Tearfund supports the case to vote ‘Yes’ to the referendum question of whether a First Nations Voice should be enshrined in the Constitution.
In 1967 Australia had a referendum to “to alter the Constitution so as to omit certain words relating to the people of the Aboriginal race in any state and so that Aboriginals are to be counted in reckoning the population.”
On 15 May of that year the Australian Council of Churches issued a statement in support of the ‘yes’ vote, signed by leaders of all the major Anglican, Protestant and Orthodox denominations.1 The statement urged Australians to vote ‘yes’ in the referendum, stating that it was ‘an opportunity for Christians to show that they thought discrimination against Aborigines should be removed from every point of national life.’2
Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Christians, who have told Tearfund that they remember this referendum, point to the church's involvement and the final result (90.77% in favour) as a source of encouragement. They remember that the church stood with them supporting their equality and rights within Australia.
Now in 2023, Tearfund sees participating in the referendum on the Voice in a similar spirit to what the church had in 1967. We want to stand with our First Nations Sisters and Brothers in Christ and support this initiative for their voice to be heard at the highest levels of decision making in the country.
The First Nations Voice to Parliament was one of the recommendations of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Australian Constitution is intended to empower First Nations Peoples to have a greater say in the policy and legislation that affect their communities. These would include advising the parliament on policy matters such as health, incarceration, education and economic participation. Tearfund's work to address poverty and injustice is predicated on the belief that central to the work of justice are actions that give voice to those who have historically been excluded or marginalised from political processes.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart, calling for Voice, Treaty and Truth, emerged from six months of discussions held around the country that culminated in The First Nations National Constitutional Convention at Uluru in May 2017. From this pivotal coming together of 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, the Uluru Statement is an invitation to all Australians to reshape the relationship between First Nations Peoples and the Australian population through lasting legal and structural reform. The Statement is presented as an invitation to the people of Australia to “walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.”
The Uluru Statement from the Heart calls for “Voice” and “Makarrata”.
There are two parts to this question: why do we need a representative Indigenous Body such as a Voice to Parliament and why does it need to be enshrined in the Constitution?
A Voice to Parliament, as called for in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, will provide a mechanism for First Nations representatives to directly deliver information from First Nations communities to Government with regard to the laws and policies that impact them. Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the First Peoples of this country, and in the context of the historical sins and continuing systemic injustices that marginalise and oppress their communities, a Voice to Parliament is an important step towards a democracy that is accessible for all and helps to support the flourishing of all.
There have been bodies similar to a Voice in the past. Most notably there was an entity called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). ATSIC was formed through government legislation and was eventually disbanded by the Government of the day. Most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people believe it is important to protect an Indigenous Body, such as the Voice, within the Constitution so that it can’t be removed by any government.* A Voice that was written into the Constitution would make it a permanent part of our democracy.
The only way to change the Australian Constitution is through a referendum. All Australian citizens of voting age must vote in a referendum, just as we must vote at an election. For a referendum to be successful, most of the people in most of the states must vote yes. A Voice enshrined in the Constitution would have the authority of the Australian people and the government would need to make legislation to reflect the Constitution.
1. “Churches' 'yes'” (15 May 1967). The Canberra Times, 3. Retrieved November 29, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article131654982
2. “Churches’ ‘yes’”, 3.