Yes to Voice


03 April 2023

The union movement has a chance to make history this year by campaigning in favour of the referendum to provide a Voice to Parliament for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, as supported by the ACTU’s Unions for Yes campaign.

A Voice to Parliament gives the federal government the opportunity to make policies with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, rather than for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through constitutional recognition.

The AEU’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members, represented by the Yalukit Yulendj committee, will lead the AEU's campaign in support of the upcoming referendum.

Committee chair Russell Honnery told AEU Federal Conference delegates that a Voice enshrined in the Constitution would give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples the opportunity to provide advice directly to the federal parliament on any laws and policies that affect them.

“The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a profound call from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for constitutional change and structural reform,” Honnery says. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures can flourish in an environment of truth, justice, fairness and self-determination, he says.

The 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart invites Australians to build a better future by establishing a First Nations Voice to Parliament, enshrined in the Constitution, and establishing a Makarrata Commission to supervise treaty making and truth telling. “It is long overdue for Australia to reset its relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Previous governments have shamefully and severely diminished the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. With a diminution of human rights comes a diminution of living standards, life chances, and access to adequate and appropriate services, including education,” says Honnery.

Aunty Penny Taylor, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander support teacher

Wiradjiri woman Aunty Penny Taylor, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander support teacher at Jimboomba State School in Queensland and member of the Stolen Generation asks, “Why shouldn't we have a voice?”

“My mother had no voice to say that she didn't want to have me adopted. We had children taken away up until 1970. Where was their voice? Where were the parents’ voices?

I think giving people an opportunity to have a say is important and obvious. But then we have to get people to understand what having that voice means. It's not just: OK, we have a referendum and they say, oh yeah, you can have a say now. But how do we have a say?

One of the things that we're talking about is the processes: How do we inform, How do we use that voice? And for me, how am I going to speak? How am I going to make my needs and wants known through using my voice?

For so long, we haven’t been able to have an opinion or a voice — we were flora and fauna until 1967.

But as the first people here, we should have always had a voice. When cultures collide, there's always going to be a loser, and we were the losers. The voice is important. It's really important.”

Belinda Coulahan, Principal

Bidjara woman Belinda Coulahan, principal at Nerang State School in Queensland says supporting the Voice came down to questioning why every step still needs to be fought for.

I had to think really hard about this. On one hand, it makes me realise how judgemental our society is. So I’ve had to take a step forward from that because I want to view it optimistically.

I thought of my mother, and I thought of my mob and what it would mean for them. And for me, if I put that lens on, I’m thinking that it gives me a belief that there will finally be an acknowledgement of First Nations worthiness and valuing of our people. Even with the Apology, we’ve never had that. “If it does get up and meet the goal of advising parliament on matters relating to the social, the spiritual and the economic wellbeing of First Nations peoples then we’ll give our mob pride, acknowledgement and more self-determination, instead of feeling like they’ve got to fight every step of the way. That’s a big thing.

If it’s successful, it will hold the government of the day and the parliament of the day to account. And, let’s face it, we haven’t had that.

If they’re held accountable and doing the right thing, if it’s truly embedded, there will be an obligation and commitment to consult on matters, that’s what we need. It’s logical. It’s not asking them for much, it’s just asking to have a voice. Pure and simple.”

Maurice Palmer, Teacher

Bama man Maurice Palmer, a teacher at Banksia Grove Primary School in Western Australia, says the Voice provides hope and a way forward, and would allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to feel recognised and acknowledged.

The Voice means a lot. Without a Voice there’s no communication. We know how proud children feel when they’re acknowledged, even if it’s just a merit certificate.

The Voice is something that would stick with them, like a merit certificate they can keep forever.”

Emerson Zerafa-Payne, Teacher and PhD candidate

Djiribul man Emerson Zerafa-Payne, a teacher at Bremer State School in Queensland, says the Voice is a chance for equity.

Many people are pushing for Treaty before Voice but what they may not realise is that governments can enact and then repeal treaties at any time. Having a Voice to Parliament will ensure we always have a seat at the table.

Considering our history and the history of government policies that have affected First Nations peoples, it’s finally a chance for us to have our say, to have our voice be valued. But it’s also a stepping stone towards equity with non-Indigenous people.

For our students, it’s showing them that this is their future. This is what the future of Australia is going to look like. It helps empower them and show them that their voice matters.

As a social sciences teacher, I teach history and a lot of history isn’t good. So it’s sort of a turning point for Australian history, because we’re changing the constitution, we’re changing a piece of history and trying to make it better.”

Dimiti Trudgett, Teacher

Wayilwan woman Dimiti Trudgett, a teacher working as principal education officer coordinator – schooling, in the Aboriginal Outcomes and Partnerships Directorate, NSW Department of Education, says the Voice is about self-determination.

This is important to me because we, as Aboriginal people, should have a voice in the decisions that are made about us. making process for our people. It’s really about self-determination. Past government policies haven’t always worked for Aboriginal peoples. So, let us be part of the decision-making process for our people.

Where I work, we work from the onset across departments on issues affecting Aboriginal peoples. We don’t come in later, we come in at the start and that’s a really important thing. So, with governments, we need to be there at the table at the very start and not brought in later. That’s where having a Voice enshrined in the Constitution will make a difference.”

Steve Mitchell, Teacher

Kamilaroi Wiradjuri man Steve Mitchell, a teacher at Yuendumu School in the Northern Territory, says Voice is the start of a bigger conversation.

I’m very conflicted on what the Voice will bring. I’m pessimistic because of the history of government decisions and the continual promises we have been given.

But I do agree with the Voice, the treaty and truth telling. The Voice brings me hope, and we have to live in hope.

I think of my Elders and how significant the Apology was to those people at the time. I feel that for all the warriors that have walked before me, the Voice will be such a proud moment for them.

If the vote is successful, I feel like it’ll be sort of like winning a heat at the Olympics, but you’ve still got to go through the semi-final and the final, and then maybe we’ll get on the podium.

I look at the Voice from two perspectives: one from where I grew up on Australia’s east coast, and another from where I’ve been working for the past six years in a remote community in the Northern Territory.

I grew up being ridiculed and questioned about my identity. My grandmother would have rocks thrown at her as a child. But I can see that there’s been a momentum for change, particularly along the eastern seaboard and in urban areas for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

But the people I live with now in remote communities have more immediate priorities: How are they going to get food on the table today? How are they going to get to a family member’s funeral that’s five hours away? They’re not thinking about the Voice, although it might ultimately benefit them.

So maybe the first focus of the Voice to Parliament is on our remote communities. Let’s not look anywhere else. Let’s address those issues and what’s needed here for those people to have a little bit more hope in their lives.”

Anthony Galluzzo, Teacher

Wiradjuri man Anthony Galluzzo, senior education officer K–6 Advisor, Aboriginal Outcomes and Partnerships Directorate, NSW Department of Education says the key message for him is: “This will be our direct Voice in the Constitution, a Constitution that governs our lands, our Country, our communities, but has never represented us.”

We’re connected to Country, land is who we are. Once we’re enshrined in the Constitution, this gives us a stronger voice to empower our people, and that will connect directly to government. That can then drive policy that links to our community, to our kids and our schools. So, when policies are debated and created, we’re going to have a direct impact because we know what our people need, what our kids need, we know what our community needs.

That’s why I see this as critical and a must, because our voice is there right from the start – when decisions are made and created and formulated – our voice is going to be right at the table creating the decisions for our people when the sun rises, not when it sets. The time is now. Our Voice is paramount to our future.”

This article was originally published In the Australian Educator, Autumn 2023