Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Voices beyond Yes and No



Later this year, as people are aware, we will be heading out to our local polling stations to cast our votes on a referendum question for the first time since 1999. As part of their Federal Election policy platforms, the Labor Party promised that they would implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full, and therefore will taking the first step to hold a referendum on whether an Indigenous Voice to Parliament should be enshrined within the constitution.

In March this year, Prime Minister Albanese revealed what that question will be and what the constitutional amendment will consist of. Given the fact that so few referenda have been successful, the question is deliberately simple in order to achieve the greatest chance of success at the ballot box:


A proposed law: To alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.

Do you approve this proposed alteration?


The proposed constitutional amendment itself is as follows:


Chapter IX Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples

129 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice

In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia:

    1. There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice;
    2. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;
    3. The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.


As an Arrernte woman, in what may be surprising to a lot of readers, I admit to being undecided on which way my vote will go. I understand why some will be surprised. For a very long time now, via a combination of media spin, Uluru Statement activism and political posturing, the public has been informed that an enshrined Voice within the Australian constitution is what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people really want. You have been told that this statement was the consensus of a congregation of hundreds who met at Uluru after a series of regional dialogues. That it’s a national shame that we, as the First Peoples of this land, have never been recognised in the constitution and by this happening, Australia will be undoing a great wrong.

Yet as somebody who has been engaged in Indigenous movements for a long time, who has been additionally engaged in other social justice movements, and who has more than a little political knowledge, I am unconvinced. This is not to say that I am committed to a 'no' vote either. Just that after so many years of experience, of living through every single Indigenous body that has existed and seeing them all be ripped apart by one government after another, I am not sure I buy that having one written into the constitution is going to make a lot of difference.

When you go to the Yes23 website, their answer to this question is simple. Once the Voice exists in the constitution, the governments are committed to it and the only way they can remove it is via holding another referendum. This is, of course, correct. As shown though by what the inclusion in the constitution itself will consist of above, the Voice will be controlled by legislation. Whilst the Voice co-design report has proposed a model for the composition of the Voice – simply put, representatives from each state, territory and the Torres Strait, with additional seats for remote communities and for Torres Strait Islander people living on the mainland, and including gender and age balance – as the Yes campaign website makes clear, this discussion is for 'phase two', once the referendum itself has been successful. It will be up to governments to decide whether they wish to adopt this representative model or go for something else entirely.

Given that there will be no power of veto the Voice to Parliament can exercise over legislation relevant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, it will also be up to governments just how much they listen to, and take advice from, the representations made by the Voice. For that matter though, exactly how will it be decided that certain legislative proposals require consultation and others won’t? Will the Voice be consulted on environmental legislation or disability legislation (given the higher rates of disability in our communities) if these proposals do not directly reference Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lands or peoples?


'Surely one of the biggest truths we need to be tell in the first place is how the constitution came to be and why it was deliberately written to exclude us. And given this, is the answer really our inclusion, or is it coming to the table as equals, sitting down and nutting out, as sovereign peoples, treaties that could ensure a better, more inclusive, way forward?'


And what of the constitution itself? Is writing us into a document that was drafted to reinforce the White Australia Policy and carries remnants, to this day, of this shameful past (see section 25 and section 44) really the great act of undoing the racism that has impacted the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for centuries? I get why champions of the Uluru Statement feel embedding the Voice is a crucial first step to confronting racism and then moving on to the processes of treaty-making and truth-telling. The constitution is, after all, the primary document of governance in this country. It’s what Australia is founded upon. The problem is that I am not sure that I agree with them. I mean, surely one of the biggest truths we need to be tell in the first place is how the constitution came to be and why it was deliberately written to exclude us. And given this, is the answer really our inclusion, or is it coming to the table as equals, sitting down and nutting out, as sovereign peoples, treaties that could ensure a better, more inclusive, way forward?

All of this is food for thought, and I would like to point out that regardless of just how much I personally have been mulling over, what I remain most interested in of all is gaining more detail from the government regarding exactly how they will plan to move forward if the referendum is passed. I want to know this will change the lives of the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people out there doing it tough. I want reassurance that the Labor Government will stay true to their pledge on rolling out the Uluru Statement in full, so the Voice does not become an endgame to them and progress is made on treaties and truth-telling too, as I personally believe these to be the more crucial items of business. I also want reassurance, like Independent Senator Lidia Thorpe has repeatedly called for, that the recommendations from things such as the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and also the Bringing them Home report, will be implemented in full. For how can we have a more equal future if we haven’t, as a country, even done the work tasked of us in the decades gone by?


'As a critical thinker and an Aboriginal person, I can tell you one thing that has not been helping: the continual framing that the "yes campaign" is progressive and the "no campaign" is conservative.' 


As a critical thinker and an Aboriginal person, I can tell you one thing that has not been helping: the continual framing that the 'yes' campaign is progressive and the 'no' campaign is conservative. This ignores the fact that constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was an idea that initially came from the conservative side of politics, as recently pointed out by Noel Pearson. It also ignores the fact that Warren Mundine and Jacinta Price are not the voices of a no campaign that actually represents Indigenous views, as eloquently pointed out by Amy McQuire. Things are significantly more complicated than this. As Thorpe stated on Radio National, we have seen a continual erasure of progressive Indigenous voices who are calling for a 'no' vote, or even those who are more questioning of what difference a Voice to Parliament might really make. Recently, on Living Black, we saw a panel of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from a range of different perspectives tease some of these questions out. I recommend watching this as a starting point to gain some scope of the discussions happening in the Indigenous community right now.

For there are some who believe the order of business in the Uluru Statement is wrong and requires a rethink. There are others who believe that we are wasting our time with both a Voice and a treaty process and believe that Indigenous sovereignty, by itself, is the way forward. There are plenty who tentatively agree that the Voice is a good idea but wish it had more power at its disposal. And there are many others who are asking questions.

For mine, regardless of what the outcome of the referendum will be, and regardless of which way I ultimately decide to vote, the hard work when it comes to achieving true equality in this country and a healthy way forward will have only just begun. I truly hope that Australia does not completely stuff up this opportunity for change and dialogue like it has so many times in the past. 




Celeste Liddle is an Arrernte woman, a trade unionist, a freelance opinion writer and social commentator. She has also contributed to a number of different anthologies such as Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia

Main image: An Indigenous man at a rally during the Black Lives Matter Rally at Langley Park in Perth, Australia. (Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Celeste Liddle, First Nations, Aboriginal, Referendum, Voice to Parliament, Equality, Treaty



submit a comment

Existing comments

you have gone to some trouble to promote a point of view. Sadly the proposed amendment to the constitution is poorly constructed and most inappropriate to include in our document. Section 51 (26) already gives Parliament powers to make whatever laws are necessary to remedy any past wrongs.

BERNARD TRESTON | 11 May 2023  

Thank you, Celeste, for a most sensible and noninflammatory article on what has become an incredibly bitter and contentious issue. Sadly, I think there is a real chance we may stuff it up well and truly, which will set us all collectively back. As a non-First Nations person who has worked with ATSI people in four different states, I know the dreadful disadvantages suffered by many of them. I think many commentators - often nonindigenous ones of the overintellectualizing variety - draw obscure parallels and tend to moralize. This is neither the time nor the place for either. I find Frank Brennan one of the sanest and most insightful commentators on the subject. I hope, by the time to vote comes, things are a little clearer.

Edward Fido | 11 May 2023  

Wise words, Celeste, that move thinking and discussion beyond the unhelpful sterotypes of "progressive" and "conservative" that all too often also stymie social political and theological discussion.

John RD | 11 May 2023  

Good to hear again from Celeste. The phrase: ‘don’t throw out the good for the perfect’ or something like that, kept coming to mind as I read the article. It is a political decision in the end.

