In 2023, Australia will hold a referendum to decide whether an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice should be enshrined in the Constitution. If supported, the change would enable First Nations people to provide advice to the Parliament on a range of policies and laws that impact their lives.
Standing in solidarity with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the union movement, including the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF), has unanimously committed to backing a ‘Yes’ vote in the historic referendum.
According to Lara Watson, a Birri Gubba woman from Central West Queensland and Indigenous Officer with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), a First Nations Voice will provide a permanent line of communication for Aboriginal and Torres Strat Islander people to the Australian Government, enabling a say on important issues.
A key component of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which offers an invitation to the Australian people to work with Aboriginal people to take action, a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution will further pave the way towards an Indigenous treaty and a comprehensive process of truth-telling about Australia’s history, including genocide and the Stolen Generations, says Watson.
“We know that not having direct input into the policies and laws that are made for us has delivered very harmful policies, like the Northern Territory Intervention, that just decimated our communities,” Watson explained.
“The reason why a Voice is being asked to be recognised in the Constitution is for its permanency. What we have seen in the past is organisations that have been set up for us to have a voice, or set up by us, are either set up to fail or another Government comes in and the funding is stripped, so that organisation disappears.
“If we have something that is actually embedded in the Constitution, that only the Australian people can change, it gives us the capacity to be able to build on that work and not have to start from scratch all over again.”
Addressing the ANMF’s Federal Executive last month, Watson, who has worked in the union movement for nearly two decades, shared her advice on how to get union members informed about the importance of a yes vote at the referendum and actively involved in the campaign.
Education is paramount, she stressed.
“We’ve seen centuries here of programs and initiatives and reports that don’t actually deliver outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” Watson said.
“We feel if we have a seat at the table, some of the work that has been done in our space and has worked at a local level, we can put that on the table and say ‘this is the best practice’ or ‘this is the way that community resolves something’.
“Even though it’s just an advisory Voice, the people who get elected through that process will have the power and the skills to be able to have those conversations with Government. It’s quite a powerful place that we could be at.”
Watson described the looming referendum as a “life-changing” decision for Aboriginal and Torres Strat Islander people. A Voice to Parliament could help address longstanding issues such as life expectancy and child mortality rates, housing, education, racism, and incarceration rates, she added.
While the subject remains contentious among some Australians, and is being confounded by the agendas of different groups, Watson suggests it is imperative Australians understand the facts.
Crucially, research by Crosby Textor found 82% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people support a Voice Enshrined in the Constitution.
Similarly, while some trade unionists may be under the impression that a progressive ‘No’ vote will prompt a quicker path to a treaty, Watson is adamant that a Voice to Parliament must start the foundation.
“For trade unionists who are using that [approach] go back to the fact that this [the Uluru Statement from the Heart] is an invitation to you personally from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people…and what makes it personal for you, in wanting to see fairness and opportunities that we have delivered to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as well,.. this really is a personal decision. It will affect Australia as a country and it will finally, in my view, actually unite Australia and have culture and a country that’s proud of its heritage.”
Meanwhile, the upcoming vote will be the first time many Australians have taken part in a referendum. If voters agree with the proposed change to the Australian Constitution, they must write ‘Yes’ in the square on the ballot paper. If they do not agree, they write ‘No’ in the square.
Over the coming months, the union movement will look to make a significant contribution to a successful referendum to enshrine an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament in the Constitution. This includes mobilising union activists and contributing to the community campaign to raise education and awareness.
“Overall, what we’re asking for is our members to have conversations ‘about the Voice’,” Watson said.
“We are asking for a ‘Yes’ for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be recognised and have a Voice in the Australian Constitution. Hopefully through that process, we can empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander union members to get a bit more involved with their union and this campaign.”
Commit to support an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament here