Two weeks ago, I had a life-changing experience: I went on a trip to Canberra to campaign for a constitutionally enshrined First Nations Voice as called for in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
There were Indigenous teachers, nurses, wharfies, among wide range of livelihoods represented. We came from many different First Nations mobs and parts of the country. It was the grassroots going to the centre of decision making to say we want to be heard.
In Canberra, I spent time with a group called Deadly Inspiring Youth Doing Good (DIYDG), a group of empowered young people based in Cairns. DIDYG is a youth-led organisation aiming to inspire, equip, and empower the next generation to take actions to change our world for the better. Together with Dean Parkin, director of the Uluru Statement campaign organisation From the Heart, we participated in a few meetings in Parliament House. It didn’t matter which side of politics they came from, we wanted to talk to them all, and there we received positive responses. We also got to meet Alan Joyce, CEO of Qantas, who proudly voiced his support. This made me wonder, ‘what is the hold up with taking this to a referendum?’
I have worked on the campaign for the Uluru Statement at a grassroots level for three years now.
There are two things I know clearly from the history of First Nations’ struggles. The first is that every time First Nations have built a voice that politically challenges the status quo, it is silenced. This is why the Uluru Statement insists that a Voice, or political representative body, must be protected by the constitution. The second is that opportunities like the Uluru Statement don’t come along often. We cannot waste this opportunity for reform.
In my time as a campaigner, I have found that Australians who are educated about this history decide they will support a Voice referendum. The latest polling from Crosby Textor indicates that 56 per cent of Australians will vote yes at the polls, and only 19 per cent are opposed. This is without leadership backing it in the Australian parliament, and without a well-resourced campaign. This is what we, as Australians, have achieved with a genuinely grassroots campaign.
To be around Indigenous leaders (can you name some?) that I have been following for the past few years, and from whom I’ve drawn knowledge and strength, was a special experience that I will always remember. The energy was electric, it was exhilarating. I came home with a re-ignited fire.
But when I got home, I saw that the prime minister had already responded to our visit, naysaying about how a referendum may fail. I wasn’t surprised about this. Disappointed, yes, but not surprised. After all, this is why the Uluru Statement is written to the Australian people, not a politician like Scott Morrison.
Time to be brave
My greatest disappointment though, was when I read what the co-chairs of the Voice co-design leaders said. Marcia Langton and Tom Calma are running the advisory process developing recommendations for a Voice model. Calma echoed Morrison’s comments, going further to warn that if a referendum did fail, then we risked scuppering the opportunity for reform.
The problem with what Calma said is that if there is no referendum – if a Voice is established only in legislation so that it is vulnerable like our previous national representative bodies – then there hasn’t been a reform at all. We need to be brave and take the question of a Voice to the Australian people, so that it can be guaranteed.
The opinions of Morrison and the co-chairs of the co-design show us why we need a Voice. Morrison is out of touch with the public sentiment; and our leaders who already have a Voice are willing to take whatever is offered without constitutional recognition.
On my final night in Canberra, I listened to Noel Pearson make a speech at the National Museum of Australia. He reminded us all of why constitutional recognition is so important:
‘As long as its Indigenous peoples remain unrecognised, then Australia is an absurdity, a nation missing its most vital heart.’