Steve Sinn | 11 May 2023  

Thank you Celeste for your thoughtful article about the referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament.
You have certainly identified some of the reasons why Australians – indigenous and non-indigenous – are divided on this issue.
It is correct that the Voice will not solve all the problems facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people because governments will not have to adopt the advice of the Voice if they disagree with the recommendations it puts forward. This will be especially true when governments allow fossil fuel miners and frackers move into the land of indigenous communities.
As a non-indigenous Australian who is trying to support the rights of indigenous people, I have decided after reading and listening to the thoughts of both sides of the public debate that will vote YES.
On 1 May this year, I attended the Adelaide May Day Dinner and was honoured to hear Thomas Mayor speak. Thomas is a Torres Strait Islander man born on Larrakia country in Darwin who is the assistant secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) in the NT.
Thomas was involved in the move to formulate the Uluru Statement of the Heart and was given the task of taking the Statement along with the art work that was produced at its inception to speak with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities around Australia.
Thomas has also written a book about his experiences: "Finding the Heart of the Nation -The journey of the Uluru Statement from the Heart continues" It has to be said that he is a powerful and a persuasive speaker and writer. And I would recommend to anybody who is in any doubt about the Indigenous Voice to Parliament to read his book.
It is not surprising to me that Tony Abbott is opposed to the Voice. He was very close to John Howard politically and Howard abolished the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Council (ATSIC) which existed between 1990 - 2005 and acted like something of a voice during those years. John Howard was also opposed to truth telling in relation to the genocide that occurred during the early years of British occupation of this country. He referred to it as the "Black Armband of History" which was a refusal to acknowledge this shameful history. Could it be referred to as the "White Muzzle of History" or as Professor Henty Reynolds has said “the White Blindfold of History”?
New Zealand has the Treaty of Waitangi which was signed by representatives of the British Crown and the Maori chiefs in 1840 and it is acknowledged in its Constitution
This country has had 65,000 years of Aboriginal occupation and British settlement has only been here for 235 years. Surely it is time for the Indigenous Voice, a Treaty & Truth telling. New Zealanders do not see their Treaty as divisive or driving a wedge between people. Neither should we.
Overall, I think it should be a step forward in improving the rights of indigenous people, but environmentalists and those working in solidarity with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will need to stand up and be counted when governments do not listen to the Voice in the future on environmental and cultural issues.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 11 May 2023  

Great work Celeste! Getting people thinking about what the Referendum is about. I'm looking at the arguments from both sides. Definitely leaning toward yes.
I prefer the ask from Uluru Statement. Not something imposed upon the mob. Adding additional voices who consider themselves custodians of the country compared to 1500 lobbyists running around Canberra might bring some common sense.
If the discussion can bring people together, to walk together on our journey forward then Australia has a bright future.

Terry | 11 May 2023  

I watched Living Black. I am concerned about Thorpe's anger and rejection of a Yes vote because it does not give indigenous power. How will a No vote give first-nations peoples power?

She is right to be angry but how do you move forward. Calls for sovereignty will be heard as a call for power over non-aboriginal people. Do you really think that will fly?

We all want our voices to be heard. I accept first nations people were invaded and robed of their land and lifestyle, that was illegal and immoral. I think people are ready to hear the truth and pain of that. Every group wants their pain to be recognized. I can't see the language of power leading anywhere but a return to violence.
But dignity, recognition yes: these can be demanded and since we all want them, support will be widespread.

I don't think whites can give dignity to blacks but we can listen and accept that they will no longer will accept being victims in their own land. We can't do much with complaints we can't fix, we can't undo what's been done but we want to hear what you want for yourself now.

Martin Nicol | 11 May 2023  

A very insightful article, Celeste. I do, however, believe that a successful Yes vote would result from an outpouring of support by a majority of Australians for our First Nations people. A failed referendum would be demoralising and a setback to reconciliation, truth-telling and treaty.

Michael Cooper | 12 May 2023  

Normally, being a centre-left, progressive person I would expect to be on the Yes side of this issue, but after a lot of reading, I find I'm not.

The Yes argument is that Aboriginal people haven't been heard, that white people haven't been listening. I know this is false because for a generation at least governments have bent over backwards to consult Aboriginal people, and have funded many avenues for Aboriginal voices to be heard. You can Google up some of these existing organisations such as the National Indigenous Australians Agency, and The Council of Peaks.

I suppose what Aboriginals mean, when they say they haven't been heard, is that they didn't get what they want. That's a different thing and won't be changed by a new version of The Voice. I have concluded that The Voice proposal is not so much about the mechanism of a voice, but to get into the Constitution the principle that Aboriginal people are different to everybody else, and that entitles them to different treatment. I can understand Aborigines wanting that, but I see it as not a way forward for a multicultural country - too divisive.

When the Uluru statement came out I read it carefully and had questions, so I sought out more info and read some long articles by Megan Davis and others. I disagree with most of their arguments. My idea of sovereignty is that you only have it for as long as you can defend it. Ask the Ukranians, the Palestinians and Kurds, the Rohingga etc. etc. - it's the story of history and every group has gained and lost it. I don't see a future of separateness for Aborigines. Whenever Albanese announces something on this issue he is surrounded by a very successful people who all identify as Aborigines - all of them are mixed race - and that suggests to me that the best future for Aboriginal people will be integration with the wider community, bringing, hopefully, the best of Aboriginal culture with them.

