This referendum, if affirmed, will complete the Commonwealth of Australia through constitutional recognition of its Indigenous peoples.
The words enshrine the presence of peoples whose ancestors made this continent their home for more than 60,000 years. In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia, the words constitute a constitutional promise to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that only the Australian people can make.
There shall be a body to be called ‘The Voice’.
The purpose of the Voice is to make representations to the Parliament and the Executive government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. They grant Parliament the power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Voice including its composition, functions, powers, and procedures. Parliament creates and may alter the details of the Voice, but there will always be a voice. These words uphold the Constitution while recognising First Peoples, making Australia whole.
This referendum will test the proposition that a nation conceived in the fiction of terra nullius (a continent without legal owners), after a steadfast refusal to acknowledge the Indigenous humanity, can come to a new understanding of who we are—a nation blessed with an Indigenous heritage spanning 60 millennia, a British democracy captured in its Constitution and a multicultural unity that is a beacon to the world.
Our nation will have a new birth and the peoples of the earth will see that, with justice, what remains wrong can be put right—and that when we face the truth, we can open our hearts.
It is never too late for reconciliation.
The Federal Parliament passed the Constitution alteration, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice Act on 19 June this year. It will come as no surprise that my purpose is to prosecute the case for Yes in this referendum. I am completely focused on Constitutional recognition through the Voice, the referendum, and the words of Constitutional alteration that is its subject. I am not focused on ancillary or alternative issues beyond the Voice. Such issues have been debated over many years leading up to the alteration. Those debates are over.
We now face a referendum question that has been determined under the alternation process. We are being asked: A proposed law to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice. Do you approve of this proposed alteration?
Throughout this campaign, my intention, as it should be the intention of all people of goodwill seeking success in the referendum, is to keep the focus on the referendum ahead and the Voice which is its subject. We cannot afford diversions and relitigating issues that are now behind us, and which detract and distract us from our task of persuading the ‘soft Yes’ and ‘soft No’ voters in the electorate: the undecideds and those that are yet to focus, up to 30% of voters, to see their way to Yes.
This is of necessity a political oration. I’m here to make the case for Yes and to urge you to the view that this is the most important vote in the country’s constitutional history.
It’s decisive for Indigenous Australians and Australians at large. This is an opportunity for the country that comes so infrequently, like Halley’s Comet, and it falls on our generation to seize it.
There is one matter I do want to dilate upon that I believe is most relevant to the Voice and has been core to my thinking about Indigenous empowerment in this country—and it is the meaning of self-determination.
Ever since the Whitlam Government introduced the language of self-determination into official Aboriginal policy, we’ve never been certain of its meaning. The left supported the rhetoric of self-determination, ‘more power to the black fellas’; the right have been opposed, ‘the black fellas will break up the nation’. We have not had great clarity about what was meant by the policy, and we Aboriginal people have not been particularly clear either. There is still interminable musing about the powers that self-determination should afford to our people, but no clear consensus.
My own perspective on the meaning of self-determination came from Lars-Emil Johansen, the then Indigenous Premier of Greenland, who addressed a conference organised by the Cape York Land Council in 1994. In an address that I have never forgotten, he explained that self-determination is the right to take responsibility.
Self-determination is hard work—and I’ve long argued that this is a critical insight for those concerned with Aboriginal policy. At the highest levels and at the grass roots, in claiming the right to self-determination we are claiming the right to take responsibility.
More than two decades ago I argued the need to restore the importance of responsibility in our understanding of our problems and in our understanding of the solutions. I argued then that the quest for self-determination raises serious issues for us. Do we want to take responsibility for our destiny? Do we want to do the hard work of self-determination? Are we properly unified to fulfill our responsibility? Are we prepared to show leadership and build consensus and overcome division? Or are we so divided that if we took on the responsibilities we would do just as bad a job as the bureaucracy and the white fellas?
My provocation was to observe that rather than deal with these hard and real questions, our concept of self-determination instead occupied the realm of legal and political theory and rhetoric about the right to self-determination under international law. Whilst this level of discourse is important, the practical realities of self-determination were being ignored in my view. These discourses show a concern with power, but they fail to deal with the other aspect of power which is responsibility. We have to do the hard work of making our structures of governance coherent and unified if self-determination is to become meaningful.
