How the Voice found its way into our lives

The Voice referendum has changed the country. After Saturday, whatever the outcome, things will be different, with consequences for all political parties.

A Yes win puts the heat on the government to devise a functional outcome and legislate it into existence. Blame for a No outcome will fall on both PM Anthony Albanese for instigating the referendum and Opposition leader Peter Dutton for spurning the wishes of the 2017 Uluru convention. No-one will come out of it unaffected.

How did we get to this fractious, anxious moment in our history?

Reconciliation with First Nations people has been raised and then ignored, repeatedly, at least since the Bringing them Home report in 1997. Prime minister John Howard did nothing. Kevin Rudd apologised (tick) but neither he nor Julia Gillard secured any sort of resolution. Nor did their successor Tony Abbott who, as you read this, is out on the hustings arguing for an “integrated Australia”.

All the while Indigenous people worked with politicians and lawyers to thrash out something of lasting value, to them and all Australians. Years of painstaking regional dialogues culminated in 250 delegates descending on Uluru for the “First Nations National Constitutional Convention” in May 2017.

That convention agreed on a two-step reconciliation process, embedded in the “Statement from the Heart”. The first was “a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution”, which delegates knew would require a referendum. The second was for a Makarrata Commission (the name is from Arnhem Land) to supervise a process of agreement-making and truth-telling between governments and Indigenous peoples.

The Uluru Statement sought “a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children”, ending with an invitation to all Australians “to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.”

None of that was good enough for Malcolm Turnbull’s Coalition, which rejected the Uluru Voice proposal, saying it would be a new national representative body open to some Australians only. (The same could be said of the Liberals’ own federal council.) A 2018 parliamentary committee tried to refocus on earlier ideas, but found that Uluru had rendered them obsolete.

In 2021 recommendations for national and sub-national voices, put to the Morrison Cabinet by Indigenous minister Ken Wyatt, went nowhere. Meanwhile Albanese promised from Opposition to bring the Voice and Makarrata proposals to fruition, a pledge he repeated in his 2022 victory speech. 

In January Dutton wrote to the PM to say he was “committed to being constructive on the issue of conciliation”, while accusing Albanese of “playing clever and tricky political games”. He added a long list of questions on details that can only be resolved in the post-referendum legislative process. That will involve the whole parliament including the Coalition.

Albanese responded by asking Dutton to put practical suggestions on the wording of the referendum question, emphasising the “extraordinary opportunity” presented by the Voice proposal. About the same time a delegation of Indigenous leaders met with the Opposition leader to discuss the Voice’s value to Australia.

To no avail. Peter Dutton’s shadow No campaign went public in April when the Liberals followed the Nationals in formally opposing the Voice. Whereupon Julian Leeser, the Coalition’s Indigenous affairs shadow minister and a supporter of the Voice, resigned. He was replaced by Jacinta Nampininpa Price.

Price’s mother, Bess Nungarriyi Price, was born into a Northern Territory Aboriginal community, in desert country northwest of Alice Springs. A survivor of domestic violence in her remote community, Bess Price became a conservative politician and a strong supporter of John Howard’s contentious intervention in 2007.

The Voice campaign has odd bedfellows. Some Indigenous activists like Lidia Thorpe and Michael Mansell say No alongside conservatives including Price, while both of Price’s Coalition predecessors in the Indigenous portfolio, Leeser and Wyatt (who is himself Indigenous), are campaigning for Yes with the Greens and Labor. 

Last week Voice supporter Frank Brennan attacked Albanese for “playing roulette with the nation’s soul” by bringing on the referendum: “I don’t know a single Aboriginal person who says they’d want to go through this again.” 

The debate is causing distress to vulnerable people, but Albanese has a point when he asks, if not now, when? Sooner or later, this experience had to happen, and whatever turns up on Saturday, life will go on. If the answer is no, that won’t be the last word.

But denial is an aimless, empty place. Saying Yes holds promise, which is why, whatever happens on Saturday, with my other half’s agreement I will leave in place the sign above the front fence.

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