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Kill Your Darlings is proud to support the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. Our organisation believes in equal opportunity for all people. We want to listen to First Nations voices. We are voting yes out of respect. Nothing changes if we do nothing.

—Rebecca Starford, Kill Your Darlings Publishing Director and CEO

Australians will soon be faced with an important choice.

Will they vote Yes to change our nation’s Constitution to introduce an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice? Or will they vote No and bring the recognition process to a halt and, along with it, the aspirations of an overwhelming number of Australia’s first peoples? The stakes could not be higher.

The Voice referendum will be Australia’s first attempt to amend the Constitution in nearly a quarter of a century. The last time a change was put to the people was in 1999, when they rejected the idea of a republic and a new preamble (or opening words) to the Constitution. We have to go back much further again to find the last time that Australians voted Yes to constitutional change. This was in 1977, nearly half a century ago.

This referendum matters because it is the culmination of decades of advocacy and public debate about how our nation can come to terms with its past, and prepare for a better future, by recognising Indigenous peoples in our nation’s founding document. Changing our Constitution to bring a new body of Indigenous peoples to advise on the laws and policies that affect them offers the best—and only—opportunity to achieve this. The referendum promises to be a moment of national inclusion that will for the first time recognise our first peoples as part of the nation formed upon their ancestral lands.

This could mark a decisive break from the Constitution that came into force at Federation in 1901. That document excluded Indigenous people from the political settlement that brought about the new nation. Rather than being treated as equal citizens, they were cast as a ‘dying race’ not expected to survive British settlement. They were described as a ‘problem’ and as a people lacking any future in the nation. As a result, they were immediately denied the right to vote in federal elections and the Constitution said they could not be included in counts of the Australian population. As Australia celebrated its passage into nationhood in 1901, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were herded onto reserves and missions. These are two very different experiences of Federation.

This referendum and moment of nation-building is different. Australians will vote on change that embodies the aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for how they would like to be recognised in the Constitution. This was made clear at a historic gathering of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at Uluru in 2017. They issued a statement to the Australian people on what constitutional recognition should include. The Uluru Statement from the Heart (see pages 192–93) called for a First Nations ‘Voice’ to Parliament protected by the Constitution followed by a process of agreement-making and truth-telling. This is popularly referred to as Voice, Treaty, Truth.

This referendum and moment of nation-building is different.

This is not the first time that Australia’s first peoples have sought constitutional change. Their advocacy culminated in a successful referendum in 1967. Since then, many people—including a long list of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders and successive prime ministers from Paul Keating and John Howard onwards— have agitated for further change. These calls emerged as it became clear that the 1967 referendum had left unfinished business.

The 1967 referendum deleted discriminatory references to Aboriginal people but put nothing in their place and provided no means for them to have a say on the laws and policies that affected them. As a result, rather than recognising Indigenous people and giving them a voice, the referendum left a silence at the heart of the Constitution. Today, the document reflects Australia’s history of British settlement but fails to acknowledge the much longer occupation of the continent by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It is as if this history does not matter and is not part of the nation’s story.

George Williams and Megan Davis. Photo credit: Richard Freeman.

The 1967 referendum also did not deal with other issues of importance to Indigenous peoples. These include the settlement of differences through the making of treaties and the need to have a say on laws that affect them. In bypassing these and other issues, the 1967 referendum failed to make structural changes to improve the relationship between the state and Indigenous peoples.

Some people find it hard to see why these issues should be tackled when so much else needs to be done. The evidence time and time again illustrates the disadvantage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples experience and how this manifests in poor life expectancy and unemployment. One of the ways of addressing this is constitutional recognition. Overcoming disadvantage requires multiple approaches.

An Indigenous Voice is one of the things that could accelerate improvement.

An Indigenous Voice is one of the things that could accelerate improvement.

Constitutional change of this kind can have broad, positive effects that extend far beyond the law. For example, the referendum could unite Australians around a sense of their shared history which, for the first time in the Constitution, would include the long habitation of the continent by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This is reflected in the fact that the Uluru Statement from the Heart was issued as an ‘invitation’ to the Australian people to work with First Nations peoples on a journey that would repeat what was done in unity in 1967. The invitation explained why constitutional change is so integral to improving the situation of Indigenous peoples in Australia. Constitutional recognition could also have positive health effects. Research on the social determinants of health shows how legal discrimination and exclusion can have a negative impact on mental and physical wellbeing. Indeed, it is hard to underestimate the emotional and other costs of being cast as an outsider in your own land. Experts have recognised this. For example, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists notes:

The lack of acknowledgement of a people’s existence in a country’s constitution has a major impact on their sense of identity and value within the community, and perpetuates discrimination and prejudice which further erodes the hope of Indigenous people. There is an association with socioeconomic disadvantage and subsequent higher rates of mental illness, physical illness and incarceration.

Recognition in the Constitution would have a positive effect on the self-esteem of Indigenous Australians and reinforce their pride in their culture and history. It would make a real difference to the lives of Indigenous Australians, and is an important step to support and improve the lives and mental health of Indigenous Australians.

Examples from other countries (such as Canada, New Zealand and the United States) highlight how the right legal settings can produce better health outcomes. The hope is that changing the Australian Constitution to recognise and empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will contribute in the same way.

Our goal in our new book Everything You Need to Know About the Voice is to set out what people need to know to understand the Indigenous Voice and our nation’s journey towards constitutional recognition. This means exploring where the Constitution came from, and the role Indigenous peoples played in its drafting.

We also examine how the Constitution was altered in 1967, and why that referendum has led to calls for further change today, including most prominently through the Uluru Statement and its call for the Voice.

The book is uniquely placed to tell this story. Megan Davis was a member of the Referendum Council and designed the regional dialogue method that led to the consensus at Uluru on 26 May 2017. She read the Uluru Statement from the Heart to the national convention and then the Australian public for the first time. Megan also advises the Australian government as a member of its Indigenous Referendum Working Group and as a member of its Constitutional Expert Group. She has examined constitutional change processes including citizen conventions and deliberative democracy and more importantly Indigenous constitutional change processes globally and has drawn upon the experience of those working with communities including Aunty Pat Anderson, Noel Pearson, Patrick Dodson, Dalassa Yorkston, Galarrwuy Yunupingu and many others who work and live in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

George Williams has also been involved with many of the contemporary events described in this book in his work as a constitutional lawyer. As a barrister he appeared for the Ngarrindjeri women in the Hindmarsh Island Bridge Case in 1998 and has provided support and advice on matters including the making of treaties and constitutional recognition to parliaments and organisations such as land councils, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, ATSIC and the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. He also serves as a member of the Australian government’s Constitutional Expert Group advising on the wording of the Voice referendum.

This is an edited extract from Everything You Need to Know about the Voice by Megan Davis and George Williams (UNSW Press),  available now.