The road to a referendum

By Cape York Partnership CEO, Fiona Jose
Originally published in City Life Magazine, Winter Edition 2023

Through the Uluru Statement from the Heart, Indigenous Australians forged an unprecedented national consensus on how they want to be recognised in the Constitution. They asked for a constitutionally guaranteed Voice in their affairs. Not a veto, just a Voice.

Indigenous Australians have lived on this continent for over 60,000 years. But no Indigenous representatives were included in the Constitutional Conventions that founded Australia. Instead, the Constitution contained clauses explicitly excluding them, and enabled extensive discrimination against my people.

There were laws denying Indigenous people the vote in some jurisdictions, policies withholding Indigenous wages, controlling where we could live and who we could marry, banning our languages from being spoken, removing our children from our families, and of course denying our property rights.

The 1967 referendum did not fix the problem that the Constitution set up a top-down power relationship between governments and Indigenous communities. That referendum gave the federal Parliament power to make laws about Indigenous people: the Race Power has only been used for Indigenous Australians.

But it did not guarantee Indigenous people a fair say in laws and policies made about them.

Top-down, ineffective policy continued. Today, governments make policies in far-off Canberra that misinterpret Indigenous needs and deliver few practical outcomes in communities. Despite good will, successive Australian governments have been failing to close the gap.

The fact that we have a record 11 Indigenous politicians in federal Parliament is fantastic, but it doesn’t fix the disempowerment of Indigenous communities. Indigenous politicians – like all politicians – must represent all Australian voters and their political parties.

The Indigenous politicians in Parliament were not chosen only by Indigenous people and cannot be expected to always back Indigenous interests. For example, polls show over 80% of Indigenous Australians will vote Yes to a constitutionally guaranteed Voice. But Indigenous Senators Jacinta Price on the right, and Lidia Thorpe on the left, oppose it.

Empowering Indigenous communities with a Voice in decisions made about us will help all policymakers – Indigenous and Non-Indigenous – make better policies and produce better practical outcomes. This is needed because politicians in Canberra – whether Indigenous or non-Indigenous – often don’t hear or understand the local needs of Indigenous communities out at Alice Springs, Juukan Gorge, Aurukun, Broome or Wadeye. A Voice is enabling local solutions to local problems.
Finally, giving Indigenous communities a Voice will not divide Australians by race. The Constitution already divides us by race.

This is about fixing past discrimination and unifying the country. It is about formally including those previously excluded. It is about shifting away from a top-down power relationship and embedding a culture of true dialogue and partnership in Indigenous affairs.

This referendum boils down to a fundamental question about who we are as a country and who we want to be in the future. Australians have to make a choice. Do Indigenous communities deserve to finally be recognised in the Constitution from which we were omitted in 1901? And do we deserve a guaranteed advisory Voice in laws and policies made about us?

This is a choice only the Australian people can make. For the sake of my children and their children, I hope the answer is yes.



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