarie University, spoke with passion in her argument for the Yes campaign about its benefits. Dr Morris began by stressing the unequal relationship between Aboriginal Australians and the country’s constitution: “Indigenous people for decades have called for substantive, powerful reform, something to move from this top-down power dynamic to a fairer, partnership approach.”
Dr Morris also reflected on the Uluru Statement: “What blows me away is the generosity of the Statement, given the history I’ve talked about. Indigenous people are coming to us, hands outstretched, saying ‘All we ask for is an advisory Voice when Parliament and government make laws and policies about us.” She ended her talk asking those in attendance to vote Yes in the referendum: “We know this great democracy was built off the back of Indigenous losses, discrimination and history. This is a chance to make some of that right, and I think it could be the game changer in this country that will help us towards closing the gap.”
Castle Hill MP Mark Hodges speaking on the No campaign said: “The risks as I see it consist of how the Voice will be implemented in society, the lack of detail, the divisive nature of it, and the fact that it will be permanent.” Mr Hodges was quick to acknowledge the suffering of Aboriginal Australians in the past, but pondered if the Voice would meaningfully benefit them.
Mr Hodges also stated his worries of the Voice’s effects on Parliament’s process, raising concerns that it would grind the democratic process to a halt. He concluded: “I have no difficulty in the recognition of Indigenous people; it’s the second half that is of considerable concern. I do believe that it will create two different parts of our society.”
Sean Gordon AM was next, the Managing Director of the 100% Indigenous-owned business Gidgee Group. His speech for the Yes vote was highly emotive and spoke to the generational trauma facing Aboriginal Australians; Mr Gordon shared the story of his life about being born on a mission-turned-foster home with 42 other kids who have not been as successful as him. Mr Gordon said: “To simply say Australia is the land of great opportunity and to assume we’re all from the same starting place isn’t enough.”
Mr Gordon also spoke to how Indigenous Australians continue to be affected by the country’s colonial history, saying that “we have to understand the impediments of current laws and how that makes it difficult for Indigenous people.” He ended with a powerful plea to the audience to help recognise the long-standing Indigenous culture in the Constitution: “Standing in front of you, I feel like a beggar, crying out to 97% of this country. What does a failed referendum look like for Indigenous people? Because our misery will continue. But what does a failed referendum look like for us as a country? That is the question we have to ask ourselves.”
Warren Mundine AO was the last speaker of the debate, former Labor president and current Liberal Party member who is at the forefront of the No campaign. Mr Mundine brought a different perspective from Sean Gordon, acknowledging the suffering that his own family had experienced in the segregated society he was born into. However, he also argued that Indigenous Australians had been given rights far earlier than the Yes Campaign seemed to think, saying that grandparents on both sides of his family had participated in elections as early as 1930: “The idea that nothing has changed is false, there are a lot of things that were done.”
Mr Mundine said that he judges Australia “very well” on its multicultural efforts, stating that “we have been the most successful country in the world in terms of bringing people together.” He shared worries that the Voice would not reflect all Aboriginal communities, particularly ones in regional areas: “What we should be focusing on is those communities that are struggling, and we’ve got to spread the effort: not just treating Aboriginals as one homogenous group. Once we start focusing back on those areas, that’s when we’ll make change.”
To view the debate in its entirety, including a Q&A section from community members, head to India Club’s Facebook page via this link: fb.watch/m0m7lAcDnB/. Read the AEC’s official pamphlets on the Yes and No campaigns: www.aec.gov.au/referendums/pamphlet.htm