“In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard”
In 1770, Captain Cook considered Australia Terra Nullius (‘nobody’s land’) after reaching Botany Bay in Sydney on 26th of April, and he proclaimed it a possession of the British Crown who then became a penal colony. On 18 January 1788, the First Fleet arrived in Sydney Cove with the first convicts. Since then, Australia has been living with the lie of an empty land, despite the 65,000 continuing years of presence of Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders. In 1962, the right to vote was given to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but voting was not compulsory. However, full voting rights were not granted federally until 1984, when First Nations peoples had to register on the electoral roll. In 1963, the Yirrkala Bark Petitions were presented to the parliament. This was one of the first times that Aboriginal people presented a document for the recognition of their land.
Australia has a history of 45 referenda that were put to the vote, since the creation of the Federation of Australia in 1901 when the self-governing colonies became states of the Commonwealth of Australia. But among these 45, only 8 were successful among which the 1967 referendum. In this referendum, two amendments were made to the Constitution: the first amendment removed section 127 from the Constitution which did not allow for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander to be counted towards the population of Australia; the second amendment removed the exclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, therefore allowing for a step towards genuine reconciliation.
In 1972, the Larrakia petition was presented to the Queen and it read as follows:
“Gwalwa Daraniki! This is our Land!
The British settlers took our land. No treaties were signed with the tribes. Today we are REFUGEES. Refugees in the Country of our ancestors. We live in REFUGEE CAMPS – without land, without employment, without justice.
The British crown signed TREATIES with the Maoris in New Zealand and the Indians in North America.
We appeal to the Queen to help us, the Aboriginal people of Australia.
We need land rights and political representation now.”
Written by the Larrakia people of the Darwin region in the Northern Territory of Australia, this petition sought help from the Crown for a recognition of their sovereignty. But as their territory was declared Terra Nullius it made it impossible for the First Nations of Australia to sign a treaty.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart was written in the same spirit, seeking “constitutional reforms to empower First Nations [our] people and take a rightful place in their [our] own country”.1
The Uluru Statement from the Heart
In 2017, over 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders met at Uluru in Central Australia to sign the constitutional convention titled the Uluru Statement from the Heart. This convention shows the consensus that was reached after 13 regional dialogues by First Nations peoples, on what constitutional recognition should look like. At the core of this statement is a simple demand: acknowledge the sovereignty of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples by enshrining a First Nations Voice in the Constitution by means of a Makarrata Commission.2
Left: Logo supporting The Uluru Statement from the Heart. Right: Uluru Statement from the Heart signed by more than 250 people in its original form, inscribed in an aboriginal painting.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart has emerged from the lasting effects of colonialism in Australia which have, through centuries, revealed enormous inequalities between Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous people. To only mention a few facts, life expectancy of Indigenous Australians is between 8 and 9 years lower than the national average. While Indigenous Australians only represent 3% of the Australian population, 30% of incarcerated people in Australia are Indigenous. While the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People was endorsed by Australia in 2009, it is yet to be implemented, and access for Indigenous Australians’ access to social benefits, health, employment and education is very low, when available at all. In the words of Professor Marcia Langton, this structural change, through the Voice, is essential so that Indigenous people can “thrive, not survive”.3
What is the Voice to parliament referendum?
“The referendum links two propositions: recognition of Indigenous Australians through entrenching in the constitution, or enshrining in the constitution; a mechanism, a voice, to make representations on matters relating on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People to the parliament and to the executive government.
Its composition, functions, powers and procedures will be legislated by the parliament. This proposition is the nearest measure imaginable that would give Indigenous Australians a formal say in policies and legislation that affect us”.4
The Voice referendum is the first step in “a process of agreement-making and truth-telling” which comprises three steps: Voice, Treaty, Truth. In this referendum, people are only asked to vote on this first step: The Voice.
Enshrined in the constitution, The Voice would consist of a permanent advisory body of Indigenous members elected by Indigenous people that would give advice to the government on Indigenous matters. This advisory body would only ever be present for consultation, and would not have any decision-making power. But you might wonder, why is a referendum needed for the creation of a governmental Indigenous advisory body?
Throughout the years, Indigenous advisory groups to the government were established, but also dismantled when there was a change of government after federal elections. Therefore, enshrining The Voice in the constitution, would allow for this advisory body to exist despite the changes in political parties in power. Asserting a place for Indigenous people at government level would be a step towards reconciliation, but also a way to start “closing the gap” of differences between Australia’s First Nations and non-Indigenous people.