For more than two decades I advocated our right to take responsibility. Non-indigenous people probably cannot comprehend how much control governments exert over our lives. The government essentially operates our communities, stifling individual choice, markets, rewards and responsibilities. Although sometimes well-intentioned, it creates problems, causes dependency, and undermines the development that is required to bring about fundamental change—so that we can overcome the powerless disadvantage that constitutes the gap that is not closing. This is the torment of our powerlessness. We must get to a point where it is legitimate to blame us. By all means blame us—but give us a say in the decisions that are made about us before you do. This is the message of the Voice. By having a voice, we will be responsible for closing the gap. We will be as responsible as the government for the results. With power will come responsibility.
When the colonists arrived with the First Fleet in 1788, they knew there were people here. Demographers estimate that 2.5 billion Indigenous people had lived in Australia over the 65,000 years prior. Before the Europeans there was a huge cultural heritage—languages and custody of Country, a superabundance accumulated over millennia.
How would the new colony come to terms with that reality in colonial times and in the modern idea of Australia? Well, they didn’t deal with it in 1788, so the absolute question had to be: What do we do with the Indigenous presence? How are they going to be accommodated in the new colony? Would provision be made for their presence? The answer was no. The default position has always been no.
At this time, of course, there were strong beliefs about the inferiority of our people; we were considered sub-human. In 1901, the colonies decided to come together under a national Constitution. The Indigenous were still here albeit it in a wretched condition and reduced numbers. The Indigenous population was estimated to be 93,000 from an original million at the beginning of European colonisation, with much misery underscoring what had happened to the rest. The implicit question at the time of Federation was: Is there going to be recognition and inclusion? The default answer was no; the Indigenous people were not only not included as citizens, but were specifically excluded.
There were two mentions of Aboriginal people in the Australian Constitution of 1901, and they were both negative exclusions—so the new Australia was an Australia that said No once again. The 1967 Referendum rectified the original exclusion of Aboriginal people from the law-making power of the Federal Parliament (and from being counted in the census) but in 1967 the switch remained No.
There was no positive recognition of Indigenous people and the 65,000 years that came before. Mabo was yet to happen. Our land rights were yet to be acknowledged. The fiction of terra nullius continued to reign in the common law and in our nation’s rule book, the Constitution.
While 1967 righted our explicit exclusion, there is today no mention in the Constitution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The power in the Constitution by which the federal government can make laws with respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is the race power. The race power reflects outdated thinking about race. It was originally included in the Constitution so that Parliament could make laws discriminating against and excluding Chinese and other Asian migrants coming here during the late 19th Century Gold Rush. It is now used only to make special laws about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, so it makes sense to establish a body to advise on the exercise of that power.
We don’t want an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice put in place through legislation made under the race power. Recognition through the Voice will provide a new power for Parliament to legislate the Voice that is not based on race but rather on recognition of our unique position and history as First Peoples of the country.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are Indigenous peoples; we’re not a separate race, our race is human, the same as all other Australians. Many problems flow from making racial distinctions and this referendum is an opportunity to address this; we’ve got to grapple with recognition.
Australia is a mere two-and-a-bit centuries old. It cannot be the case that all that is important to Australia is what has happened since 1788. Settler versus native reflects an existential fear. How can we be Australians and claim a rightful place in this Country we have created when we recognise the Indigenous? Every time this question came up during the colonial period the answer was: Well, we can’t, we’re not going to recognise the Indigenous and write ourselves out of the picture.
The settler insistence has been that this is their country and that is all there is to it. This has been the story for more than two centuries. I cannot imagine doubling down on exclusion.
In October we’re going to do recognition—and we’re all going to feel for the first time that this is our country, this is our land and we’re all part of one story. We have a once-in-a-nation’s-lifetime opportunity within our grasp.
