There are many compelling reasons to vote yes for the Voice to Parliament in this year’s referendum. But at its heart the proposed change to our Constitution is about justice and having a say.

Later this year Australians will vote in a historic referendum on whether we should entrench an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament in our Constitution.

This is one of the most important votes in our nation’s recent history.

As part of its distinct national mission and remit, ANU is committed to helping all Australians understand and engage with the complex issues shaping our nation today. ANU is also dedicated to promoting debate and discussions around a reconciled, just, equitable and respectful Australia. This includes a proposed Voice to Parliament.

So with that in mind, we are hosting a special dialogue on the Voice at ANU this Wednesday 2 August. Our event in Llewellyn Hall in Canberra will also see people from all across the country beam in via video link – including students from 25 other Australian universities.

The panel, which includes people from all sides of politics, will respond to common and tough questions from the wider community. We hope this helps all Australians engage with this issue in a safe, respectful and informed way.

I have the advantage of working in one of the world’s leading universities where I am able to ask questions and hear the thoughts of thousands of leading scholars over the course of each year. I have spoken to many policy, legal and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experts from across the university and the country to get a better understanding of the proposed Voice and its potential benefits and challenges.

For me, the case is now clear; there are many reasons to vote yes, and no compelling reason to vote no in the upcoming referendum. And I will be voting yes.

As an immigrant to this country, I have realised from when I first arrived nearly 29 years ago, that Australia has unfinished business to reconcile the past 235 years with the previous 65,000. Adding a Voice to the Constitution for me is an important step for the Australian nation to recognise that our country systematically overran and imposed itself on the oldest continuous culture on Earth. In this sense, the Voice referendum is about recognition. It is also about justice. 

Australians must engage with the Voice in a respectful way, Professor Brian Schmidt says. Photo: Michael Rawle/Flickr  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

But it is also pragmatic. It is about making sure services and support intended for a key part of our national community deliver and improve. It is about ensuring better life outcomes across a whole range of measures. For too long Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have been marginalised from the important decisions made in our parliament and by our political leaders that directly impact their lives. Despite the best intentions, policy after policy, enacted in their name, has not delivered the benefits Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are entitled to or deserve.

As ANU Chancellor and former member of parliament, the Hon Julie Bishop, stated at the National Press Club just last week: “I sat through too many of those Closing the Gap speeches in Parliament to sense that what we were doing was working to close the disparity and inequality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations.

“In some instances, the key measures were getting worse, not better. So it’s not a question of money. It’s not a question of politicians coming up with policies. It’s a question of giving Indigenous people the franchise to make decisions to implement policies that will work.”

I think most Australians believe the current state of affairs isn’t working. So, why the Voice?

In essence, the proposed Voice to Parliament would act as a body of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that can make representations to parliament and government on matters affecting Indigenous Australians. It’s important to note that it won’t make laws – the parliament will still make laws related to the Voice. The Voice simply provides Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders with the opportunity to speak to the parliament and government when they are debating laws and policy that will affect them.

Many are concerned that we should legislate a Voice rather than put it into the Constitution. In addition to not dealing with the issue of recognition, the challenge I see with this idea is that politics is a messy business – in all communities. Unlike constitutional change, legislative instruments come and go like the wind. Why would anyone have confidence in such a Voice, when history shows that parliaments will turn it off whenever it is expedient or convenient in the future?

But with a Voice, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders will be given agency to help shape their future, and with this agency, will come their own accountability. It is this combination of empowerment that is shown the world over as being critical for marginalised groups to prosper. This is not to say the Voice will be an immediate panacea. But over time and generations, it will provide a path to improved prosperity for Indigenous Australia.

I also understand that many people still have concerns or questions about the Voice. This is a significant change, and as with all change, there is uncertainty. That’s why I am encouraging – and want – all Australians to arm themselves with the information they need to make an informed choice when they vote later this year.

In particular, we want young Australians to be informed before heading to the polls. Our young people are the future of our country and our democracy. As ANU experts have noted, it is our young people who may sway the final outcome of this vital referendum. We know young Australians are more engaged in issues-based politics and they played a major role in deciding the 2022 federal election – especially when it came to issues like climate change. They also represent a growing number of voters, with data also showing they are more likely to support changes to the Constitution.

To all young Australians I say, seize your moment and make sure you have your say. And to young and old, if ANU can help you better understand and engage with this critical time in our nation’s history and future, even better. 

This piece was co-published with The Canberra Times.

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