The Voice to Parliament – a defining moment in Australia’s history

Australia's Prime Minister has set the date for The Voice to Parliament referendum, with the country set to make its decision on October 14th.

Government, Anthony Albanese, Government Relations, Indigenous Affairs, Parliament

Ray Jordan 1 Sep 2023
4 mins
The voice referendum date announced by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese

It’s been six years since consensus was reached by the gathering of First Nations elders at Uluru, asking Australians to change our Constitution, and finally we know the date we will vote on this ‘plea from the heart’.

Described as a simple plea for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to be heard, the ask is for a First Nations Voice to be enshrined in the Australian Constitution. However simple the question, this referendum – the first in more than two decades – is perhaps the most divisive of the 44 referenda that have gone before it.

The debate rages on, in Parliament and throughout our community, in coffee shops, at dinner parties, and anywhere that people gather – evoking deep emotion on both sides, setting friends at loggerheads, and creating chasms in families, particularly between generations.

One way or the other, come October 14, it will be decided. And whatever the outcome it will be one of the most defining moments in our history, with potential ramifications that will be felt for decades.

It’s inevitable that as we get closer to the date, the level of noise and the heat of debate will grow along with the volume of both YES and NO arguments. Today, six weeks out from the polling booths, the outcome is anything but clear.

At its most basic, the Voice to Parliament will give First Nations people a permanent right to offer input on the laws that affect them. At its most profound, it will be a major step forward towards repairing the wounds and reversing the repercussions of nearly 250 years of European colonisation.

And whether you’re for or against it, there is no doubt that not only have the many laws, policies and agencies established to date failed at materially improving the lives and conditions for Indigenous Australians, but the gap continues to widen.

Ensuring that Indigenous Australians have a say on matters that impact their lives is a logical step towards closing the gap – and while not a new idea, it underpins the ‘plea from the heart’ solidified in the Uluru Statement.

Just like their non-Indigenous counterparts, First Nations people want their children to have a better future, and better outcomes than a lower quality of life across a shortened lifespan.

There is strong anecdotal evidence that most Australians recognise the need for a better way. That the system is not working, and can’t continue. That Indigenous Australians also deserve a ‘fair go’.

At the core of the upcoming Referendum are two clear concepts: respect and recognition.

The Yes vote believes that it is not acceptable for Australia to remain the only colonised country that has failed to recognise its First Nations people in the basic document that defines its legislation and laws.

They believe that requiring governments to consult with a representative body on matters that directly affect the lives of First Nations people will lead to better, more consistent and more effective policies.

The strong belief of the Yes camp is that the Voice, through the formation of an advisory body, will lead to more tangible and achievable outcomes in line with the plea for recognition.

The No vote campaign appears to be largely based on fear of the unknown, and driven by confusion about what powers the Voice would enshrine in the Constitution.

Some believe that enshrining the Voice in the Constitution will open the floodgates for a wave of legal challenges in the High Court, while others want to see the detailed legislation under which it falls before they will support it.

Many don’t believe the Voice goes far enough because as an advisory power, it lacks the power of veto over the Parliament.

Others still see the Constitution itself as an invalid colonial document.

Little wonder then that the latest polls show that more than one third of all Australians are undecided.

What is clear is that the Voice is just the first step, with the nitty gritty and the nuts and bolts of how it will be set up and how it will work still to be established by legislation in the Parliament – for example, the number of people on the Advisory Board and how they are elected or appointed are yet to be decided.

These are reasonable questions.

It appears however that the Government is reluctant to provide too much detail in the belief that the detail itself might cloud the issue and shift the conversation from whether establishing a Voice to Parliament is the right thing to do, to one about what it will actually look like, how it will work and where it will reach.

Such detail was a major factor in the defeat of a previous referendum on whether Australia should become a republic – the focus became not the question of whether we should separate from the monarchy, but instead what a republic would look like.

So, the Government is simplifying the vote to a simple Yes or No, a decision we all must make in the weeks ahead.

Like many Australian businesses with a profile much higher than ours, including Qantas, the Commonwealth Bank and Telstra, and sporting groups such as the AFL and the NRL, Purple has taken a position in support of the Voice to Parliament.

That said, we respect and uphold the right of all citizens to vote as they see fit.

Given the potential for such lasting consequences, we can only hope that our fellow Australians will take the time to understand what is being asked and consider all the facts before casting their vote wisely, and from the heart.

Ray Jordan More from author

Ray is one of Western Australia’s most highly-regarded corporate communicators and strategists, recognised for his pragmatic and creative approach to major projects across different sectors.

Before moving to corporate communications, he held executive positions in the media – including the role of Deputy Editor of The West Australian – and has a proven ability to craft messages that resonate with both journalists and readers.

Ray’s knowledge of the media and respected corporate counsel at executive and board levels have been demonstrated through his direct involvement in the sale and subsequent partial public float of BankWest, including the communications program for a Scheme of Arrangement for majority shareholder HBOS to acquire the minority shareholding in BankWest.

After a lengthy career in corporate communications and the media, Ray continues to seek challenges and avenues to vent his creativity. He has written about wine for nearly 40 years, including 22 books – the latest of which is The Way It Was, which chronicles the history of Margaret River.

If he’s not writing or tasting wine, he might be found strumming his guitar to Tom Petty or writing travel features, after his regular morning boxing sessions.

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