Over the past several months, I have spoken at a significant number of events across Australia on the importance of a constitutionally enshrined First Nations Voice to Parliament. These events have included many organised by Federation University, where I am Associate Deputy Vice-Chancellor Reconciliation, and Reconciliation Victoria, where I am Co-Chair of the Board.
These events have also included many organised by a broad range of other organisations, including universities, corporates, industry, schools, multicultural organisations, faith groups, university of the third age groups, local government councils, reconciliation groups, and community organisations.
These events have been held across a wide variety of locations – central business districts, inner and outer metropolitan suburbs, regional towns, and rural areas – and to different audience sizes, from small events of 20-30 people to town hall events of over 1000 people.
Despite this diversity though, there are three broad experiences common at all these events.
The first common experience, a disappointing one, is that people coming to these events are often very confused about a First Nations Voice to Parliament, and have many questions, including:
· Where did the idea for the Voice come from?
· What is the Uluru Statement from the Heart?
· What is the rationale for the Voice?
· How much support is there for the Voice from First Nations peoples?
· Why is it important for the Voice to be enshrined in the Constitution?
· What are the powers and limitations of the Voice?
· What is the relationship between the Voice, parliament, government, and the executive?
· How will the Voice impact on First Nations peoples and the wider Australian community?
· What are the international experiences of First Nations Voice models?
This confusion results in a second common experience, again a disappointing one; many attendees hold completely erroneous views on the Voice.
For example, many believe the Voice came from the Albanese government, whereas it came from the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, created at the largest gathering of First Nations leaders in Australia's history. Further, First Nations peoples have been advocating for a voice for decades.
Many also do not understood the importance of First Nations peoples providing advice on the laws and policies that impact upon them, despite the decades of Australian and international academic research and policy analysis that illustrates that this results in demonstrably better outcomes.
Many also believe the Voice should be created through legislation, not understanding the need for the Voice to be protected from the arbitrariness of governments, who have an appalling history of creating First Nations advisory bodies, only to later abolish them when they don't like their advice.
The third common experience though is a much more positive one. At these events, there have been significant numbers of attendees that have approached me afterwards to let me know that they came to the event undecided or intending to vote No but would now be voting Yes after learning more about the Voice and understanding the importance of the Voice to make transformational change.
One particularly memorable occasion was when a local community Elder, who had earlier conducted the Welcome to Country, commented during question time that they had changed their mind and would now be voting Yes, following learning more about the Voice at the event.
Conversely, I have never had anyone at all ever approach me after an event to state they had changed their mind and would now be voting No.
The clear message from these three experiences, that have been common at all the many and diverse events that I have spoken at over the past several months, is one of hope.
Hope that the wider Australian community will see through all the noise, misinformation, and blatant lies that is stifling this campaign, when they are presented with clear, understandable information that addresses those questions I raised earlier.
Hope that these local community consultations, that are occurring all across the country, will encourage attendees to learn more about the Voice and then talk to their families, friends, and communities about the importance of a Voice.
And hope that the upcoming referendum to enshrine a First Nations Voice to Parliament in the Australian Constitution will be successful, and we will be able to take this most significant next step in our nation's reconciliation journey.
Professor Andrew Gunstone
Associate Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Reconciliation; Director, National Centre for Reconciliation, Truth and Justice; Professor, Indigenous Studies. Federation University Australia.