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There are no second chances in this Voice referendum

By April 13, 2023December 4th, 2023No Comments
On a Sunday later this year, Australia may wake up to the news that we have narrowly said No to constitutional reform. Australia will have rejected the Uluru Statement of the Heart. Is this the Australia we want?
The Uluru Statement of the Heart is a powerful call for Voice Treaty Truth. It was made in a spirit of generosity as the path forward on Indigenous reconciliation.
When Dutton’s liberals declared their position on Wednesday the 6th of April, they rejected the Uluru Statement of the Heart. In the words of one its architects, Noel Pearson: “I see the leader of the liberal party Mr Dutton as an undertaker preparing the grave to bury Uluru”
For sixteen years, Indigenous Australians have walked with governments from both sides of the parliament on the constitutional recognition journey. Dutton’s liberals have ended their participation in that journey. Even so there may be glimmers of hope.
Julian Leeser, the shadow minister for Indigenous affairs, resigned from the Liberal party front bench because he intends to campaign for a Yes vote. As co-chair with Senator Pat Dodson of the Joint Committee on Constitutional Recognition, he believes “the time has come” for an Indigenous Voice to parliament.
Last week we mourned the loss of Dr Yunupingu. He was the first Indigenous leader who responded to Prime Minister Howard’s call in 2007 for the recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Australian constitution.
Dr Yunupingu argued that constitutional reform should not be simply symbolic. His position was that constitutional reform should strengthen both Indigenous rights and Australia’s policy response to Indigenous disadvantage.
However, conservatives would not accept the inclusion of actual or inferred rights in the Australian constitution. Indigenous leaders had to compromise to bring conservatives with us.
A No vote puts at risk the good faith Indigenous Australians who have invested in political leaders from Howard to Albanese to find a proposal that Australians will support. It betrays the spirit of trust that is essential for democracies to thrive.
Dutton’s liberals have committed to legislating for Indigenous regional voices. This is a good outcome. They are acknowledging that they have sufficient detail to make this commitment. They are also acknowledging that Indigenous voices are critical to improving policy and programs. Unlike others in the No campaign, they acknowledge that legislating for an Indigenous voice is not racially divisive.
To be effective, regional voices need to shape national policy. To do this, they need to make representations to the government and the parliament of the day. That is why it is critical that there is a national structure to support this. I urge Dutton’s Liberals to reconsider their opposition to the processes that will substantially improve outcomes for Indigenous people.
I worked with both the Turnbull and Morrison Governments. I developed the co-design process for the Voice following the recommendations of the Parliamentary inquiry that was chaired by Julian Lesser and Patrick Dodson. The co-design process was co-chaired by senior public servants and Professors Tom Calma and Marica Langton. Co-design groups were created to ensure they had members from the conservative to the progressive end of politics.
The principles I embedded in this process were based on a powerful idea: It is only by walking together that Australians will find solutions we need to move forward.
The co-design process engaged with 9400 Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples and organisations and the final report is over 270 pages.
The structure ensured close connection to the realities of Indigenous life across our continent: remote, regional and urban. It sets out design principles for a national structure that initiates advice and responds to requests from the government and all members of the Australian Parliament.
Australia’s first Indigenous Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Wyatt presented these design principles for the consideration of his cabinet colleagues. His resignation following the announcement of the position by Dutton liberals was a sad comment of the current state of the Liberal Party.
In announcing their position, Dutton’s Liberals have stated that they reject Dr Yunupingu’s advocacy. Rather than improve Australia’s policy response to Indigenous disadvantage, they only support the symbolic recognition of Indigenous Australians in the constitution.
Like the 1967 constitutional referendum that succeeded in removing the race clauses from the Australian constitution, the debate about an Indigenous Voice to Parliament is so much more than a contest of ideas. In 2023, the referendum proposes to reset the relationship between First Australians and the rest of Australia.
The only way to achieve this reconfiguration of relationships is to build trust. After sixteen years of working in collaborating with governments led by John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison, there will be no path forward if the plan of Dutton’s Liberals to the oppose constitutional reform are realised.
There are few Indigenous Australians prepared to continue to walk the reconciliation journey if Australia votes No in 2023. It is worth noting that most Indigenous Australians who don’t support the Voice do so because they think its ambitions are too modest. They do not think governments can or should be trusted.
It is no small irony that Dutton’s Liberals have shown the government cannot be trusted. This underscores the importance of constitutional enshrinement of the Indigenous Voice to Parliament.
Dutton’s Liberals need to understand that Australia has changed. They only need to look at recent polls on the Voice to see that most Australians plan to vote Yes.
Not all liberals have fallen into line with Dutton’s liberals. Bridget Archer who represents the seat of Bass in Tasmania will campaign for a Yes vote. Jeremey Rockliff, the only remaining liberal premier, says he will “vigorously” campaign for the Yes vote.
Other Liberals have declared they have “open minds”. This is no longer a sustainable position. It is time for all MPs to show political and moral courage by taking a clear position: Yes or No.
All those that follow the lead of Dutton’s liberals by opposing an Indigenous Voice to Parliament will continue to erode the trust they need as political leaders in this most pivotal moment in Australian history. If Dutton’s Liberals’ campaign to lead a No Vote succeeds, there will be no second chance. Ever.

Ian Anderson is palawa & Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic) for the University of Tasmania. The views expressed in this article are his own.

First published in The Australian Financial Review on 13 April 2023

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