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If we stand in solidarity, the referendum will succeed

Dr Shireen Morris -

Last week I travelled with the Kimberley Land Council's 'Referendum Roadshow', participating in community discussions at Kununurra, Hall's Creek, Fitzroy Crossing and Derby. What struck me was the passion of these communities: the love and warmth that infused the discussions, the staunch belief in justice despite the hardships of the past and present, and the commitment to doing the hard work to achieve to a national 'Yes' vote in the referendum.

Both Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Australians discussed their visions for a more united Australia. Equal parts desperation and hope, struggling local people explained how they want and need things to change. They want to close the gap. They want to right the wrongs of the past. They want a fairer and more reconciled Australia, and a better future for their children and grandchildren.

We talked about the history. The fact that Indigenous Australians have lived on this continent for over 60,000 years. However, no Indigenous representatives were included in the Constitutional Conventions that founded the nation. Indigenous people were considered a 'dying race', and the Constitution – this country's power-sharing rulebook – contained clauses explicitly excluding them. It created a top-down power relationship with Indigenous peoples.

As a result, the Constitution presided over extensive discrimination against Indigenous Australians. There were laws denying them the vote in some jurisdictions, right up until the 1960s. There were policies withholding Indigenous wages, controlling where they could live and who they could marry, banning their languages from being spoken, and of course denying their property rights.

The 1967 referendum did not fix the problem. That referendum gave the federal Parliament power to make laws about Indigenous people: the Race Power has only been used for Indigenous affairs, enabling initiatives like the Native Title Act and heritage protection laws. But the 1967 referendum did not guarantee Indigenous people a fair say in laws and policies made about them. It maintained the top-down relationship.

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, Australia is failing to close the gap.

This is why Indigenous advocates have for so long called for constitutional recognition to create a fairer power relationship with Australian governments. Those attending the forums recalled the long history of Indigenous advocacy for a greater voice in their affairs which stretches back at least 100 years.

In the 1930, William Cooper petitioned the British King for Indigenous representation in Parliament. Through the Yirrkala bark petitions in 1963, the Yolngu people asked to be heard in decisions made about them and their land. The 1988 Barunga Statement then asked for a treaty and an Indigenous representative body to oversee Indigenous affairs.

ATSIC was subsequently legislated under a Labor government. But it was not underpinned by any constitutional guarantee, so it was abolished under John Howard – with bipartisan support. This is why the constitutional guarantee is important: it give the Voice permanence.

In 2017, through the Uluru Statement, 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 advisory Voice.

People had questions about how the Voice would operate, and how a referendum works. What became clear is that the referendum is about the principle: it boils down to a Yes or No question.

Do we say Yes to finally recognising Indigenous peoples in the Constitution, by giving Indigenous communities a guaranteed Voice in laws and policies made about them? Or do we say no: we want things to stay the same? That is the question of principle the Australian people must answer in this referendum.

If we say Yes, the Parliament will establish the details of the Voice in consultation with Indigenous communities. Parliament can evolve and improve those details over time. But importantly, a Yes vote will mean the Voice is enduring. It will establish a constitutional guarantee – in the highest rulebook of the nation – that Indigenous communities will always have a Voice in their own affairs.

We heard how the Voice is needed because politicians in Canberra or Perth – whether Indigenous or non-Indigenous – often don't hear or understand the local needs of communities out at Kununurra, Hall's Creek, Fitzroy Crossing or Derby. The Voice is about enabling local solutions to local problems.

The Kimberley 'Referendum Roadshow' lifted my spirits. I heard how much communities want change, and are prepared to work for it. I heard the expressions of love and friendship extended by Indigenous people to their fellow Australians, and I heard the warm responses.

Of course, there are those whose responses are less generous. But what I saw in the Kimberley was ordinary Australians imagining an even better country – a country that recognises Indigenous peoples by making a national commitment to dialogue, listening and mutual respect.

That is our choice in October. Do we want to transform the top-down relationship that has characterised Indigenous affairs into a true partnership? Or do we want things to stay the same?

The time for equivocation is over. Don't be a bystander. Every vote counts, so let's do the work. The next few months will be tough, but if we stand in solidarity, the referendum will succeed.

Dr Shireen Morris is a constitutional lawyer and Director of the Radical Centre Reform Lab at Macquarie University

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