A better Australia


24 July 2023

  • The Voice to Parliament Handbook offers a basic explanation of the Voice.
  • Co-authors Thomas Mayo and Kerry O'Brien say it is a question of fairness and acceptance.
  • While the Voice is an important step, there's still a lot of hard work ahead.

When author Thomas Mayo visits schools around Australia to tell students about the Uluru Statement from the Heart, he’s often asked why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people don’t already have a Voice to parliament.

Mayo, a Kaurareg Aboriginal and Kalkalgal, Erubamle Torres Strait Islander man, is a Maritime Union of Australia official and an advocate for a constitutionally enshrined Voice. He has published four books and numerous articles and essays.

His latest book, The Voice to Parliament Handbook, which was co-authored by former ABC journalist Kerry O’Brien, is a back-to-basics explanation of the Voice.

Mayo writes that it’s now up to all of us to answer the children’s question.

“The Uluru Statement – the invitation to accept our Voice – is written to the Australian people,” he says.

Mayo points out that it’s not a government idea. “Rather, it is a gift from Indigenous peoples.”

Thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were involved in the creation of the Uluru Statement, which was released in May 2017. The Voice was one of its three key proposals. The deliberations were conducted over many days through a series of regional discussions and culminated in the Uluru National Constitutional Convention in 2017.

O’Brien says the Voice “reflects a conscious choice by the largest representative body of First Nations leadership in our history to go beyond the politicians of this country and appeal directly to the people”.

While some have sought to complicate the referendum, it is a simple matter, say Mayo and O’Brien: “It comes down to a question about fairness and acceptance.”

The referendum’s only role is to decide whether to acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s 60,000-year occupation of the continent and the deep injustice of their colonial dispossession by giving them a right to be heard and to have a say in government policy, write Mayo and O’Brien.

Russell Honnery, chair of Yalukit Yalendj, the AEU’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Committee, says that this acknowledgement through a ‘yes’ vote will be something that cannot be removed or changed by successive governments without another referendum.

“It’s a recognition that we’re actually here,” says Honnery, a Gomeroi man.

Honnery says the referendum is a first step. “There’s a lot of hard work ahead,” he says. That’s particularly the case in schools where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student numbers are growing – but Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers and principals remain in small numbers.

In 2021, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in Years 7 to 12 represented 5.7 per cent of the total student population. In the 20 years to 2021, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander high school student numbers grew from 34,124 to 100,609, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

But Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teacher numbers have failed to keep pace. The latest available numbers, from the 2016 census, showed that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers made up a little over 2 per cent of all teachers.

It is crucial to lift the numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers and principals to help connect schools to communities, says Honnery.

The More Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Teachers Initiative (MATSITI), a four-year national program to increase numbers, which ended in 2015, saw an increase of 16.5 per cent. The program was discontinued by the previous government.

Principal of Cabbage Tree Island Public School and president of NATSIPA Dyonne Anderson, a proud Githabal woman, is disappointed that there is not a greater effort to train and recruit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers and to support career progression to principal positions.

“We need to make sure we are visible in schools, particularly those with high Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations, so that our communities and the wider community can experience our passion, commitment and perspective. That’s how we are going to end up having a better Australia,” says Anderson.

“There are great benefits for our education system investing in us. There’s always been a great need to make sure that we are represented and have a voice because we have the solutions and alternative viewpoints to be able to deal with some of the challenges we face with our children.”

Anderson says research data highlights that educational leaders are increasingly feeling “culturally unsafe” and are subject to racist abuse – behaviour is also of concern.

“We have to acknowledge it and have a way to address it,” she says. “It can’t be the dominant culture that continues to come up with determining whether an incident is racist, and then come up with a solution. It just doesn’t make sense. We’re never going to have any success for First Nations people when the dominant culture determines the whole process and the outcome."

If you’ve never experienced racism, how can you assess someone’s experience and deliver a fair and unbiased outcome?

“We’ve got to get our foundations right and then we can actually benefit from the additional strengths, insight, knowledge, 60,000-plus years of connection to Country to culture that that can bring to our schools,” Anderson says.

By Tracey Evans

This article was originally published in the Australian Educator, Winter 2023

The community campaign

A community campaign to support a yes vote in the referendum is underway, fuelled by public donations.

The campaign, which provides a comprehensive explanation of the referendum and a host of resources, offers ways to become involved through volunteering or donating.

Source: yes23.com.au

What is the Voice to parliament?

The Voice will be an advisory body, which would make representations to the federal parliament and executive government on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander matters.

It will:

  • be chosen by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people based on the wishes of local communities
  • be representative of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, gender balanced and include youth
  • be empowering, community-led, inclusive, respectful and culturally informed
  • be accountable and transparent
  • work alongside existing organisations and traditional structures
  • not have a program delivery function
  • not have veto power.
  • Source: voice.gov.au


    Federal government information : voice.gov.au

    Community campaign : yes23.com.au

    Unions for Yes campaign : tinyurl.com/y8nn3d3y