Voice referendum in Australia asks a simple question with no simple answer

Referendum has been misunderstood abroad as a straightforward vote on civil rights with all Indigenous people clearly on one side

Australia is possibly the only country which eats our coat of arms. The kangaroo and emu prop up each side of the shield on the nation’s emblem – both noble, native animals which can be turned into mince and put into spag bol or eaten the way our traditional landowners intended, depending on your preference.

They were chosen for the coat of arms because they are both creatures that don’t walk backwards, to symbolise a nation committed to progress and perpetual forwards motion.

This commitment to innovative policymaking and economic strength saw it become the country to which people move from all corners of the globe when they dream of a better life – and helped it shake off the stale, colonial limitations as we moved away from English influence.

But as we stride ahead, we have a bloody history that cannot be kicked under the carpet. Australia’s closet skeletons are out on the lawn and we walk past them everyday, looking our ugly past in the eye as we try to decide what kind of country we want to be now.


It’s impossible in this short space to do justice to all wrongs done to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. The theft of their land. The murder of their people. The forced removal of their children. The destruction of their language and cultural knowledge. The 516 Indigenous deaths in custody since 1991. The ongoing disadvantages caused by intergenerational trauma and institutionalised racism. It must be noted, too, that Irish immigrants and religious order members participated in and benefited from the oppression of Australia’s Indigenous people.

There are very few in Australia who do not recognise how badly our Indigenous people were treated. The bitterly argued question is instead about the best way to make it right.

On Saturday, as Australians vote in the Voice referendum, they will be asking themselves just that. They will vote on whether or not to formally recognise the First Peoples of Australia in the constitution.

This won’t look like just a few lines added into a document, but rather the establishment of a body called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.

This group, chosen by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people, will make representations to the government on issues that affect them. Community elders, leaders and activists have long cited the failure of past policies because they did not take into account the wishes, culture or knowledge of the people they were targeting. For example, First Nations communities with housing crises have pointed out that housing built by the government was designed with a western eye – small, single-family-type dwellings that weren’t fit for purpose for the multigenerational family living arrangements common in some Indigenous cultures.

Australia had Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island advisory bodies in the past; however the last attempt, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), was dissolved in 2005 amid allegations of corruption, misuse of funds and sexual assault accusations.

Australia’s closet skeletons are out on the lawn and we walk past them everyday, looking our ugly past in the eye as we try to decide what kind of country we want to be now

Critics of the Voice have little faith in creating more bureaucracy to address something it has historically been awful at doing – delivering the right kind of help to where it is needed, while advocates say it actually means less bureaucracy by having one body instead of hundreds of individual community groups.

The referendum abroad has been misunderstood as a simple vote on civil rights with all Indigenous people clearly on one side.

It can be tempting to try and understand the situation using the comforting lens of Irish history – the oppressed vs the oppressors; the colonisers and the true owners of the land.

But Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islands are not a single group of people. Instead, the world’s oldest civilisation has more than 250 nations with distinct cultures, languages, beliefs and practices – which means there is a large range of stakeholders having to work together. Naturally, not all of them are going to agree. There are also Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people along the spectrum of politics.

So while the Liberal party has firmly swung behind a No vote in opposition to Labour’s yes, the referendum isn’t cleaved down the line of conservatives voting no, and Indigenous people and progressives voting yes.

National Party Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, a prominent No campaigner of Warlpiri heritage, controversially declared colonisation had “a positive impact, absolutely” on Indigenous Australians. There’s also the progressive No movement which campaigned against the Voice on the basis that a non-binding advisory body is a limp substitute for a treaty.

For those who hold fast to the principle that Blak sovereignty was never ceded, being included in the constitution is a borderline insult.

As Gunaikurnai and Wotjobaluk writer Ben Abbatangelo told the ABC, “the idea that the people who stole this land, and then who directly benefited from it” are now going to hold a referendum “to think about recognising the people they stole it off is insane”.

However as Yes campaigners have pointed out, there is no option to vote “No – we want a treaty or some other agreement”. Those who want to see more Indigenous rights are likely voting the same way as those who would like to see fewer . So far, the opposition has made no solid commitments to the creation of a treaty or another vote on different terms.

Yorta Yorta musician Briggs’s viral video last week made a late but effective play for the Yes campaign, calling out Australians who half-skimmed their research on the issue due to white awkwardness. “So you would vote no to this progress so we can reconvene at an undisclosed point in the future and then go far enough,” he asks two white women.

The fear expressed by Indigenous leaders and Yes campaigners is that a failure will consign Indigenous rights policy to a political radioactive waste pile with politicians afraid to touch it, such is the perceived damage to prime minister Anthony Albanese’s leadership.

For many, the outcome won’t change their life in a wealthy country with high wages and living standards. But Australia is a prime example of a rising tide that does not lift all boats. First Nations people have poorer outcomes in health, education, safety and just about every other metric. The average life expectancy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men is a shameful nine years shorter than other Australian men. As we argue over how to lift the boats left behind, people are drowning.

Brianna Parkins is an Irish Times columnist