Last week I had the privilege of standing on a stage with Noel Pearson, Megan Davis and Thomas Mayor as they presented to members of the Sydney legal community the physical version of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
The words and the painting speak so powerfully of the aspirations of Australia’s First Nations for legal and political change, including constitutional change to give First Nations a voice to the commonwealth parliament.
Pearson also gave one of the most powerful speeches I have heard in Australia, explaining why this change is so important for his people.
It is a great shame that no member of the federal government was there to see or hear this.
Less than 48 hours later they rejected the proposal, citing the difficulties of persuading the Australian people to support it at a referendum.
This was despite more than a year of grassroots deliberation in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community across the country, through 13 regional “dialogues”, that universally endorsed the idea; and the recommendations of the Referendum Council the government itself had appointed.
The government also gets the obstacles to success in this area exactly backwards: it is the parliament and not the people which is the biggest obstacle to change in this area.
Last Thursday, like many other parents, I was standing not on a stage but on the sides of a netball court.
After exhausting netball-related topics, I got to explaining the Voice idea to some other parents.
Their reaction was that they wanted to learn more, but they were also uniformly positive.
They were not aware of the proposal but thought it made a great deal of sense.
Now if I can convince someone in five minutes, while they watch their daughter play sport, I am absolutely confident that, given weeks and months to explain and campaign on the idea, First Nations leaders can convince the public of its merits.
This is the whole point of a referendum process: to inform and educate Australians about proposals for change, and then let them decide for themselves.
The government is proposing to deny Australians that opportunity — and in the process deny Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders a once-in-a-generation opportunity for what Pearson has rightly called “modest but significant change” in their relationship to non-indigenous people and government processes.
For same-sex marriage, the government has been willing to trust the wisdom of the Australian people — or at least the democratic argument for letting them decide questions of fundamental legal and political importance.
In 1999, Malcolm Turnbull was also at the forefront of making the case for letting the Australian people have the chance to decide their own constitutional future.
After the referendum defeat, he expressed the sentiments of many in the Australian Republican Movement when he said: “The ARM should be proud of its achievements. We didn’t win this vote today ... but without our tireless efforts, there would have been no debate ...
“Because of our struggle the republic is indelibly on the Australian political agenda. Together we put it there.”
The government should give the same chance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
If it is detail the government wants on the Voice proposal, as I have said before, the government can provide it.
But if it is not minded to do so, constitutional experts like myself are also happy to supply it.
View the article here.