When it came to the referendum, the question asked to Australian nationals was:
“A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?”
To this question, people could only answer YES or NO, which led to two campaigns with opposite messages and tactics.
Left: Crowds march during a 'March for Yes' rally in Melbourne on 17 September 2023. William West/AFP/Getty Images. Right: Yes campaign logo for The Voice referendum.
After the announcement of the referendum organised by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese's Labour government following its election in 2022, slogans and demonstrations have multiplied in Australia. For "Yes" supporters, the aim is to bring Australians together to achieve greater justice for Indigenous Australian people, and recognise their rights by giving them a voice on the issues that affect them. According to Aboriginal author Thomas Mayo :
“You’ve got different groups working towards the same goal. The underpinning thing for all of them is the Uluru Statement from the Heart and a rare national consensus from our people”5.
Indigenous lawyer and land rights activist Noel Pearson insists on the “importance of constitutional recognition for First Nations Australians” and argues that the Voice is about “integration not separatism”.6
While in August 2022 the polls were leaning towards a 'Yes' victory, voices gradually raised in opposition to this proposal.
Left: The annual Invasion Day protest march through the streets of Sydney on 26 January 2023. Robert Wallace/AFP. Right: Logo of the "No" campaign for The Voice referendum.
Among the spokespeople for the opponents to this opposition, some of whom Indigenous leaders, is Nyunggai Warren Mundine, former chairman of the Labour Party, who was actively involved in the campaign. In January 2023, he founded the "Recognise a Better Way" group, believing that:
“[...]poverty, disadvantage and despair is not caused by lack of a voice. It’s caused by lack of economic participation.”7
In addition to considering purely economic causes for the problems faced by the Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders, Mr Mundine, like Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, warned against the consequences of dividing the population, and even of potential racial division, leading to different levels of citizenship. Playing on this fear of division and on the complex and unclear aspect of what the "Voice" would represent for part of the population, the "No" supporters invited Australians to make a simple and unambiguous statement: "If you don't know, Vote no".
For other opposition groups, the problem lay in how little progress the referendum would represent in recognising the rights of Aboriginal peoples. The Black Sovereign Movement, led by Indigenous Senator Lidia Thorpe, refused to be satisfied with a simple referendum, fearing that the government would stop at this first stage of the three-stage process of "Voice, Treaty, Truth". Rather than a single advisory council, the movement is demanding a legally binding treaty between the First Nations people and the Australian government. The aim is to recognise the sovereignty of the First Nations people over the continent, in particular by re-establishing the truth about the country's history and the injustices they suffered. Another important argument is the constitution itself, an institution established through the colonisation of Australia:
“We do not recognise the legality of the colonial constitution and we do not want to be part of it”.8
While the "No" vote was gradually gaining ground in the polls, the results on 14 October 2023 confirmed a sharp decline: 60.4% of participants voted "No", and the government was forced to abandon its plan to change the Constitution.
Beyond the arguments put forward by the opposition, how can this popular rejection be explained?
For Chris Wallace, Professor of political history, a number of factors came into play. On the one hand, Aboriginal political figures joined the opposition. But the defeat of the 'Yes' vote also lay in the management of the campaign. In her opinion, the 'No' supporters made a lot of use of misinformation during the campaign, in particular by playing on grey areas and misrepresentations of what the 'Voice' would be. Mr Mundine, for example, emphasised that the Uluru Statement from the Heart was the opposite of reconciliation, and that it was in fact a "symbolic declaration of war against modern Australia"9 , taking up the argument mentioned above of a divided population. Part of the electorate who voted "No" felt that this guaranteed the preservation of equality between all Australians.10 According to C. Wallace, the timing was also bad, as Australians were currently going through a cost-of-living crisis and were perhaps less open to the problems experienced by minorities.
Overall, the aim of the referendum was misunderstood by a section of the population. In particular, many feared that the 'Voice' would have a very strong influence on Parliament and that it could carry a great deal of weight in decisions, affecting all members of the population. However, as Shelley Reys points out, as an advisory body, the Voice could only have given advice to Parliament, not made decisions. What is more, the aim was to consult this body only on issues concerning the problems experienced by First Nation people and not the entire Australian population. Finally, as the Voice had no power of veto, it would not have been able to stop government decisions.11
What were the consequences? What next?
