To reach a referendum to enshrine a First Nations Voice to Parliament, as called for in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, there are a few gates we need to open.
The key to the first gate was a First Nations consensus. Indigenous people did the hard work on this one. We achieved this at the end of a process of 13 regional constitutional dialogues and a culminating Uluru National Constitutional Convention in the heart of the nation in May 2017.
The First Nations consensus reached at Uluru is one of the greatest feats in our democracy.
Great, because a people — so damaged by colonisation and so well divided by those seeking to exploit their lands and labour for more than 200 years — defied the odds to reach an agreement on how we wanted the nation to be reconciled.
Greatest, because that agreement contains proposals so visionary, uniting and generous, especially given what we have suffered, that Australians from across the political spectrum are in passionate agreement that we got it right.
We have opened the first gate and a majority of Australians have walked through with us. Polling has consistently indicated that more than 50% of Australians would vote yes; the most recent reported the yes vote would be 56% with only 17% opposed. It is worth noting that this support comes without a well-resourced national education campaign.
Now, we are almost at the final gate — a gate held by the prime minister and the federal Parliament he controls. For a referendum to be put to the Australian people, first, a referendum bill must pass.
In The Australian earlier this month, the prime minister was reported to have “ruled out” opening the gate to a Voice referendum. He was quoted as saying there was “no clear consensus” on a model for the Voice.
Scott Morrison is right. There isn’t a model. That is why there is a $7.3 million co-design process under way.
He also said that, in regards to constitutional recognition, there is “still no clear consensus proposal at this stage that would suggest mainstream support in the Indigenous community or elsewhere”. Again, that is hardly a blockade.
Morrison’s comments are consistent with the Coalition’s 2019 election commitments to constitutional recognition. Those commitments were in line with the recommendation in the Pat Dodson and Julian Leeser co-chaired 2018 joint select committee into constitutional recognition: to first co-design a Voice model and then consider the legal form the Voice will take.
The constitutional gate is unlocked, it just needs a push to open. We cannot shy away from demanding this.
All national political representative bodies created for or by Indigenous people — from the first all-Aboriginal political Voice in 1920s, the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association, to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and the National Congress in recent years — have been silenced.
Indigenous people know that our voice must be enhanced and guaranteed because hostile governments will always destroy it.
The certainty that a non-constitutional voice will be destroyed can work the other way too — we can be certain a legislated Voice will never be made constitutional.
This brings me to the real concern I have from that report in The Australian. The advisory group co-chairs, Marcia Langton and Tom Calma, reportedly said that taking a proposal for a Voice to a referendum before it was legislated risked scuppering the entire reform. But is there really a reform without a referendum?
If merely legislated Voices have been tried before, and if all have been destroyed, who would trust a government to hold a referendum to further empower a Voice that is already legislated, functioning and doing what it is meant to do — holding the decision-makers who are the gatekeepers to referendum to account?
The greatest risk to substantive reform is taking the easier path — the path already travelled. A referendum is worth the risk because if we do not have the courage to pursue enshrinement, we have already failed.
The Langton and Calma-led co-design process is seeking public submissions until March 31. So far, over 80% of more than 200 of the submissions have supported prioritising a referendum over rushing to legislate a Voice that will be vulnerable to the whims of Parliament.
This indicates that the Australian public supports a sequence that Noel Pearson recently outlined. His proposal is to enable the Voice in the constitution first, after there is a consensus on the model, but before enacting the model.
The benefit of this is that the Australian people will see precisely what they are voting for, making it even more likely that they will vote yes. It is a sequence that aligns with the Coalition’s policy, Labor’s, and the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
Indigenous people have taken the initiative. We have given Australia a roadmap to a better future in the Uluru Statement, and now we have unlocked all the gates. It’s time to have the courage to walk through.
Thomas Mayor, a Torres Strait Islander, is signatory to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. He is the author of Finding the Heart of the Nation: The Journey of the Uluru Statement towards Voice, Treaty and Truth. He is also the national Indigenous officer and Northern Territory branch deputy secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia.