‘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 this proposed alteration?’
This is the question all enrolled Australians will be asked later this year. Yes or No. They are the options you will have in the privacy of the ballot box—to make your determination. When you look at it like that, it appears a simple prospect. And a very simple question. But it’s not.
Sitting behind that question is the much more complicated pathway that led to this vote: the complexity of colonisation and its lasting impacts; the pain and intergenerational trauma of the White Australia policy; the forced removal of children that led to the Stolen Generations. Then there is the crippling disparity in life expectancy, health and education outcomes, overincarceration in prison—just some of the measures of Closing the Gap, the majority of which are going backwards. The annual reporting of which Professor Marcia Langton described as a ‘misery fest’.
That ‘a young Aboriginal man of 18 in Australia is more likely to end up in jail than university’, as then-opposition leader Bill Shorten noted in 2015, should ring alarm bells and prompt a jarring halt in the status quo—regardless of what the next steps are to address that. Arguably the dial has hardly moved in the eight years since Shorten said that.
‘Yes’ campaigners say a Voice to Parliament is the circuit-breaker to address the disparity, while ‘No’ campaigners say it will be another layer of bureaucracy that will lead to talk-fests without outcomes.
The impact of all of these realities isn’t academic to me, they cut close. I was born and raised on Warramungu country in Tennant Creek, while my Indigenous heritage comes from my Mum’s side of the family in Victoria. The story of where we are as a nation right now is as much mine as it is all of ours—the good and bad, success and failure intertwined like the threads of a rope.
I began reporting at the Tennant and District Times when I was thirteen, almost 25 years ago. I made mistakes and grew as a reporter and a person with strong and generous members of the community investing their time, energy and wisdom in me. It was the making of me.
I’m charged with making sense of all sides and bringing voices and perspectives to the fore, in my role leading the ABC’s coverage of the Voice to Parliament as Referendum Correspondent. I see my job as navigating all of that complexity—and to distil and help explain each step of the process. To bring all Australians into the conversation about the constitution, the proposed amendment and the broader discussion about the proposed Voice to Parliament. And to bring humanity to the reporting of both sides.
Obviously, I have a view and a range of perspectives, but it’s crucial that I don’t take a side—which I haven’t. As journalists, we are naturally curious—you could even say sceptical, and in spite of whatever my own views are, my job is underpinned by the deliberate action of putting what I think aside to ensure I hear all perspectives and in turn share them with all Australians. No-one should assume my views are either for or against.
But I also see my role as doing something bigger than just covering this referendum and this debate—I see it as helping to navigate a bigger discussion about who we are as a nation, and the place of Indigenous Australians and where we all fit in.
I wanted to write about what I’m observing. I’m concerned that we have lost the ability to respectfully disagree. To be abundantly clear, this doesn’t mean we need to agree. It’s important that we can disagree, that we can have a robust contest of ideas. It’s all a question of how. I’m increasingly concerned that there is such polarisation around the debate that it has become a binary of ‘with or against’, which mutes nuance and discussion.
A friend—a senior leader in the public service who is familiar with navigating difficult matters of politics and policy, and often with politicians of all persuasions, told me of a dinner party she was at when the learned people she was dining with became so heated on both sides of the debate that the night came to a crashing and jarring holt.
Another, a governance expert, lamented to me how she had recently called time on discussions about the Voice amid a group lunch, such was the deterioration in the tone and the aggression that was emerging. These are just two examples of a litany of experiences shared with me, or that I’ve observed and experienced myself.
I’ve been fortunate to have a powerful vehicle I can use to discuss and debate the Voice to Parliament and the referendum, and have found The Drum more broadly to be central to having respectful conversations about contentious or layered topics that don’t shy away from conflict, but facilitate discussion in a way that’s about the idea and policy, not the person.
‘My heart is filled with joy on one part and trepidation on the other,’ Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Indigenous Strategy and Services at the University of Sydney Professor Lisa Jackson Pulver, told The Drum, when I asked about the tabling in federal parliament of the legislation including the words all Australians will vote on in the referendum:
This has been such a long time coming, and we have been pushing on to future generations for such a long time the huge matters of our times. The trepidation is very much around the behaviour that I’m seeing in some quarters where people are promoting a lot of misinformation, people are waging a fear campaign against the Voice and what it means. People are using it as a lever to create hostility when in fact a decent conversation needs to happen, and when people ask a decent, innocent question about, ‘What does this mean?’ ‘How can I understand better?’ I’ve seen some very, very unpleasant responses to that.
I put to Professor Jackson Pulver my concern, that generally speaking, we are losing the ability to disagree respectfully.
‘Arguing well is one of the real characteristics of intelligence and a real characteristic of an intelligent nation, and we are seeing a lot of democracies at the moment not being able to do that,’ she said.
I’m really grateful to have the time and space on The Drum to be able to dig deeper into all perspectives of the debate. I knew that this year would be heated. How can it not be when as well as the Voice to Parliament, the matters being debated are about identity, acceptance, place and belonging. What I didn’t expect was the ferocity of the debate, and in some instances character attacks, or how early they’ve come.
If I was ever unsure or wavering that I was doing my job of providing balanced and fair coverage, it was made crystal clear across a single week at the end of February into March. I faced threats of formal complaint from a ‘progressive No’ campaigner, which was aimed at intimidating me into changing an accurate analysis piece. This person later privately apologised.
I was accused live on air of campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote, by a prominent ‘No’ campaigner, because of my ‘body language’. The person publicly apologised, and privately told me that they thought I was navigating the complexity of the different views of the Voice with fairness. Then a prominent ‘Yes’ campaigner publicly wrote, ‘the ABC’s platforming of regressive “No” advocates is wrong’. It was an independent Indigenous senator not without power or platform whom the ‘Yes’ campaigner was describing as ‘regressive’. I sought to interview this campaigner live on air—they never responded.
It’s not lost on me that some who are advocating for or against appear to seek to advance their case by shutting down the voices of others. I’m not sharing these experiences for pity, far from it. I’m sharing them to show how fraught it is being a journalist, navigating this debate and seeking to elevate all voices. Critique of reporting—mine or others—isn’t new, and is actually crucial as a check and balance. Some of what I’m seeing and hearing, though, has hammered home how entrenched some people are—so determined to get their point across that they are almost insisting their point of view is the only one.
Lucky I grew up in Tennant Creek, which taught me great strength and to trust my instincts. I’m grateful I bring to my job and life a long and unflinching heritage of resilience.
Dan Bourchier is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster with the ABC. He is a host of current affairs show The Drum and special correspondent for the Voice referendum.