Last Friday, two Uluru Statement from the Heart ambassadors came to Lennox Head to talk about Voice, Truth and Treaty.
Kishaya Delaney and Alisha Agland, two young women from Wiradjuri country in NSW, were welcomed to the Lennox Head Cultural Centre by Nyangbul man Glen Cook, a former school teacher who now works as a language and culture advisor. He told the young people in the audience, ‘this is your future – what happens on 14 October, you guys hopefully will benefit from that.’
Alisha Agland explained she was a social worker, with her cousin Kishaya Delaney working as a lawyer. Both women have been touring NSW as Uluru Youth Dialogue Ambassadors, providing information sessions about the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the Voice.
‘The flood of disinformation is certainly a cause for concern,’ said Ms Agland. ‘So our intention is not to tell you yes or no, it’s to equip you with information to make your own informed decision, and help others along that journey.’
She said the response to their tour so far had been ‘ really encouraging’. Kishaya Delaney then covered the history leading up to the current situation, beginning with the Constitution, which can only be changed by referendum.
‘The government has to follow the outcome,’ she said. ‘So this is a bit different to the same sex marriage plebiscite that happened a few years ago, that was more like an opinion poll, but the government didn’t have to follow it.’
More than 50 percent support needed
Ms Delaney emphasised that more than 50 per cent of people nationally across the country have to vote yes, including a majority of people in the majority of states.
‘What that means is that your vote in NSW actually has more weight than a voter in the Northern Territory, or the ACT.’ She said that First Nations people had asked for a Voice to Parliament to be enshrined in the Constitution, ‘because they wanted to try and elevate it above the politics of the day.’
Ms Delaney said there were many examples of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advocates calling for different forms of agreement-making, parliamentary representation and constitutional recognition, including Yorta Yorta elder William Cooper’s attempt in the 1930s, the Yirrkala Bark Petition in the 1960s, and the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association’s attempts to create an advisory board to the NSW state government in the 1920s.
‘All of these petitions and statements, they have something in common,’ she said. ‘They’re all seeking parliamentary representation to allow First Nations people to be able to speak directly to the government, on things impacting them.’
Ms Delaney said federal governments of various persuasions had been talking about some form of constitutional recognition for the last twenty years, ranging from purely symbolic approaches (such as adding a preamble to the Constitution) to more substantial forms.
She said an increasing number of Aboriginal people had rejected symbolic gestures in recent years, ‘because what is the point of going to a referendum and spending all this money on something that’s not actually going to make a difference to people’s lives on the ground?’
Ms Delaney said that with this in mind, forty First Nations representatives approached Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten in 2015 to say they believed the recognition process needed to be taken out of the hands of government and given over to Aboriginal people, asking communities, ‘what does meaningful recognition look like to you?’
This eventually led to 13 regional dialogue processes ‘to give a voice to the voiceless’, open to a cross-section of 1,200 Indigenous community members and organisations across the country, with multiple interpreters and a mix of gender, age and other demographics invited to contribute.
From this emerged ten guiding principles, including not diminishing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sovereignty, to not foreclose on future advancement, and to tell the truth of history. Ms Delaney said the idea of a Voice to Parliament as a first stage was endorsed by all groups, from Hobart to Broome, Dubbo to Darwin, Sydney to Thursday Island.
She then played a film about the convention process, which culminated with the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Ms Delaney said seven people out of 250 delegates walked out of the national convention because of concerns about sovereignty, but two later returned.
Alisha Agland then read out the complete Uluru Statement from the Heart, as signed by delegates. The document can be found here.
Why a Voice?
Regarding the Voice, Kishaya Delaney said for delegates it was about having a seat at the table when important decisions were being made. ‘Because we know from our research here, and across the world, that when Indigenous communities have greater control over their lives, that leads to better outcomes.
‘They know the problems that they face, they know the solutions that they need. But often the decisions about funding and services are just being made elsewhere.’
She explained that the 1967 referendum had given the federal government the ability to make laws affecting Aboriginal people, but this had largely been used negatively since, to discriminate against First Nations people.
Ms Delaney said the various bodies set up to assist Aboriginal communities since the 1980s had been abolished by subsequent governments, whereas the Voice would remain, even as its form was changed by subsequent parliaments. ‘That’s why it’s the number one priority… followed by agreement-making and truth telling [which were both] widely supported across the dialogues.’
She said that while there were many treaty processes happening at state and territory levels, the same thing needed to happen at the Commonwealth level, as has happened in a number of other countries.
Regarding the No campaign’s allegation that the Voice would open a legal minefield, Kishaya Delaney said ‘the vast majority of legal experts say that the Voice is legally and constitutionally sound.’
Regarding the accusation of lack of detail, she said, ‘When it comes to a referendum, there’s a bit of a balancing act in terms of how much information that you provide. If you don’t provide enough information, people feel like they don’t know what they’re voting on.
‘If you provide too much information or a specific model, it can be picked apart, and you can risk fracturing your supporters.’
Ms Delaney reminded the audience that at the last referendum on the republic question in 1999, many people supported the idea of a republic, but didn’t like the offer on the table, so they voted no. She also suggested that the current approach made it possible to localise the detail of the Voice later, as it evolved to best represent diverse communities across Australia.
She used the analogy of a holiday, saying you had to decide whether to go before working out the details of flights and hotels.
Kishaya Delaney reminded everyone that it was perfectly legal to mislead Australians and lie to them about the proposed Voice under political advertising laws, including in the official documentation provided by the AEC, and the No campaign in particular was taking advantage of this. [The Echo has previously fact-checked the AEC information document on the referendum here].
She suggested that anyone who is interested in solid information about the issues check out the relevant parliamentary transcripts, ABC sources and Uluru Statement From the Heart publications.
Hope and trust
‘It’s important to remember that First Nations people are putting a lot of hope and trust in both the Australian people and the government,’ said Ms Delaney.
While acknowledging that the Voice idea was not perfect, she said that in the eyes of many Aboriginal people ‘it’s more than a step in the right direction, and it beats what we have now.’
The subsequent Q&A addressed the misinformation about the Uluru Statement being much more than one page, with Ms Delaney explained the FOI requests from the Liberals were cherrypicked from private records of meetings that led to the statement, many taken out of context, and not from the statement itself.
There was then a discussion about the many fractures opening up within communities over the debate, fueled by social media and disinformation. Ms Delaney explained that the Voice would not have a budget to implement programs (like ATSIC did for example) and that representatives would be under the auspices of anti-corruption programs.
Glen Cook said he thought ideally at least one female and one male speaker from each Indigenous nation across the country should have input into the Voice.
Ms Delaney said it was hoped that people having to come together, talk and decide on things would be ‘nation building’ for a lot of different Indigenous communities, while acknowledging it would be ‘an absolute miracle’ for the whole thing to work perfectly immediately. The process would take time.
Trauma and hope
Alisha Agland said the current divisive national conversation was ‘resurfacing trauma’ for many people, none of which was being helped by the role of social media, which she said was not an accurate representation of what the two women had seen travelling around the state.
The Echo asked, considering the polling situation across the country, are you getting more or less optimistic?
Kishaya Delaney said she was ‘still really optimistic’ because the large undecided vote (30-40 per cent) was heavily affected by door knocking and personal conversations, which were picking up momentum every day.
‘ I believe in the goodwill of the Australian public and I do think that when people understand it, they get it,’ she said. ‘I feel really hopeful.’