I want to say that we will bequeath to our children a better Australia. Our children will grow up in a way that we never knew. They’ll grow up not fearing Indigenous peoples; prejudice will, over time, diminish. Indigenous and non-Indigenous children will grow up knowing who they are—Australians, with a sense of belonging together.
Too much of our fear and prejudice is the outcome of not knowing who we are as Australians, not knowing our complete story. We have a chance to put the complete story together with our Indigenous heritage, the British democracy, and of course a glorious multicultural unity. These three stories will be brought together with an affirmation in this referendum.
The ultimate project in my view here is to recognise who we are: to understand who the Australian people are, who we are in the present, and what we want to leave to our children. With this vote we will leave the settler versus native story beyond us. We can leave that in the past and see three stories entwined. We’ll see ourselves in you and our children will have a sense of who they are.
We’re going to move forward once we recognise Indigenous peoples as the First Australians. This is our last, best chance.
Let me now turn to my analysis of the four postures that advocates for Indigenous rights variously take. The movement for justice for our people swings in an arc from radical pessimism to radical hope. I personally could never live in radical pessimism, but I understand the bitter mountains of evidence and arguments in its favour. I champion radical hope—and I believe I share this dispossession with many Indigenous leaders and activists. Certainly, the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the proposal for constitutional recognition of the Voice is an expression of such hope.
There’s also naïve pessimism and naïve hope. Our movement is highly susceptible to each, and they should be abjured; there is never a good time for naïvety. Reconciliation for the sake of feeling good disserves our movement—there must be justice. Pessimism for the sake of purity of posture is also disservice. Our challenge is to keep transcending the left/right binary of the great mainstream tribes of Australia and to stay above their culture wars. We must avoid our cause becoming tangled in the cruel vortex of their useless conflicts.
This is not an election. This is not a federal election campaign between Liberal and Labor. If you’re a Liberal voter there is no reason why you can’t say ‘Yes’ to Australia. If you’re a Labor voter, the same applies. This is not about Anthony Albanese and Peter Dutton. This is about whether we are going to achieve a new Australia. At the referendum, the question is not about which political tribe you belong to. At the referendum there’s only one tribe: the Australian tribe.
In October we will recognise Indigenous people and in time fear and prejudice will dissipate. That is my belief. We will all understand that no one is more or less Australian than anyone else—whether your ancestors arrived on the First Fleet, whether they arrived last year, or whether the bones of your ancestors have turned to dust over millennia for 65,000 years.
I don’t want Indigenous children growing up with a question as to where they fit in Australia, with the sense of alienation, and whether they are accepted in their own country. I mean not to diminish the rightful claim of all of our people in saying that the urgency of recognition is especially serious for our most traditional societies. The Yolŋu people of this land in north-east Arnhem Land need Australia to afford them the chance of defining what their leader Yunupingu called ‘a modern version of ourselves’, under the framework of constitutional recognition, of their right to be themselves and to retain their high culture and languages in all of their classical glory. The interweaving of enlightenment and their high culture must be a journey of their own choosing, and the terrible structure of forced assimilation must end. The Yolŋu need the freedom to define their future anchored in their own heritage. This is the urgency of now. This is the chance to do that which was not done in respect of the rest of Indigenous Australia: to give life to the radial hopes of the Yolŋu for the future of their society. May they live long on the earth.
It’s time for the country to press the switch to ‘Yes’. Indigenous people in this country can’t be left to languish in an Australia that has the default setting of ‘No’. We need to move beyond the idea of Australia as a settler society in which Indigenous people sit on homelands at the margins, separate from the democracy and the main frame of Australia. If you want to understand why our position is so powerless, worse than any other jurisdiction around the world—it’s because the country has for too long determined that the power button should remain ‘No’.
We have been on a long journey, we’ve been working towards this latest iteration of our cause for generations—and in this latest phase for 15 long years. It has been a hard road. We have gone through five governments, eight prime ministerships, but we’re on the last stretch.
No other public policy issue has taken as long as the Voice. No other public policy issue has involved as many parliamentary committees and public consultation process as the Voice. The Voice will empower local and regional communities in a new way; in a way that does not exist. This is the self-determination we need to drive practical outcomes for our peoples. It’s urgently needed, particularly in remote communities.
