Whichever way the Voice referendum falls on 14 October, it will shape how the world sees Australia. A “yes” result would burnish Australia’s international image as a modern, inclusive, multicultural society. And undoubtedly, a “no” vote would be damaging – whatever the nuances of process or argument, the international community will read it as a national rejection of Indigenous aspirations to be recognised and heard. That will not be easy to explain to the world.
But while we can expect much attention after the vote to focus on Australia’s reputation, this will largely miss the point. The referendum is not about how the world sees us.
It is about who we are, and how we see ourselves as a nation.
The referendum is not about how the world sees us. It is about who we are, and how we see ourselves as a nation.
Are we ready to finally recognise our first peoples in our nation’s founding legal document, and accept the gift of their ancient history, culture and knowledge as an integral part of Australia?
Are we ready to look in the mirror and honestly reckon with the wrongs of the past, the effects of dispossession, and the entrenched inequalities continuing to affect Indigenous Australians today?
And are we ready to give those Australians the modest due of a voice in their own governance, in the hope that it might improve their lives?
I am a first-generation immigrant to Australia, having arrived with my parents at a young age. My family has been here for a fraction of time in the scale of our great continent’s history. But the country we chose – the Australia I believe in and had the honour to represent overseas – is inclusive, honest, and big enough to say yes.
National identity as strength
Nations are built around narratives. These can be a source of weakness, or of strength.
A defining narrative of modern Australia, one of our greatest strengths, is our diversity. We are at once ancient and young – home to both the oldest continuous cultures in the world and to migrants from every country on Earth.
That duality is at the heart of our national identity. It gives us a sense of history, place, and purpose, shaping not only how we are seen, but how we engage with the world.
And it makes a material difference to how we advance our interests and values internationally. It informs our approach to global environmental challenges, allowing us to fuse ancient knowledge with modern approaches to sustainable management of land and sea. It gave authenticity and credibility to our successful bids for seats on the UN Human Rights Council and UN Security Council, both of which had very real benefits for Australia’s interests. Indigenous knowledge and creativity add depth to our trade and investment links. And their culture strengthens the bonds of trust with our Pacific neighbours, for whom indigenous identity is closely entwined with nationhood.
Respecting and listening
Yet, Australia’s national identity has never been fully realised. For so long as our Indigenous peoples, as a whole, remain marginalised, poorer, more incarcerated, less educated, die younger and have fewer opportunities than the rest of the population, we remain diminished as a whole. How can we truly join those two parts of our national identity, and convincingly project it as strength, if we continue to fail one part of our polity so miserably?
The Voice, of course, is not a silver bullet. It will not close the gap overnight. But it is an important step on the road to reconciliation.
First, it would give Australia’s Indigenous people the long overdue respect of being recognised in the Constitution. It would tell them they belong and are a fundamental part of our nation.
Second, that recognition is provided by establishing a Voice – a representative body through which Indigenous peoples can provide non-binding advice to Parliament and government on matters affecting them. In doing so, the Voice seeks to empower Indigenous Australians to better shape their own destiny.
This is not just about addressing Indigenous disadvantage and healing the scars of history. It is also about listening to what Indigenous people have to contribute for the betterment of all Australia into the future.
Through it, the Voice offers a chance to unite and grow as a country. A simple but profound proposal – low risk for high return, as former Chief Justice Robert French put it.
This is an historic moment for Australia. The Voice can be the start of a process of listening to, better understanding, and more deeply respecting our first peoples.
I have heard the no campaign claim the Voice would divide Australia. I fail to see how anyone who has read the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which put forward the proposal in 2017, can credibly say so. Indeed, the Uluru Statement frames the Voice in the context of a “fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood”:
We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.
…In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.
On Saturday, the country will respond to that invitation. Our answer will become part of our national story.
And long after it fades from international headlines, it will echo in our national conscience.
I hope, as a source of pride.