‘A civil, mature conversation’: architects of the Uluru Statement make plea for consensus on referendum

by Lorena Allam
Indigenous leaders say a voice to parliament is the best way to make a material difference to the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

It’s been a week since the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, revealed the government’s preferred “yes or no” question to ask Australians in a referendum to enshrine an Indigenous voice to parliament in the constitution.

There has already been intense speculation about what the next steps will be – questions about what a voice would do, debate about whether it will be “practical” or “symbolic”, and calls for detail about how it would operate.

Two of the architects of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, Megan Davis and Pat Anderson, say they hope the country can have a “civil” conversation about the voice between now and the vote.

“This will be a hard conversation to have, but it’s necessary,” Anderson told Guardian Australia.

The referendum question will be put to the Australian people in this term of the Albanese government, most likely towards the end of next year.

“My personal hope is that we have a national conversation, a civil, mature conversation, and we come to some kind of agreement at the end of it,” Anderson says. “At the moment, that’s still possible, but the predictable naysayers are out and we’ve only just started this conversation since Saturday.”

It started with the prime minister’s visit to the Garma festival in Arnhem Land last weekend, where he outlined the government’s plan – starting by asking a simple question requiring a yes or no answer, and suggesting three sentences be added to the constitution.

“We should consider asking our fellow Australians something as simple as: ‘Do you support an alteration to the constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice?’” Albanese said in a landmark speech on 30 July.

A yes vote would give parliament the authority to thrash out the detail later on.

The Balnaves chair for constitutional law at the University of New South Wales, Prof Megan Davis, says she understands there’s a “lot of curiosity and impatience” for detail, but it is a “common constitutional technique” to defer detail to the parliament at a later date.

“That’s how, for example, the high court was set up,” she says. “The enabling provision has passed, and the institution’s been set up later.”

Enshrining a great level of detail would limit parliament’s capacity to change or amend the voice at some future point if necessary, she argues.

“So the decision to defer detail, I think people are confusing that with the most contemporaneous referendum, which was the republic referendum, where the model actually mattered because it was going into the constitution,” she says.

“[In this instance], the model isn’t being enshrined, the enabling power is.”

In response to those who say a treaty should come first, including Greens senator Lidia Thorpe, Davis says treaties take a long time to develop.

“If they’re done in the way they should be done, [treaties] are very complex agreements with the crown,” she says. “In British Columbia it took a couple of decades before the first one was even online.

“The other thing is, it won’t be like a lot of first contact treaties. There are a lot of things the state will say are settled. We won’t agree with them on that. And this is why treaty negotiations take a very, very long time.”

There are also issues of negotiating power, authority and resources. Davis says delegates at the Uluru dialogues talked about “communities being torn apart” by native title processes, where the threshold of proof required to have native title recognised has split families, communities and nations.

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“Virtually all the dialogues mentioned that the first thing they needed was dispute resolution and to treaty with each other first, before we can treaty with the crown,” Davis says.

“A lot of [traditional owners] and elders have been through land claims processes where they’ve felt like the power imbalance is so acute between us and the state that many nations aren’t even at the threshold of being able to engage with the state on this.”

Anderson says there is a clear response to speculation that the voice will not make a material difference to the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“There’s some urgency here about attending to all the challenges that we face – 10-year-old boys in prison in Darwin,” she says. “We have two generations in the Northern Territory who can’t read and write.

“It just goes on and on and on, all around the continent. We can’t wait another 20 years before we all negotiate a treaty, we have to have something now,” she says.

“In fact, while we’ve been on this journey, we’ve had about six people who were at the dialogues who have died. Imagine what we’re going to have left, given the current health stats, in 20 years.

“We have to have something, because now we have nothing, and despite all the good work that our service delivery people are doing, they have to continue to beg and justify themselves.”

With a voice, she says, comes an ability to directly tell governments what Indigenous people want and need.

“We won’t have to beg any more, we won’t have to justify ourselves. We will set the agenda by sitting at that table, with what our priorities are,” Anderson says.

“It’s all new. We have an opportunity here to be something, to do something a bit more creative, not so adversarial. Have a decent conversation between decent people. That would be good, wouldn’t it?”