With just over 30 days until Australia votes on a referendum for a constitutionally enshrined Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament, more than 150 people signed up to a webinar hosted by the Public Health Advocacy Institute this week, titled ‘Why a ‘yes’ vote will bring about a positive change for Australians’.
(Update on 15 September: you can watch a recording of the discussion here).
Melissa Stoneham, Christina Pollard and Gabrielle Jameson write:
Local Whadjuk Balardong Elder Freda Ogilvie provided a rich Welcome to Country, saying the Voice offers a new road, that all Australian could travel together.
The panel of eminent Australians included Associate Professor Hannah McGlade, Professor Cheryl Kickett-Tucker AM, the Honourable Fred Chaney AO and Rae-Lee Warner. All speakers debunked some of the myths around the Voice and explained the reasons for this important constitutional change.
Each speaker presented about the profound positive benefit the Voice would have for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and discussed their personal experience, as well as how a change in the constitution would provide a mechanism for Indigenous Australians to be heard on issues that involve them.
They all described how the Aboriginal and Torres Islander Voice will establish a sustainable mechanism to enable First Nations people to be consulted on laws and policies that impact their lives, regardless of the political environment or party in power. They all spoke of the Voice being able to ensure equity and a balance.
Rae-Lee Warner, the Deputy Director of Curtin University’s Centre for Aboriginal Studies, an academic researcher in Indigenous studies and justice, chaired the session. She believes the Voice offers an opportunity for Aboriginal people, and all Australians, to improve their lives.
Associate Professor Hannah McGlade spoke first. She is a Noongar woman from Western Australia and her career has focused on justice for Aboriginal people, race discrimination law and practice, Aboriginal women and children, family violence and sexual assault. McGlade has held a range of professional positions that required her legal training and specific expertise in Aboriginal women and children’s issues. Her advocacy and human rights work includes the international sphere at the United Nations. McGlade was appointed a Senior Indigenous Fellow at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2016 and has been a member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues since 2020. She is a member of the Voice to Parliament engagement group.
McGlade stated that the Voice to Parliament proposal would recognise the right of Indigenous people to be heard on laws affecting our people. She went on to say that Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves, in accordance with their own procedures, as well as to maintain and develop their own decision-making institution.
She spoke of how historically, Indigenous advisory groups to government had come and gone and this situation was not providing the stability needed to overcome inequities and close the gap for Indigenous Australians. Having a Voice to government, recognised in the Constitution, is fundamental to Indigenous Australians and is needed to ensure we are heard, she said.
A pivotal moment
Professor Cheryl Kickett-Tucker AM is a highly respected Wadjuk Noongar Traditional Owner, social scientist, community development practitioner, youth basketball coach, public speaker and author.
Chief editor of award-winning textbook ‘Mia Mia Aboriginal Community Development: Fostering Cultural Security’, Kickett-Tucker has worked with Aboriginal people all her life in the fields of education, sport and health and is very passionate about using her knowledge and experience to make a real difference to the lives of Aboriginal children and their families. She is currently an Australian Research Council Fellow at Curtin University and is the Founding Director of Koya Aboriginal Corporation. In 2020, Cheryl was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia, or significant service to tertiary education, and to the Indigenous community.
Kickett-Tucker spoke passionately of the Voice being a pivotal moment in Australia’s history, stating people truly needed to make an effort and find out what the Voice truly means for their country. She said the Voice was all about community and ensuring the community has a voice and that voice is enacted.
Kickett-Tucker provided numerous examples of where a mechanism such as the Voice could make a difference. She stressed that evidence exists, and that it is challenging to be continually asked to prove the worth of what she does. Kickett-Tucker also spoke how young Indigenous children are pigeonholed and stigmatised from early in their lives, which sometimes results in a self-fulfilling prophecy.
She spoke of the deficit model and how Indigenous people need to understand their strengths, be strong and can have a voice. Summing up, she encouraged everyone to talk, ask questions and understand what the Voice aims to do, which is to build a better and more equitable Australia.
Distracting, politicised debate
The final speaker, the Hon Fred Chaney AO, has been involved in advocating for Aboriginal issues for the last 60 years. He was a senior Advisory Group Member on the Indigenous Voice Co-Design process led by Professor Marica Langton and Professor Tom Calma along with Professor Cheryl Kickett-Tucker. Chaney’s long history of public service is rooted in his fierce commitment to social justice and a belief in the inherent equality of people.
In all his leadership roles, Chaney inspires others to work collaboratively, and respectfully to overcome the barriers that inhibit people’s full economic and social participation in Australian society. In recognition of his outstanding contribution to Australia, Chaney was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1997 “for service to the Parliament of Australia and to the Aboriginal community through his contribution to the establishment of the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia and mediating with the National Native Title Tribunal”.
Chaney described how the public debate is political and distracting people from the opportunity to allow a change that will impact Australian people positively. He stated that it is a simple proposition before us – whether there should be a signal in the constitution for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to parliament and government. The idea behind that is not complex.
He talked about how when government leaders (of all political denominations) get together to address a problem, they tended to impose solutions on people. He reinforced the need for a formal way to access advice from Indigenous people on issues that affect Indigenous people. He cited the Closing the Gap agreement as an example. It was signed by all Australian Government leaders and they all agreed that a process where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were fully engaged in the conversation was essential.
The Agreement explicitly states it stems from the belief that when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a genuine say in the design and delivery of services that affect them, better life outcomes are achieved. It recognises that structural change in the way governments work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is needed to close the gap. It goes on to say all Australian governments will now share decision-making on Closing the Gap with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, represented by their community-controlled peak organisations. Endorsement of these fundamental principles represents an unprecedented shift in the way governments will work in partnership with Indigenous communities by encompassing shared decision-making on design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programs to improve the life outcomes of First Nations people.
Chaney went on to say that under the heading “A new approach”, the statement outlines a commitment from all parties to set out a future where policymaking that affects the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is done in full and genuine partnership with them and acknowledges their strong cultures are fundamental to improving their life outcomes.
In closing, Chaney said that the Voice is needed as a permanent reminder to governments they have a democratically endorsed obligation to keep trying to do things differently, to listen before they act.
Event partners included: Curtin University’s Act Belong Commit campaign, Creating Safer Communities Project, the Public Health Association of Australia, and the Australian Health Promotion Association. The authors of the article were involved with organising the event.
Croakey journalist Marie McInerney also tweeted from the webinar