The results of the referendum dealt a blow to all defenders of the rights of Indigenous peoples. Many Indigenous leaders decided to mourn the referendum loss and stayed silent for a week. As well as being denied a voice after years of fighting for recognition of their rights, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people saw an increase in racist attacks and comments directed at them during the campaign on both social and mainstream media.12 These attacks focused in particular on the Aboriginal community's right to self-determination. Beyond the frustration and sadness felt, Lorena Allam, the Guardian’s Indigenous affairs editor, emphasises the difficulty for the people concerned of having been in the spotlight, without being properly represented and with the feeling of rejection, of not being welcome in their own country.13
On 22 October, the Uluru Statement from the Heart Instagram page made a statement that ended with these words:
“We are three per cent of the population, and you are 97 per cent.”14
Once again, the responsibility for achieving equality falls on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, despite the fact that they represent a minority in the territory. A phrase coined by Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price caused quite a stir during the campaign. She said that colonisation had beneficial consequences for the Indigenous populations.
For many "Yes" supporters, the next steps in the fight for equality lie partly in reading this colonial history and educating people about their country's past. For Larissa Baldwin-Roberts (Widjabul Wia-bal), from the GetUp organisation, Australia needs a national truth-telling commission on the country's history. In her view, repeating statistics does nothing to humanise a population.
“And while telling the truth is one thing, hearing the truth and taking it in is something else entirely. Nor will truth-telling necessarily lead to different political outcomes. At the very least, a broader understanding and acceptance of Australia’s history might help to create a more informed political culture, and more informed votes in future referendums.”15
Clémentine Debrosse and Margaux Chataigner
Cover image: Supporters of an Aboriginal Voice in Parliament took part in 'Walk for Yes' demonstrations across the country. © AAP / Matt Turner
1 Uluru Statement from the Heart, 2017.
2 The purpose of a Makarrata commission is to oversee a process for reaching an agreement and establishing the truth. Makarrata means "coming together after a struggle" in the Yolgnu language.
5 ALLAM, L., BUTLER, J., février 2023. “Voice referendum: who’s behind the yes and no campaigns and how do they plan to convince Australia?” in The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2023/feb/20/voice-referendum-whos-behind-the-yes-and-no-campaigns-and-how-do-they-plan-to-convince-australia, last accessed on 1/11/2023.
7 MUNDINE, W., mai 2023. “The Voice will divide Aboriginal people and our great democratic nation”, in National Indigenous Television, https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/the-voice-will-divide-aboriginal-people-and-divide-our-great-democratic-nation/ewnkw01xm, last accessed on 1/11/2023
8 Black Sovereign Movement Website https://blaksovereignmovement.files.wordpress.com/2023/07/blak-sovereign-movement-detailed-position-on-the-referendum-1.pdf, last accessed on 1/11/2023
9 CROSS, J., septembre 2023. “Warren Mundine calls Uluru Statement « declaration of war » in anti-Voice Press Club”, in National Indigenous Times, https://nit.com.au/26-09-2023/7832/warren-mundine-calls-uluru-statement-declaration-of-war-in-anti-voice-press-club-address, last accessed on 1/11/2023
10 JOHNSON, C., octobre 2023. “The Voice campaign showed Labor’s strategy for countering right-wing populism is in disarray”, in The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/the-voice-campaign-showed-labors-strategy-for-countering-right-wing-populism-is-in-disarray-215709, last accessed on 1/11/2023
11 REYS, S., 2023. “Voice to parliament | Debunking common myths and misconceptions”, in Arrillia Indigenous Consulting, chaîne Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nla61MfEtiY&t=6s, last accessed on 1/11/2023
12 AFP, octobre 2023, “En Australie, le référendum sur les droits des Aborigènes déchaîne le racisme”, in Le Telegramme, https://www.letelegramme.fr/monde/en-australie-le-referendum-sur-les-droits-des-aborigenes-dechaine-le-racisme-6441492.php, last accessed on 1/11/2023
13 ALLAM, L., in Laura Murphy-Oates’s, 2023. “What ‘no’ means for Australia”, in The Guardian Full Story podcast. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/audio/2023/oct/15/what-no-means-for-australia-full-story-podcast, last accessed on 1/11/2023
