With just a few weeks until this important vote, Zali Steggall, Independent Federal Member for Warringah, discussed the issues surrounding the referendum for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples by way of a Voice to Parliament with Chloe Wighton, an archaeologist, mother and a Wiradjuri Galari woman now living in Northern Sydney.
The Northern Beaches has a rich Indigenous history, and we can all be proud of this unique heritage. However, when our Constitution was written in 1901, 122 years ago, First Australians were not consulted, considered or recognised in the Constitution despite their 65,000 years of continuous culture.
The Australian Constitution was never intended to be frozen in time and was meant to be able to be updated as needed to reflect a modern Australia. n the Uluru Statement from the Heart, issued after the most comprehensive consultation, Indigenous Australians ask for a modest but significant change to the Constitution: To recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the First Peoples of Australia by establishing a Voice to Parliament, an advisory body, to make representations on matters that affect Indigenous people.
On the 14th of October, Australians will have the opportunity to determine the next step in our reconciliation journey. While the referendum proposal has many supporters, some people still have questions. Whichever way you vote, it’s best to arm yourself with the facts – so if in doubt, find out.
To assist, here are some of the questions that were raised at the webinar last week:
Q: Why can’t the Voice just be legislated?
Including the Voice in the Constitution would provide consistency and protection and mean future governments can’t just abolish the body like past Aboriginal advisory bodies.
Q: Why does the constitutional amendment proposal not contain all the detail of the Voice?
The Constitution itself is not a document of great detail, it mostly sets out the key principles and powers to be managed by the Federal government. For example, the Government’s power to make laws about tax. The Parliament and the government of the day then works out the details and policies. These change with successive governments to reflect the different policy approaches.
Q: Why was the Voice proposed?
For too long, policies have been made about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people without consultation or feedback from communities on the ground on whether the policies will work or be effective at closing the gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Constitutional recognition via a Voice is a practical and meaningful step to ensure First Australians are part of the conversation when policies impacting them are being designed.
Q: How will the Voice be made up and what will be its focus?
The representatives on the Voice will be elected by their communities. The Voice will be gender balanced, include young people and will be both transparent and accountable to the people it represents.
There have been 19 targets set for Closing the Gap and only 4 are being met. So, the Voice will focus on the most critical areas: health, education, jobs and housing.
Q: There are already elected members of Parliament who are First Nations People. Why is the Voice necessary?
Members of Parliament and Senators are elected to represent all members of their constituency, not just one group and usually belong to a political party so take a partisan position on issues. There is no independent group that can give feedback and make recommendations to members of Parliament and the Executive Government on proposed policies.
Q: There is a significant amount of money spent on improving Indigenous lives – how will this change?
The Voice is a practical solution to ensure policies and programs impacting First Australians are effective and accountable. The Voice has no veto or program delivery functions and will not allocate funding but will be able to provide feedback on ineffective, wasteful programs.
Q: How have other Countries fared since recognising their First Nations people?
Nations such as Canada, New Zealand and Sweden, which are much further along the reconciliation road than Australia, have not seen major legal issues or land grabs. The impact on the non-Indigenous community is negligible but constitutional recognition and a Voice make a huge difference to First Nations people.
Q: Where can I find more information?
We cannot change the past, but we can create a better future. It’s not safe to say no and accept the status quo when health and wellbeing outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are so far behind the rest of Australia. We can’t all rise and prosper if we leave First Nations communities behind.
This referendum is the opportunity to provide a better and more united future for all Australians. So let’s say YES and move forward together.