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This Australia Day, all eyes are on the Referendum


In recent years Australia Day has been overshadowed by debate about its legitimacy as a day for all Australians. It marked the arrival of the First Fleet in Sydney Harbour. From the perspective of the first Australians it marks the beginning of dispossession, pandemics, invasion and exclusion from their own land. For them it is not a day, not for celebrating what unites Australians, but for mourning the history that has divided them. As a result many Australians have demanded that the day be changed, and some local Councils tried to move citizenship ceremonies to another date. The previous Government responded by endorsing the date and warning Councils not to change the dates.

This year Australia Day will resume its sleepy existence as a summer holiday with no need for a relevant history or cause. The Albanese Government has removed restrictions on changing dates for ceremonies. Few Councils have felt the work involved in the change to be worthwhile. The symbolism of the day as a central marker of the past dispossession and discrimination against Indigenous Australians, too, has passed to the referendum on a constitutional Indigenous voice to Parliament promised later in the year. If ideological wars break out about Australian identity, the Referendum will be their focus.

Nevertheless the Referendum and the history of the relationships between the first Australians and the invaders and their successors remain intertwined. The Referendum is only the most recent attempt by Australian Governments to discharge their responsibility to Indigenous Australians and to remedy the discrepancy between their lives and those of other Australians. The relative disadvantage of Indigenous Australians today has its roots in their treatment by European settlers and the often violent imposition of alien laws and customs.

The Referendum is the most recent in a series of initiatives taken by Australian Governments to include Indigenous Australians. Among them are the extension of the right to vote to returned Indigenous servicemen and then to all Australians, the referendum that amended the Constitution to allow the Federal Government to pass laws pertaining to Indigenous Australians, the establishment and removal by different governments of various Indigenous representative and consultative groups, and proposals to recognise Indigenous Australians in the Constitution. Over this time, too, Governments have also recognised the gap between the health and conditions of Indigenous and other Australians, and have committed themselves without much success to lessen it.  They have also continued, however, to make decisions that affect the rights and welfare of Indigenous Australians without consulting them.

From this perspective the referendum is part of a long history of gradual recognition by governments of the disadvantage suffered by Indigenous Australians and of the roots of disadvantage in the suppression of their culture and rights. The history also includes previous attempts to consult Indigenous groups, and an increasingly effective advocacy by Indigenous representatives of the need for change. It embodies in a weaker form the recommendation contained in the Uluru Statement of 2017 ‘that a referendum be held to provide in the Australian Constitution for a representative body that gives Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander First Nations a Voice to the Commonwealth Parliament. One of the specific functions of such a body, to be set out in legislation outside the Constitution, should include the function of monitoring the use of the heads of power in section 51 (xxvi) and section 122. The body will recognise the status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first peoples of Australia’.


'The Uluru Statement from the Heart, drawn up by a widely representative group of Indigenous Australians, speaks eloquently both of the pathway to reconciliation and of the respectful reflection that should precede the Referendum.'


Although the Government has yet to provide details about the Referendum, it intends to introduce it in the second half of this year. The Prime Minister has also defined its scope. It will provide that there shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice; that The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to Parliament and the Executive Government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples; and that the Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to the composition, functions, powers and procedures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.

Since the announcement of the Referendum political groups have argued about the need for the Referendum and its efficacy, about the necessary conditions it must satisfy to be passed, including whether the Voice should have greater or less force.

These questions have to do with the politics of the referendum, both in the broad sense of the relationships between the different groups among Indigenous Australians and among the wider Australian community affected by the establishment of the Voice, and in the narrow sense of the interests of the political parties served by its success or failure. Media attention will inevitably focus on the narrow political considerations.

In this context it is important that the large questions posed by Australia Day be kept in mind. They have to do with Australian identity and with the lasting effects of the European invasion of Australia and its supplanting of the rights, laws, way of life and customs of the First Australians. That history cannot be reversed but neither can it be ignored. It establishes the need for reconciliation that addresses the disadvantage and discrimination suffered by Indigenous Australians, recognises their uniquely distinctive standing in Australia, and gives them an effective voice in deciding issues that concern them. The Uluru Statement from the Heart, drawn up by a widely representative group of Indigenous Australians, speaks eloquently both of the pathway to reconciliation and of the respectful reflection that should precede the Referendum.





Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Protesters are seen through an Aboriginal flag during a rally on April 10, 2021 in Sydney, Australia. (David Gray / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Australia Day, Referendum



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Existing comments

Well thought out and respectful comments thankyou Andrew.

Jan Wright | 24 January 2023  

Yes, there have been initiatives taken in the past with more or less successful outcomes. The difference this time is that this one comes FROM our Indigenous peoples, and it comes after through consultation and consideration. It's what THEY want, what THEY have asked for. It gives much to THEM and takes nothing from the rest of us. That's why I'll be voting yes.

Ginger Meggs | 24 January 2023  

All Australians including the indigenous population have a nominal "voice to the parliament" through the right to vote even though that voice is more representative of political party policy than what the people truly want or support. What the indigenous do not have is the money to pay the "professional lobbyists" who represent vested interests in the pursuit of what they want. Lobbyists have the power to achieve whatever the vested interests wish to pursue - for the Liberal/National parties, big business, rapacious landowners, developers, foreign investors and sports club administrators have a voice to the parliament which none of the electors have. For the Labor Party, similar highly paid lobbying voices come from the trade unions, foreign investors and some pragmatic corners of big business depending on which way the wind is blowing against which interests at the time. Surely, in this "great democracy" the major parties could not have any genuine objection to paying indigenous lobbyists to parliamentarians to express the voice of interested indigenous parties. Or perhaps we could become a true democracy and ban donations to political parties and the access of lobbyists to the parliamentary representatives of ALL THE PEOPLE. Only then would the impoverished indigenous community be on a par with the rest of the population.

John Frawley | 25 January 2023  
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...nicely written John, dare I say more eloquent than the primary article. At the moment I interpret the notion of "a voice" is just another manifestation of dissatisfaction with the Democratic process; a group preconceived on the basis it doesn't matter who is elected must have some form of redress so that any unilateral decision by government becomes contestable; imperious in nature because the conception is coined in a spirit of uninformed good will then cemented in Constitution. It strikes me as a recreation of a Feudalism by birth-rite. We were quick to condemn right wing America for challenging a democratically-elected President but we find ourselves contemplating a system of governance which legislates one demographic.

ray | 29 January 2023  

...my eyes are on Alice Springs.

ray | 25 January 2023  

On 26 January 245 soldiers plus their families, guarding 582 men, 193 women and 17 children arrived in Australia.
Yes, the soldiers could be seen as invaders sent by the English government but what about the prisoners. Did they invade Australia or were they in fact dispossessed of their country as will the descendants of those on shore watching the First Fleet arrive.
It was a one way ticket for the prisoners. In the period before the American Revolution, England was sending their prisoners to the Americas. Once a prisoner had served their sentence there, they were not allowed to return to England under penalty of death. England did not want the ex-convicts from America or Australia to return to their homeland.
One historian summarized the legal system of the time like this. A certain crime in Scotland may have resulted in a fine or short jail term. In England the same crime could have resulted in being hung or exiled as a convict to Australia.
More than half those that arrived on the first fleet were people dispossessed of their country. They would die in a land that was not their own. Appreciating this as a shared history of suffering and dispossession could be a point of national unity rather than division.

Alban Hunt | 25 January 2023  
Show Responses

Alban, it's not just about the First Fleet. Phillip may have claimed possession, but it was the thousands, then tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands of free immigrants who followed who did the dispossession. Go read the newspapers of the 1870s, especially the Queensland ones, in the Trove collection at the NLA, and see how the invasion, killing, and dispossession proceeded, not as isolated aberrations, but as standard practice.

Ginger Meggs | 28 January 2023  

It will be interesting to see how this Referendum goes when it is finally put to the vote. Will the results be similar to the one on Same Sex Marriage? As with SSM, there needs to be a civil and sensible conversation on this. Few people would deny the injustices and atrocities perpetrated on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but the conversation is not about that, it is about giving them a seat at the table they were long denied. I am underwhelmed with what our political leaders have said so far on the matter. Like having an Australian Head of State, the details need to be threshed out lest we gain a defective model which will not work properly. That will please no one.

