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Will they gain a Voice? I sincerely hope so


I am an urban and suburban animal. Apart from rustic holidays as a kid and criss-crossing Australia on interstate trips, I’ve hugged the coastlines all of my life; never living in a rural setting. And I am not alone in that. Some 72 per cent of Australians live in cities, towns and the ’burbs, according to the ABS last year, with only 28 per cent living ‘in rural and remote areas’ encompassing ‘many diverse locations and communities’. 

So while I’m conscious of the strictures imposed on people living in the bush or in deep country far from the capitals, while I’ve driven through bushfire-ravaged landscapes or detoured flooded highways, I have never truly shared their experiences. I can’t pretend to know what life is like on the land.

That is doubly so when it comes to relating to the members of the First Nations of Australia, whose voices, aspirations to sovereignty, health and welfare – whose very dignity and hope – are being voted on by referendum on 14 October.

I know and have known Indigenous Australians. I have a partial understanding of what the last few hundred years have meant, what challenges we face as a nation and what disparate paths we walk towards those challenges. But I don’t pretend to know the answers to their pain and disadvantage. Will they gain a voice? I sincerely hope so.

What seems clear to me, despite the polarising contentions filtering through social and mass media, is that the pursuit of a Voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians is quintessentially the pursuit of hope. These Australians, whose agency we’re being asked to heed, and whose sense of hope we are toying with, are predominantly located in Western Australia, Queensland and New South Wales – they represent some 3.8 per cent of our population.

We would do well to listen if we wish to heal the fractured state of our national psyche. After so many years of not closing the gap, the existing state of Indigenous disadvantage is not a surprise, for the disadvantaged or for those who are advantaged (even if some of us are still in denial).


'I believe hope defeats despair, overcoming social isolation and sustaining the desire to grow and change. The Voice represents hope and our landlords have had to wait a long time for that.'


Indigenous people are up to three times ‘worse off’ (health, education, life expectancy, income, quality of life, etc. etc. etc.) than non-Indigenous people in Australia. More than 120,000 Indigenous people are ‘living below the poverty line’.

You may be undecided on the question of the referendum. You may feel you have legitimate concerns or fears. And perhaps you do. You may be grumpy at accusations of racism, or be offside over a raft of constitutional issues under discussion. At the risk of making you grumpier, I’d suggest you heed the desire of the majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who support the idea of being heard through this proposal.

Amidst the uncertainties, what we know to be certain is that life is bleak, painful and lonely for many folks. Presumably it’s bleaker still without hope of change. That long-faced Russian, Fyodor Dostoevsky, believed that ‘to live without hope is to cease to live’. The emptied, zombification of people starts when they are unseen, unheard, unthought-of.

Hope looms as a spark to generate some kind of quality of life, an equity that is sadly lacking in Australia. Let’s have a crack at addressing that through this unassuming, tentative step of listening to a representative Voice.

For our concerned naysayers, consider this: if the Voice goes bung, with its limited scope to impact legislation, what have you lost? What do we do if hope is revealed to be a cloud without water? Benjamin Franklin, who passed away 21 years before old Fyodor was born, was more of a cynic. ‘He that lives upon hope,’ Franklin quipped, ‘will die fasting.’

People die before their time, and the actuarial tables reveal that people’s place in this country, their heritage and experiences, are part of those losses. Poverty, malnutrition, disease, prejudice, deprivation, hopelessness. These conditions exist beyond the framework of the upcoming vote. We can pretend they do not, and keep on keeping on. Many of us do. Or we can put aside our fears, listen, and give the process a go. We have nothing to lose.

I fear that the patience of Indigenous people and the hope that still lives will die without the sustenance of recognition and the renewal of the sacred. We can all gain from hints of the dire and terrible beauty that is our country; that sense of kinship with the land that we can gain glimpses of from Aboriginal people.

Twelve years ago, inaugural chairperson of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) Lowitja O’Donoghue shared truths and her hope for the coming referendum:


Since the 1967 referendum, Australia has been living a lie. It has patted itself on the back as a fair country, one that treats its citizens equally and, especially, protects the vulnerable.

Don’t get me wrong. I am proud to have helped to secure the ‘Yes’ vote that recognised us as citizens and more than mere flora and fauna. It was important. But it also pains me to know that the constitution still contains a potentially discriminatory power, which can be used by the commonwealth against our people or, indeed, any other race. And that it still lacks any explicit recognition of us or our place as the First Australians.

Of course, our founding document was framed in a different era. Many say we cannot judge it by today’s standards. Perhaps not but we can bring it into line with those standards. This would be good not only for our own heads and our hearts, as per advice from the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, but also for the nation’s soul.


I believe hope defeats despair, overcoming social isolation and sustaining the desire to grow and change. The Voice represents hope and our landlords have had to wait a long time for that. As Tertullian put it eons ago, ‘hope is patience with the lamp lit.’ Let’s shed some light.




Barry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.

Main image: The Aboriginal flag is seen flying during the NAIDOC March on July 07, 2023 in Melbourne, Australia. (Darrian Traynor / Getty images)

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Referendum, Voice, Indigenous, First Nations, Constitution



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Existing comments

As voting day approaches, the public debate on the Voice increases in tempo; frequency and outbreaks of vilification from both sides. This has become a very bitter and divisive issue. It need not have been. A properly organized Constitutional Convention prior to the referendum would, I believe, have ironed out these contentious issues. I think some partisans on both sides are guilty of equivocation on the issue. I see no heroes from either side of this debate. Whatever the outcome of the vote, we will be a much more divided society and I do not believe the winning and losing sides will stretch out the hand of reconciliation to each other. 'Poor fellow my country?'

Edward Fido | 03 October 2023  

Australia is a federation. We can have six state and two territory Voices. They can choose to form their own national umbrella body.

When issues of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander welfare intersect with the State, they are mainly to do with matters that belong to state and territory jurisdiction.

In any case, if the subject matter is deemed to be of national significance, why can't the national umbrella, on behalf of the states and territories, make representations to the Commonwealth Parliament?

s martin | 06 October 2023  

Many have argued that the discussion about the need for a Voice has created division... and this may be because any kind of change may seem to threaten what we know or seem daunting. But progress always involves change, and if the Voice was to pass, it would be a small gesture towards greater equality and harmony. If we aren't taking steps forward -- even small ones -- then we risk plateauing as a nation or going backwards. If we truly care about our fellow Australians, then we should be willing to listen. We should want our Indigenous neighbours, co-workers, and friends to be heard and respected. No one loses power if Australia gains a Voice. Letting someone speak up, or gain a seat at the Parliamentary table, costs us nothing. But a widening of perspectives gives us all the chance to gain something.

Emily Larkin | 10 October 2023  

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