93 Words, 1 Monumental Change: The Context, History & Impact Of The Voice To Parliament

Sana Nakata is an Associate Professor and Principal Research Fellow at the James Cook University Indigenous Education & Research Centre. In this article, Nakata explains the long road that generations of First Nations Peoples across the continent have taken to deliver us to this point in history, first with the Uluṟu Statement from the Heart, and now, voting in a referendum for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament.
Occasionally, a country finds itself at a fork in the road, faced with a decision that will irrevocably transform what it will become. The upcoming referendum on an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament represents one such moment.
This proposal is some twelve years, and two hundred more, in the making. Here's how we got here.

A Brief History Towards The Voice To Parliament

The short history begins with the formation of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition in 2010. This resulted in an Expert Panel report in 2012, followed by a legislated act of symbolic recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in 2013, and a Joint Select Parliamentary Committee that produced three separate reports in 2014 and 2015 to explore the steps needed to take towards constitutional recognition. All these processes, over successive changes in government, involved bipartisan support for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Despite this symbolic support, none of these processes eventuated into any substantive progress.
During this time, in May 2014, then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott also consolidated Indigenous policy and 150 programs into a central government department, slashing more than $500 million of spending for Indigenous-specific programs over five years. This was done without any consultation or forewarning to the people and communities impacted by the decision.

We face the everyday reality of Canberra making decisions about us, without us.

This moment was a typical (rather than exceptional) example of how Indigenous affairs in this country have been managed for decades. It resulted in a powerful moment of unity in July 2015, in which 39 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders met with both the Prime Minister and Opposition leader to present both sides of government with the Kirribilli Statement — a document that demanded “substantive changes” that would “lay the foundation for the fair treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people into the future”.
After yet another change in Prime Minister, the Referendum Council was established by Malcolm Turnbull in December 2015. Co-chaired by Aunty Pat Anderson (co-chair of the Little Children Are Sacred inquiry) and Professor Megan Davis, the Referendum Council held 12 three-day deliberative dialogues around the country. Each dialogue was composed of roughly 100 delegates, all chosen by their community. Each dialogue, on the final day, selected 10 people to come together at Uluṟu for the National Constitutional Convention on May 27, 2017, where the Uluṟu Statement from the Heart was first delivered.
The dialogues deliberated five different forms of constitutional recognition, from symbolic acknowledgement, removal or amendment of the existing race power (s 51(xxvi)), a non-discrimination clause, a representative body (a Voice to Parliament), and treaty-making. The Voice to Parliament proposal had the highest level of support across all delegates, while treaty-making had the second highest, and the value of truth-telling processes emerged as a strong and distinct demand from communities.
These informed the commitment to Voice, Treaty and Truth.

The Longer History Towards A Voice To Parliament

If this feels like a lot of detail for what I’ve described as a short history, then I have made my point.
The longer history would extend back to at least 1846, when the exiled Aboriginal people of lutruwita (Tasmania) first petitioned Queen Victoria. It would include but not be limited to William Barak’s 1886 plea for the freedom of the Kulin peoples who were moved off their Country to Coranderrk; David Uniapon’s 1912 demand for Ngarrendjeri autonomy; William Cooper’s petitions to demanding representation in the Federal Parliament in 1933 and 1937; the Torres Strait Maritime Strike in 1936 that led to the establishment of the Island Councils, a precursor to today’s Torres Strait Regional Authority. It would include the 1963 Yirrkala Bark Petition, the 1984 Barunga Statement and everything in between. It would include every protest sign held up at a rally or march, demanding justice and action on behalf of our Peoples and Country.
This is all to say that there has been significant time, energy, resources, and expertise over the course of generations poured from First Nations Peoples all across this continent to deliver us to this moment. A fork in the road, where all Australians have been invited to walk with First Nations Peoples into a better future.

What Impact Could A Voice To Parliament Have?

So, what are you being asked to vote on? And why should you have any confidence that it can deliver a better future for this Country?
You are being asked to vote on 93 new words, which will be added to the end of the Australian Constitution. The addition of these 93 new words will achieve three things:
— They will recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples as the First Peoples of this nation.
— It will establish a new representative body to be known as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, which may make representations to the Parliament and Executive. The choice of words here has been carefully deliberated and examined by constitutional experts. In particular, 'may make representations' means that it will be up to the Voice to determine what matters it wishes to advise on. The Parliament cannot compel the Voice to give advice, and nor can it veto the Voice from giving advice. The Voice cannot be silenced.
— Finally, it leaves the Parliament with the power to legislate the details of the Voice including its composition, functions, powers and procedures. This means that the Parliament is still the boss — an important comfort to some and less so to others.
I have written elsewhere about how these 93 words represent a modest and refined remedy to a specific constitutional failure, and that in doing so, the Voice represents a democratic imperative for the whole of our nation.

We have little mechanism to hold the government accountable to us for the decisions it makes that affect us.

In 1967, the Constitution was altered to allow the Commonwealth to make laws about my family and my community. This power to make laws about us had previously sat with the states, which governed us through a range of mechanisms including what are known as the Protection Acts, a brutal time in this country’s history, the effects of which we are still recovering from generations later. What the 1967 referendum did not achieve was any expectation that the laws the Commonwealth makes about us be in our interests or to our benefit. And so, we face the everyday reality of Canberra making decisions about us, without us.
Some have argued that because we have a right to vote, we are equal. I number one of less than 60,000 Torres Strait Islanders, not all of whom are old enough to vote. We have little mechanism to hold the government accountable to us for the decisions it makes that affect us.
You are being asked to consider 93 new words that would remedy this failure.
93 words, placed at the end of our Constitution because we have been this country’s last consideration.
93 new words that can set us on the path to a new future, which we can finally walk together.
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