Edward Fido | 26 January 2023  

On 5 June 2022, Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price wrote: "with federal Labor abolishing the Cashless Debit Card and NT Labor opening the flood gates to alcohol in vulnerable remote communities rates of DV and sexual abuse of children are about to skyrocket."
Senator Price's perceptiveness was vindicated by the forced visit of the Prime Minister to Alice Springs, now a lawless town.
Will the Voice make the lives of indigenous people better, or will it turn out like the US Defund the Police movement which only saw staggering increases in violent crime which disproportionately affected vulnerable minorities?
Former ALP minister, Gary Johns, has written of fifty years of policy failures by an "Aboriginal industry" in a "cruel neo-colonial endeavour as destructive as the colonial endeavour, but without the payoff of a better life." Those who live in remote communities "are the poster children of the industry. City academics need these poor souls to justify their city voices, and their jobs."
That Aborigines who oppose the Voice as symbolism rather than substance, like Senator Price and Warren Mundine, are bombarded daily with hundreds of racial threats and abusive messages, tells us a lot.

Ross Howard | 27 January 2023  

Recognition in Australia's Constitution is a first step in what must be a collaborative process on the part of all in closing the gap wherein the descendants of our first peoples remain in disadvantage.

John RD | 28 January 2023  

The referendum debate on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament always had the potential to turn ugly and sadly it did on Australia Day. The voices at the rallies, along with the placards paraded across our cities, sadly spoke volumes of the deep divide between our Indigenous brothers and sisters on this matter.
It feels like the government is pushing an agenda that clearly is out of step with those who (they) say will benefit from an enshrined Voice in our constitution. If the government is serious about healing and reconciliation I would have thought the first step in the process would be consultation with all indigenous people and their communities to understand what would make their lives better and, the second step, a vote cast by ALL Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to see if there is unanimous support for a Voice before a National Referendum, or are (White) people just going to tell them (again) what’s good for them so we feel good about ourselves? I hope not because that’s not a step to reconciliation!

Anna | 29 January 2023  

Anna. Surveys have shown that 80% of the indigenous community including its most respected elders supports the Voice to Parliament. The protesters represent the vast minority.

John Frawley | 30 January 2023  

Anna, there was consultation not with but among the Indigenous people themselves. It went on for several years seeking consensus and the request for a Voice is part of what came out of that consultation, that is the Uluru Statement From The Heart. You can read it for yourself here < https://ulurustatement.org/the-statement/ >.

Ginger Meggs | 31 January 2023  

“You can read it for yourself here………” I’m not the one who needs educating here, thank you.

An example of how to apply a strength -based approach to return successful outcomes in community was carried out by Dorrelle Anderson in the Northern Territory this week; which she expertly delivered within an unrealistic timeframe set by our Prime Minister! Now it’s up to the Commonwealth and Territory governments to listen to their voices and act on those recommendations. And, not wait until an ‘advisory’ body of ‘élite’ representatives is appointed to Parliament before amending the legislation. Our First Nation People have been waiting too long for their voices to be heard.
We all need to stop politicising Aboriginal issues and start respecting their rights to be architects of change in their own communities……that doesn’t need a National Referendum, it needs a Change of Hearts.

Anna | 02 February 2023  

The Aboriginals & Islanders have a sparse declining population, in extreme distress, inhabit an island where there is an Established Church, the C of E, which is not their Church, and have been ruled by a Canberra aristocracy the richest of whom all live in state capitals.
Thus you have a starving marginalised population with no inherent property rights , an absentee elite aristocracy, and an alien Church (some vague notion that we continue to bend the knee to the Crown); and in addition the weakest minority in this land.
I agree with Noel Pearson that the Voice is a diversion, to deflect attention from the real issue, which is a full fledged recognition of ATSIC rights and responsibilities in the Constitution come October 2023.

Francis Armstrong | 03 February 2023  

Is it really a case of 'either/or' Anna? Is there not a place for both immediate case-focused action and longer term strategic-oriented advice? Is abuse of alcohol the only thing that needs to be fixed?

Ginger Meggs | 04 February 2023  

According to the elders of the Kukatja people of Balgo when I was there in the early 1970s, Ginger, drink wasn't the only problem threatening their community; of equal concern was Black Panther ideology being preached to the tribe's young men on their cattle runs to Alice Springs: "Not our story!" asserted the elders who, far from seeing the Catholic missionaries who had "made camp" with them on the edge of the Tanami in 1938 as white oppressors, regarded them as their rescuers from rogue whites on the run from police in the big cities.

John RD | 06 February 2023  

Noel Pearson is a supporter of the referendum Francis, where did you get the idea that he wasn't ?

Ginger Meggs | 26 February 2023  

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