The most important thing for Australians to understand are the words of the amendment itself. This is what we are voting for. Everything else is mostly just noise.
I urge you in conversations with friends and family to talk about the words of the amendment. It’s your responsibility as a citizen, as a voter in this referendum to read the provision. It’s the starting place and the ending place. You don’t have to be a constitutional lawyer; it’s in plain English.
We are going to add a little bit of soul to our founding document; it will be an adornment.
The provision has these four parts:
The first part I call the recognition part: the words enshrining the presence of peoples in recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first peoples of Australia. The children of the future will open the constitution; they’ll be reading the driest document—our constitution is like the rules of cricket: important, but not exactly choice literature—but all of a sudden, they will come across this new provision, Section 129, and they’ll read the first line ‘In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia’.
The second part is the guarantee or the constitutional promise: it’s a promise only the Australian people can give; There shall be a body.
The third part sets out the purpose of making representations to the parliament and the executive government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
And finally, it is the parliament that generates the details. It’s always parliament’s job in the democracy. This is the way our constitutional system works. All federal MPs and senators will debate and vote on the detail and they can always change the details, they can make amendments, they can scratch the whole thing and replace it entirely. What the Australian people will say with this amendment, however, is that if you scrap it, you must replace it. That is the meaning of There shall be a body. The ABC was created under a constitutional power in 1932 when the Australian Broadcasting Commission Act was passed. Ten years later it was overhauled and in 1983 they completely replaced it with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act. It’s the same constitutional power, but different legislative details.
I urge you all to study the provision, talk to other Australians about it, give copies to your friends and families, give copies at the train stations and the bus depots, give copies in the malls and in the street corners, talk to other Australians about it—and go through each and every line.
The moment is now. This vote in the referendum will be the most important.
I cannot comprehend the pathway back if this referendum does not succeed. It’s up to us all to seize it.
As 3% of the country, we Indigenous people cannot win this referendum; our numbers just don’t count. It’s your 97% that counts. It will fall upon you entirely to decide whether we seize this opportunity to make a place for the Voice.
In early August, the Yes campaign had its second week in a row of 1,000 volunteers signing up to knock on doors, taking the total Yes volunteer army to 23,000 volunteers. It is one of the fastest-growing political volunteer armies in Australian political history. If we can turn 1,000 new volunteers a week into 2,000, we will build the biggest army of political volunteers this country has ever seen. In Brisbane, we need you at the train stations, bus stations, in the malls, helping us at the community forums. We need you to talk to your friends and family.
We’re going to love them on the beaches in this campaign. We’re going to love them at the front doors, on the football pitches, on every street, every railway station; we’re going to leave no stone unturned.
I’m sensing a change. I’m sensing a mood.
Wherever good people come together and fight for a good cause, great things happen. That is exactly what is happening with the Yes volunteer army—so, I ask you to show your support.
Join the campaign today and change the country for the good.
Don’t leave this problem for your children and grandchildren to commiserate over.
People down south paint this picture of Queensland being stuck in the past like some old colonial museum piece—and, yes, Queensland has been truculent in relation to referenda in the past. Even when the idea of Australia was on the cards before 1901, Queensland was resistant. This was despite one of the greatest advocates for federation being Sir Samuel Griffiths, a Queenslander who was a premier and chief justice of this state.
Queensland is the engine room of Australia’s future. It is the only jurisdiction that is home to both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We can look forward to hosting the Olympics in 2032 and being able to showcase our state.
With your help, Queenslanders will rise to the challenge and vote Yes for the Voice. I have a great belief in that.
I commend the Yes campaign to you as fellow Queenslanders and Australians.
Editor’s note: In the weeks before and after the Voice to Parliament referendum, Meanjin is publishing online pieces by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers only. This is the third of three pieces published ahead of the referendum. This piece is presented as part of our new partnership with the Carumba Institute to publish the annual Meanjin Oration. It is an edited version of the Oration presented by Noel Pearson on 14 August 2023. View the video here.