14 Excerpt from the statement made on the Uluru Statement instagram on 22 october 2023.
15 Mc KENNA, M., octobre 2023, “The need for truth-telling is more urgent than ever if we are to change hearts and minds for future referendums”, in The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/oct/26/the-need-for-truth-telling-is-more-urgent-than-ever-if-we-are-to-change-hearts-and-minds-for-future-referendums, last accessed on 1/11/2023
- AFP, octobre 2023, “En Australie, le référendum sur les droits des Aborigènes déchaîne le racisme”, in Le Telegramme, https://www.letelegramme.fr/monde/en-australie-le-referendum-sur-les-droits-des-aborigenes-dechaine-le-racisme-6441492.php, last accessed on 1/11/2023
- ALLAM, L., in Laura Murphy-Oates’s, 2023. “What ‘no’ means for Australia”, in The Guardian Full Story podcast, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/audio/2023/oct/15/what-no-means-for-australia-full-story-podcast, last accessed on 1/11/2023
- ALLAM, L., BUTLER, J., février 2023. “Voice referendum: who’s behind the yes and no campaigns and how do they plan to convince Australia?” in The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2023/feb/20/voice-referendum-whos-behind-the-yes-and-no-campaigns-and-how-do-they-plan-to-convince-australia, last accessed on 1/11/2023
- CROSS, J., septembre 2023. “Warren Mundine calls Uluru Statement « declaration of war » in anti-Voice Press Club”, in National Indigenous Times, https://nit.com.au/26-09-2023/7832/warren-mundine-calls-uluru-statement-declaration-of-war-in-anti-voice-press-club-address, last accessed on 1/11/2023
- JOHNSON, C., octobre 2023. “The Voice campaign showed Labor’s strategy for countering right-wing populism is in disarray”, in The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/the-voice-campaign-showed-labors-strategy-for-countering-right-wing-populism-is-in-disarray-215709, last accessed on 1/11/2023
- KENNA (Mc), M., octobre 2023, “The need for truth-telling is more urgent than ever if we are to change hearts and minds for future referendums”, in The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/oct/26/the-need-for-truth-telling-is-more-urgent-than-ever-if-we-are-to-change-hearts-and-minds-for-future-referendums, last accessed on 1/11/2023
- LANGTON, M., septembre 2023. On the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, National Press Club, ABC NEWS, chaîne Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kkIbnuDKMCg, dernière consultation le 6/11/2023
- MUNDINE, W., mai 2023. “The Voice will divide Aboriginal people and our great democratic nation”, in National Indigenous Television, https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/the-voice-will-divide-aboriginal-people-and-divide-our-great-democratic-nation/ewnkw01xm, last accessed on 1/11/2023
- REYS, S., 2023. “Voice to parliament | Debunking common myths and misconceptions”, in Arrillia Indigenous Consulting, chaîne Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nla61MfEtiY&t=6s, last accessed on 1/11/2023
- ULM, K., mai 2023. “The Voice is about ‘integration not separatism’ says Noel Pearson” Site internet University of Sydney, https://www.sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2023/05/25/sydney-ideas-event-on-voice-to-parliament-featuring-noel-pearson.html, dernière consultation le 6/11/2023
- WALLACE, C., octobre 2023. « Australia’s Voice to Parliament Referendum. Talking with Professor Chris Wallace, University of Canberra », in The San Francisco Experience podcast, https://www.thesanfranciscoexperiencepodcast.com/australias-voice-to-parliament-referendum-talking-with-professor-chris-wallace-university-of-canb/?fbclid=IwAR1cOOcNgx6QRvxQWgxCiUTEVCuuq418E8nb1pD0jB4UBOSP1NLnHD1so2M dernière consultation le 6/11/2023
- RITCHIE, H., octobre 2023. “The Voice: Australians vote No in historic referendum”, in BBC News, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-67110193, dernière consultation le 6/11/2023
- DELLERBA, I., octobre 2023. « Les Australiens disent non à la « voix » aborigène », in Le Monde, https://www.lemonde.fr/international/article/2023/10/15/les-australiens-disent-non-a-la-voix-aborigene_6194598_3210.html, dernière consultation le 6/11/2023
- Black Sovereign Movement Website https://blaksovereignmovement.files.wordpress.com/2023/07/blak-sovereign-movement-detailed-position-on-the-referendum-1.pdf, last accessed on 1/11/2023