My recent participation in a panel discussion about the forthcoming referendum on an Indigenous ‘Voice to Parliament’ has helped to shape my views. For me, it stripped away the misgivings and ‘red herrings’. Simply put, a ‘Yes’ vote will give our First Nations peoples of Australia a constitutionally enshrined collective voice. It will provide the Australian Government a collective First Nations’ Voice that will guide the government rather than have decisions being made without First Nations’ input.
It is a pivotal moment in Australia’s history and for me the reasons to support the ‘Yes’ vote have become self-evident. Our undiminished marginalisation of the indigenous population has been a national disgrace. ‘Closing the Gap’ has not worked, in part because it has not been given a voice in the process. Our First Nations peoples are undeniably the most abused race on the planet, in a country that trumpets ‘a fair go’!
• Our indigenous peoples typically live a decade shorter than other Australians and their infant mortality rate is twice as high.
• They are twice as likely to be hospitalised for circulatory diseases and 11 times more likely for kidney failure.
• Only 62% finish school, compared with 88% of the non-indigenous population.
• Only 48% of those of working age have jobs, compared with 75%.
• The median income of Aboriginal households is 37% lower than that of other Australians.
• Aboriginal adults are 13 times more likely to go to prison (the highest in the world.) Their children are 24 times more likely to be placed in detention centres.
• They are six times more likely to suffer child abuse and two-and-a-half times more likely to be victims of domestic violence and more than twice as likely to commit suicide.
This is the result of the policies and actions of governments since 1788. In short, after a calamitous 234 years of subjugation and paternalism they desperately need to be listened to.
The Voice has three components.
1. There will be a body, called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, which will represent their diverse views.
2. The Voice may make representations to Parliament and the Executive Government on matters relating to First Nations people.
3. The Parliament will, subject to this Constitutional reform, have power to make laws with respect to the composition, functions, powers and procedures of the First Nations’ Voice. Importantly, this will not be a third house of Parliament, but rather will be subject to Parliament’s oversight and authority.
THE DRAFT REFERENDUM QUESTION IS: ‘DO YOU SUPPORT AN ALTERATION TO THE CONSTITUTION THAT ESTABLISHES AN ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER VOICE?’
Unfortunately, there have been some in the community who have tried to obscure the intent of the referendum with a raft of distractions. The referendum has nothing to do with changing Australia Day or opening the door for other minority voices. It is simply aimed at addressing gross indigenous disadvantage and recognising and embracing Australia’s 60,000-year heritage.
While for many people the cause is obvious, as Indigenous leader Thomas Mayor puts it, “There are a whole lot of Australians out there who have never met an indigenous person before, never think about these issues that we suffer from, don’t think about visionary things like including our indigenous heritage in the constitution. It is those people that we need to convince and we all have a massive job ahead of us.” He continues, “If we fail at this referendum …. we are saying that we don’t want a fair go for indigenous people; that it’s ok to make decisions without the manners of asking them what’s best.”
For me, the failure of the ‘Voice’ referendum would be a dreadfully sad outcome and would set us back a generation. We already lag behind so many nations in embracing our indigenous heritage, notably the Scandinavian countries, Canada and New Zealand. While greater clarity of the ‘Yes’ vote arguments will emerge later this year, we need to be clear about it, so we can impact those who don’t understand the issues and what is at stake. I commend to you the web sites ‘Home – From The Heart https://fromtheheart.com.au/ and ‘Home – Uluru Statement from the Heart’ https://ulurustatement.org/ as good places to gather further understanding.
I’m happy to have conversation with my fellow church members if that is helpful. Of course, in all such matters, your individual opinion is respected and honoured.
Rev Mark J Dunn
Minister-in-Association Coburg Uniting Church; Deputy Command Chaplain, (LTCOL) Australian Army Cadets; Tramways East Melbourne RSL Chaplain (Hon); VCCEM Merri-bek Coordinator; Merri-bek Interfaith Network Chairperson; Strathmore Men’s Shed Welfare Officer.