Six years ago, 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait delegates gathered at Uluru in the Central Australian desert to sign the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
The statement asked for three major things. It called for a treaty to be signed with First Nations people to ensure their rights. It asked for the truth to be told about the role of Indigenous people in Australian history. Finally, it called for a permanent platform for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices to be heard by parliament that would be enshrined in the constitution. This became known as the Voice to Parliament.
In his election victory speech last May, prime minister Anthony Albanese vowed to “commit to the Uluru Statement in full”. Albanese’s first priority is to deliver the Voice to Parliament. Currently, the Voice to Parliament would be an elected group who are entrusted with advocating Indigenous interests to parliament but who would not be able to vote on laws. By the end of the year, Australians will be asked in a referendum to alter the constitution by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament.
Two months ago Albanese fought back tears in Canberra as he vowed that the Labor Party would fight to deliver the Voice to Parliament. Albanese emphasised the underdog nature of this referendum. “To not put this to a vote is to concede defeat, you only win when you run on the field and engage. And let me tell you, my government is engaged. We’re all in,” he said.
At his best, Albanese is an impassioned speaker that can cut through dense policy and relate easily to the average Australian. He will send his Australian Labor Party out on to the field at full strength to fight for a successful referendum, but they are facing a daunting opponent that has proved almost immovable.
Since its adoption in 1901, the Australian constitution has been amended only eight times through a referendum process. A notable change was in 1967 when a referendum sought to include Indigenous Australians in the national census and to give the federal government power to make laws for them. The referendum was supported by more than 90 per cent of voters. The last significant referendum, held in 1999, proposed changes to the constitution that would establish a republic in place of the monarchy. The monarchy was narrowly retained, supported by 54 per cent of voters.
Albanese also faces a familiar foe in the form of Peter Dutton, the opposition leader who heads the Liberal Party. Dutton, a conservative former police officer, said that the Voice to Parliament lacks detail.
“I have spent literally months, like many Australians, trying to understand what it is the prime minister is proposing,” Dutton said.
“We cannot get the basic detail out of them. We think it is deliberate.”
The majority of the Liberal Party supports Dutton’s stance. Bipartisan support is seen as essential for any constitutional change in Australia. Dutton claims that he needs detail and how exactly the Voice to Parliament would work practically for Indigenous Australians. He refuses to change the constitution on what he describes as a “vibe”.
Interestingly, while Dutton and his front bench will campaign against the Voice, backbenchers in the Liberal Party are free to speak out as they wish on the referendum. There are notable Liberals who have broken ranks over Dutton’s decision. Tasmanian Liberal Jeremy Rockcliff openly campaigned for the Voice with Albanese last month, while Indigenous party member Ken Wyatt resigned over Dutton’s position on the Voice.
Within some Indigenous communities, there are concerns that if the Voice to Parliament is successful, then they will be ceding their sovereignty. Indeed, Indigenous senator Lidia Thorpe has stated that she is still undecided about the referendum.
“It would take a lot for me to change my personal and long-held view that I don’t think First Nations justice will come from being written into the colonisers’ constitution,” she said. “Labor has asserted through our negotiations that sovereignty isn’t impacted. It’s not enough. It needs to be explicit.”
Labor is set to unleash a range of high-profile Australians to promote the Voice from the worlds of business, sports and entertainment. Indigenous Australians still suffer significantly in Australia, in terms of access to education, healthcare and employment. The Voice to Parliament is designed to address some of these issues. However, history is not on Albanese’s side in seeking to change the constitution. He will hope that, as signalled by the Uluru Statement, Australians will walk together to build a better future.