Informed allies will play a crucial role in dispelling disinformation about the Voice and supporting this change for a better future, says Professor Tom Calma AO.

There has been a checkered history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ attempts to establish a national Voice and have meaningful engagement with governments and bureaucrats on matters that affect us.

We have been the passive recipients of government policies and programs that have mostly not addressed the wicked problems that confront us.

Over the past 65 years we have had successive national representative bodies. Their roles have also varied as has their impact on policies and programs.

We are now on the cusp of substantial and substantive change, in a political and community environment that is conducive to consider and support such change.

If you have watched or heard the proceedings of the House of Representatives or the Senate debates or follow the media, you will observe that there are many conflicting and confusing messages in play.

So let me unpack some of the mis and disinformation and what is needed to get the referendum over the line.

As one of the lead architects of the Voice proposal, Professor Tom Calma says it’s become shrouded in disinformation. Photo: supplied

Is the Uluru Statement from the Heart the same as the Voice referendum?

The Statement from the Heart references three key reforms; Voice, Treaty, Truth. The Statement calls for “the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.”

The proposed referendum will only be about amending the Australian Constitution to enable the establishment of a Voice to Parliament and the Executive Government.

It is about the Australian Parliament, commonwealth government departments and entities and commonwealth legislation. It will have no influence or involvement with state and territory affairs unless invited by the relevant authorities. The referendum will not address Treaty or truth-telling.   

Treaty and truth-telling dialogues at the national level will commence after the referendum is held.  

Why do we need to have this referendum?

The referendum is a chance for our First Nations peoples to be recognised in the Constitution. Enshrining an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice gives strength and status to the principles of respect and partnership.

We need a Voice so that future governments will make better policies that will make a practical difference for First Nations people.

The Voice will mean that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples will be advising government when, or hopefully before, decisions are made about laws and policies impacting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

It will heal our nation and lead to better policies and practical outcomes, as First Nations people know what government needs to do when it comes to things like education, health, housing, management of country and family violence.

This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change our Constitution and place our nation on a pathway to a better future.

The Voice will advise the government on policies that impact First Nations Australians. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU

It also creates an element of redress post the 1992 High Court decision that overturned the fiction of terra nullius by recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Constitution. Up until 1967 “Aborigines” were referenced in the Constitution but Torres Strait Islanders have never been mentioned.

What happens after the referendum?

If successful, the government will propose legislation to address the Voice composition, functions, powers, and procedures. The Bill will be tabled in the House of Representative where it will be debated and typically referred to a Joint Parliamentary Committee for public consultation.

It is at this stage that we will get to know the details of the Voice and if history is an indicator, the introduced bill will be amended multiple times so what is proposed in the bill is not necessarily what will eventuate after it passes through the Parliament to become legislation.

The Voice will be an advisory body. It will have no ability to hinder parliamentary processes, it will not have any veto power and cannot introduce legislation or change it.

The House of Representatives and the Senate will continue to make laws, regulations, and pass motions regardless of what the Voice may advise.

The legislation will potentially also describe the regional Voice structure and funding arrangements.

Do First Nations people support the Voice?

Just like any group of Australians, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are diverse and don’t all think the same way.

However, the Voice proposal is the result of successive processes of consultation and engagement – involving thousands of individuals and engaging with communities right across the country. First Nations leaders have been calling for this reform for decades.

I am confident there is overwhelming support within First Nations communities, which will only continue to grow.  

Last week, all land councils in the Northern Territory and the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council declared their full support for the Voice. They join the vast majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples nationally who support the Voice.

While this is important, the reality is that the 96 per cent of the non-Indigenous voting population will determine the outcome of the referendum.   

This is why allies play a crucial role in having conversation with families, friends, colleagues and through writing to politicians and newspapers dispelling disinformation and explaining why they should support change for a better future.

This article is an edited extract of the ANU Reconciliation Lecture delivered on 22 June 2023.

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