We all need to get on board the campaign for First Nations Voice to Parliament

Jan 17, 2021

The Uluru Statement’s heart-rending plea, “In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard” highlights its umbilical connection to the 1967 Referendum. However, this doesn’t guarantee similar success for the call for a First Nations Voice to Parliament. 

The phenomenal result of 90.22% of the Australian population voting ‘Yes’ in 1967 for Indigenous people to be recognised in the Constitution didn’t just happen overnight. It was achieved thanks to a relentless and united 10-year campaign by Indigenous and non-Indigenous champions.

Indigenous campaigners included:

  • Pearl Gibbs and Faith Bandler, who formed the Aboriginal Australian Fellowship. Its 1957 ‘petition campaign’ calling for constitutional amendments collected 100,000 signatures;
  • Kath Walker (Oodgeroo Noonuccal), the campaign manager of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines, which highlighted the appalling treatment of Indigenous Australians; and
  • Charlie Perkins, who formed the Student Action for Aborigines, which captured Australian and global attention through its Freedom Rides and the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA), which ensured that every federal parliamentary day for seven weeks began with the tabling of petitions relating to Indigenous issues.

Non-Indigenous leaders included Jessie Street, who drafted the 1957 petition referred to earlier, garnering support from many AAF affiliates, including 18 unions and the Union of Australian Women.

The stars of political, media and public opinion also miraculously aligned. Then prime minister Harold Holt introduced the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginals) Bill 1967, which Country Party and Labor eaders, McEwen and Whitlam, fully supported and no parliamentarian opposed.

As a result the federal government only prepared a ‘Yes’ case for the 1967 Referendum.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics Yearbook 2004 also noted that:

“Most of the media was firmly in favour of the YES campaign, giving much space to supporters, reporting injustices suffered by particular Aboriginal people, and running enthusiastic editorials.”

Television played a major role, with the ABC, the then dominant station, airing numerous supportive current affairs programs and providing politicians a constant platform.
This time, the stars are nowhere near as auspicious.

Although opinion polls suggest a marginally sympathetic climate, political and media opinions are far from unanimously in favour.

This time there is sure to be a ‘No’ campaign as well as negative media commentary from the likes of Sky News and other Murdoch mastheads.

While Labor and the Greens are strongly supportive, the Coalition has been lukewarm at best. Then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s falsely branded a constitutionally enshrined First Nations Voice to Parliament a third chamber, a view since echoed by Scott Morrison.

Nearly four years on from the Statement, the Government has yet to institute a Makaratta Dialogue to acknowledge the whole ‘Truth’ of our history and negotiate a ‘Treaty’.

The Government hasn’t even reached out to the Uluru Dialogue Leadership Group, which represents the framers of the Uluru Statement and who have been working assiduously to keep alight the Uluru flame.

Instead, in a classic ’divide and conquer’ manoeuvre, Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt has openly rebuffed the Leadership Group by unilaterally appointing his own ‘National Indigenous Voice co-design group’ to make recommendations for a ‘Voice to Government’, without any mention of Parliament or Constitutional enshrinement.

He has even excluded from the ‘Senior Advisory Group of Indigenous leaders’ appointed to advise the co-design group the Uluru Leadership Group co-chairs Aunty Pat Anderson and Roy Ah-See and Professor Megan Davis, the leader chosen to announce the Uluru Statement in 2017.

Even if the Coalition calls a referendum on the ‘Voice’, the task of obtaining majority approval in four states will be Herculean. There is sure to be a formal ‘No’ case, supported by a no-holds-barred political and media campaign. Victory will require an even stronger campaign than that in 1957 to 1967 and could take longer.

Given the Coalition’s obduracy, Labor has the opportunity, and responsibility, to lead this fight and finally redeem our nation from the Original Sin that has stained its soul since 1788.

Anthony Albanese should demonstrate the courage of his stated convictions by formally launching a pro-Uluru campaign immediately. He can start with a formal dialogue with the Uluru Dialogue Leadership Group to help him develop the position that Labor takes to the next election.

Such a position would commit a Labor Government to immediately start a Makaratta dialogue with the Leadership Group that would:

  • Initiate a Truth Telling process within three months.
  • Enshrine a Constitutional ‘Voice to Parliament’ within a year; and
  • Negotiate a Treaty, with it to be signed within Labor’s first term.

Labor should also nurture consensus by involving in the Makarrata process MPs from all political parties who support Uluru and Independents. They could then raise daily Uluru-related issues in all Parliaments, emulating the everyday petitions of 1967.

Of course, Uluru is not just the responsibility of governments, the Uluru Dialogue Leadership Group and Indigenous Australians. We non-Indigenous Australians are too. Constituting 99.7% of the electorate, only we can deliver a majority of ‘Yes’ vote in a majority of States.

To fulfil that responsibility, we must educate ourselves via such excellent sites as www.ulurustatement.org, which includes a ‘Call to Action’, and https://fromtheheart.com.au, where you can also sign the Uluru canvas. We should persuade companies and organisations we are part of to develop a Reconciliation Action Plan, actively promote Reconciliation through social media and engage regularly with local Indigenous communities.

Winning this most significant national cause in our history requires a massive grassroots movement and high-profile events that capture national and global attention, similar to Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March, Martin Luther King’s March on Washington and the ANC’s ‘Free Mandela’ campaign.

The greatest risk is complacency. No one should underestimate the task ahead, regardless of how favourable the opinion polls are. Here, too, we should learn from 1967, when, on the day before the 1967 Referendum won 90.22% support, Faith Bandler warned, “I don’t think we should take it for granted that there will be a ‘Yes’ vote”.

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