Ideas for a brighter future for all

Is The Voice to Parliament necessary?

Later this year Australians will be asked whether they support amending the Australian Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through a Voice to Parliament. Others as part of this series have written about the technical aspects of the referendum including what the Voice is, how it will work, and why constitutional enshrinement of the Voice is key.  

I support the Voice and the Uluru Statement from the Heart for many reasons. These are informed by my expertise as a lawyer and researcher. I believe the Voice is our best chance yet to achieve real change in this country for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I trust the process that has developed the Voice and the overwhelming weight of expert legal opinion from the nation’s leading constitutional scholars and practitioners that support the Voice amendment.  

I wanted to provide insight outside of my expert opinion as a constitutional lawyer. I am a Wamba Wamba First Nations person and have worked closely with the Uluru Dialogue on advocating for a Voice to Parliament for the past five years. My opinion is not neutral. I do not believe there are neutral opinions on an issue as important as the Voice to Parliament. 

" ... the Voice is our best chance yet to achieve real change in this country for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples."

I believe in the justice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander claims. It is an undeniable fact that before others, we, as the Uluru Statement from the Heart states, “were the first sovereign Nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands”. Recognition of this fact necessarily means more than consigning our people to history as a mere footnote to the Australian Constitution through minimalist symbolic recognition.   

I understand the Australian Constitution to be more than the law that establishes our legal and political systems of governance. It is of course that; but is much more. So too the Voice. It is about our constitution more broadly – our cultural values, our institutions, our society. None of these exist in a vacuum detached from one another as though our legal institutions are entirely separate from culture and society.  

Yet the constitution of Australian society was developed through the denial and exclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, of my family. This is a recent history that continues to leave an indelible mark on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities, and on the Australian community more broadly. Especially due to the continued denial by some of the legitimate claims of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.  

Moving beyond symbolism

This lack of recognition and respect matters not just for the symbolism of who we are and our self-worth, but also for the relationships we have and our ability to make practical change to the issues we face. None of the decisions made throughout our history toward the Indigenous community are disconnected from the lack of recognition and respect that fundamentally informs our relationship. From the top down and back, the culture of power and decision making in this country has been one informed by the failure to recognise and respect the rightful place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and the necessary structural changes that come with such recognition to engage with and respect Indigenous rights. 

The Voice is about recognition and representation to address this historic failure of that continues to inhibit our relationship. It is recognition of the undeniable and rightful place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples while providing direct and permanent representation on matters relevant to us as Indigenous peoples. 

A significant gesture. Former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pours red soil into Vincent Lingiari’s hand on 16 August 1975, symbolised the legal transfer of Wave Hill station back to the Gurindji people.

I often become frustrated with the amount of misinformation that circulates about the Voice. Including claims about the potential neutrality of politics and law in the face of so much continued suffering in the Indigenous community. I won’t repeat them. They can be relentless and disheartening, especially as an expert in this field that knows otherwise.  

Yet these moments more broadly provide me with opportunity to reflect on another major focus of my research: the responsibility we all have as individuals that are part of something bigger than ourselves, to understand, respect and see justice done to others. I am not naive to the reality of that responsibility and just how often it is failed or devalued, or how others would paint it as naivety itself. Yet beyond the many disingenuous distractions that are pushed about the Voice, beyond the political and legal claims made despite expert opinion and evidence otherwise, it is this responsibility I return to as my guiding force.  

That responsibility is tangible, it has a face. It is my grandma born in 1930 who will turn 93 this year. To understand she was born under the protection acts where she was expected to die out as formal government policy, pushed to the edge, excluded from society. To understand her hardship and the change she has seen in her life, but to understand there is still more to be done. It is the names of my family entered in the ration books, their blood quantum (full-blood, half-cast, octoroon) listed along with their rations and behavioural records. The faces of those no longer with us, of those I never met and have only seen photos, of those that suffered in so many ways. The names like Arthur of my Great-Great Grandfather, now carried by my son.  

Family, culture, tradition

But it is also the faces of my family proudly practicing their culture and traditions. The smile on my cousin’s face when, after a surprise meeting, I got to be with him on his country for the first time. The unrestrained joy of my cousin’s kids dancing for NAIDOC Week and on January 26, ochre on their faces, emu feathers adorning their belts weaved by my aunty. The pride my cousin takes in knowing her language and working with Indigenous artists all over this country. It’s the responsibility I have to all those faces – known and unknown – to those that have come and gone and those yet to come that keeps me going and makes me truly believe in this reform and our responsibly to it.  

It is that responsibility too that I encourage all Australians to embrace. We have before us an opportunity we will likely never have again. That is what the invitation from the Uluru Statement from the Heart means to me. It was issued to all Australians in full knowledge of our history but in hope of a future we can create together. Don’t be shy or discouraged by the enormity of the task before us. Embrace being part of something bigger than you or me, embrace your opportunity to make a real difference and see justice done. 


Eddie SynotEddie Synot is a Wamba Wamba First Nations person who writes about Indigenous experience at the intersections of law, culture and society, exploring how these different fields impact upon and affect different representations of Indigenous peoples. He is an Indigenous academic lawyer and researcher with the Griffith Law School and the Indigenous Law Centre UNSW.


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