Russell Hamilton | 12 May 2023  

It seems that no matter what we do in this country we always cause conflict and confusion. Time to abolish the confrontational combative nature of government and replace it with cooperative government, perhaps

John Frawley | 12 May 2023  

In general I relate positively to what Russel Hamilton offers. I ponder his comment, “I suppose what Aboriginals (sic) mean, when they say they haven't been heard, is that they didn't get what they want.” We all do well to give thought to the difference between what history has delivered to us and where we go from here. I believe the best we can achieve in our ever diversifying cultural experiences will flow from small groups which seek mutual understanding and which from there will espouse democratic processes that will help us keep our balance as our bumpy ecological journey continues.

Noel McMaster | 13 May 2023  

You don’t sound like a leftie to me Russell, and I’ve know plenty. But, be that as it may I wish to correct some core incorrectness in your thinking. Your “you only have what you can defend” and its cousin “might is right”, “power comes down the barrel of a gun”, “just war”, “the armed struggle” are contextual. They are tragedies which apply in tragic circumstances where humanity descends into a primal abyss. Like the examples you give. That’s not where Australia is at, and hopefully never will be.

Over the last four decades the Women’s, Gay Rights and Environment movements have used the democratic processes to bring about change by peaceful means. And they have. First Nations People have done likewise.

With voting I streamed line. I’m doing what Pat Dobson has told us to do. Although I’m a bit younger, we are both male and both catholic. That means we have a lot in common. But our history is different. Pat has been here 60,000 longer. Shouldn’t the Constitution acknowledging that? Just for the sake of respect?

Fosco | 14 May 2023  
Show Responses

Fosco, This isn't 'correct' or 'incorrect', we have a difference of opinion/perspective. To me, history shows that you only have sovereignty if you can defend it. If we could go back to the time of European settlement and do it differently - with today's ideas - we could.

But Australia is a totally different country today, and in such a multicultural country I don't thing we can insert a new gene of Aboriginal sovereignty into the DNA of modern Australia. Too divisive. Too much open competition between legally defined groups for the resources of the country.

Pat Dodson is a mixed race person - he's a blend of Aboriginal and settler. But if his wish to put Aboriginal difference in the Constitution is agreed to, then, yes, it's a democracy and I'll accept the result. There are, of course, already many ways of recognising the Aboriginal heritage of Australia.

It's irrelevant really, but I've never voted other than the ALP or The Greens, and the first demonstration I ever went to, in 1970, was for Aboriginal 'land rights'.

Russell Hamilton | 16 May 2023  

Have you considered how, increasingly, plutocratic interests that capture media, educational and legal systems come to pose real threats to society's "democratic processes", Fosco?

John RD | 16 May 2023  

It's important to look at the bigger picture. We need to understand why the constitution was written to exclude Indigenous peoples in the first place. Is the answer really our inclusion or to come to the table as equals to negotiate a treaty that could ensure a better way forward?

Bob | 16 May 2023  

Apologies for submitting so late. Two quick points:
1. I have just returned from East Timor where I was reminded that the 1999 referendum offered the Timorese yes or no on their future. 78% voted yes. Apart from sketchy ideas on how the future would look, they focussed on the principle and left the detail till later. As their twelfth national elections on 21 May showed, that has worked.
2. I would hope that, besides pressing social justice issues, the Voice will also serve to enlighten ordinary white Aussies like me on core Indigenous beliefs such as First Peoples' unique connection to nature. As the Uluru Statement says: sovereignty is 'a spiritual notion' born of the land (in all its parts). Surely this is an essential, if not existentially, important teaching; a corrective to outright exploitation that will benefit all of us.

Pat Walsh | 31 May 2023  

Thankyou Celeste for expressing your views on the upcoming referendum. As a balanda older woman, who lived in Darwin for 18 years, I too was troubled & undecided, until it appeared (to me) that voting no would be even worse. I wrote to a locally well known (indigenous) woman also from the Alice Springs area seeking the information that you have provided. For you as an Indigenous Australian that does have an individual voice, I empathise with your "exhaustion". Thankyou for your views.

Barbara | 08 July 2023  

Similar Articles

Speaking in tongues: In conversation with Father Bob Maguire

  • Michael McVeigh
  • 12 May 2023

In January 2006, I interviewed Father Bob Maguire. Father Bob was gracious enough to give me an hour of his time one afternoon in a conversation that was memorable, enlightening and entertaining at the same time. Here, published for the first time, is that interview in full. 


The moral grammar of budgets

  • Max Jeganathan
  • 11 May 2023

In the midst of budget season, a question lingers: Are we mere self-interested individuals, exclusive tribespeople, or true citizens committed to the common good? As the Treasurer unveils new allocations, the focus remains on headlines while overlooking the moral essence of budgetary decisions.