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  • Tim Muirhead

BBQ Yarning - The Voice

Once, when I was co-training in Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relations,  a young guy—a ‘rough diamond’—was struck at how misinformed he and his mates had been.  He said to me (and Danny Ford)  “you need to help me, and guys like me, to give good responses when our mates are speaking shit round the BBQ”

So a few days ago I woke  up and thought – what would I tell him about the ‘shit’ he hears about the Uluru Statement?...

Here’s some thoughts, with assistance from a few friends and colleagues. (BTW: I’ve used the term ‘Indigenous’ in this document, despite the preference of most Aboriginal Western Australians I know, as it covers both Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders.)


Where did ‘the Voice’ came from?

Indigenous people were systematically excluded from our Constitution, and from the nation we created, in 1901.  This resulted in enormous damage. 

In 2017, after many months of discussion with thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (all done at the request of the then Commonwealth Government) 250 regional representatives from around Australia gathered at Uluru and generously offered us the Uluru Statement from the Heart. They suggested that we—Australians together—might use this offering as a way forward to help repair that damage.  

It requires a simple change to our Constitution--to belatedly ensure that the original owners have a Voice in government policies and practices that particularly affect them. That Voice will then establish the foundation for the other two linchpins—movement towards a Makarrata ( like a ‘treaty’) and a commission for truth-telling – ensuring that Australians have easier access to the truth of our history and current circumstances.


So what’s the problem?

Having worked in the space of Reconciliation for over 25 years I’m in no doubt that this is a crucial step in our national healing. But, for an array of reasons, some people  (especially some political leaders) appear to be pushing for a ‘no’ vote. (One of the reasons for this is that referendums create an opportunity for a weakened Opposition to undermine the credibility of the governing Party. It’s an ugly example of putting Party before people).

The best way to ‘no’ is to create confusion. People are rightly wary of voting yes to a constitutional question that they don’t understand. So if politicians and others can confuse us, then we’ll vote ‘no’. It’s important that we don’t get sucked in by this, and that we discourage our friends from getting sucked in. 

So I just wanted to list a few of the comments that get thrown up to sow that confusion. And I’ve offered some simple responses.  If you’re yarning with your friends round the proverbial BBQ, you might find some of these responses useful.


‘We shouldn’t trust anything politicians suggest’.

This is not a politicians’ proposal. It’s from Aboriginal leaders across the nation. All the government has done is to agree to put the proposal to the people.  This is between us, as Australians. When people paint it as ‘Albanese’s proposal’ – they’re trying to turn you against it. 


“Some Indigenous people are saying we should vote no. If they think that, who am I to disagree with them?”

While the great majority of Indigenous people are calling for ‘yes’, a few are calling for ‘no’.  To take Lydia Thorpe as one example: she was one of a very small handful (20?) of delegates at the Uluru meeting of 2017 that did not endorse the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’. By calling for a ‘no’, she is effectively seeking to disenfranchise the other 250 people who signed the Statement. It’s striking how much media time is given to those Indigenous ‘no’ advocates. (Thorpe, Mundine, Price). Be careful not to be manipulated by the media’s selective focus.


“Won’t this just be a louder ‘Voice’ for the elite Indigenous leaders?”

The proposed Voice has always been about hearing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices from right across Australia, (including all the regions).


“Why should one race have this special privilege. What about all the other races?”

It’s not about ‘race’; it’s about inheritance. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the descendants of the original Owners of our lands. That inheritance gives certain rights (just like my rights if I inherit a family farm) Our constitution ignored that fact when it was written. The Voice will (in a tiny but important way) mitigate that omission.

Also, Indigenous people are the only cultural group  in Australia who were impacted by special laws (while living here) that related only to them. These laws--which denied them parenting rights, freedom of movement, freedom of association, access to services and so much more—left terrible intergenerational damage.  Indigenous people want to have a say in how we can repair that damage.  But they need a Voice to do so.


“We already have Indigenous people in Parliament. Isn’t that enough?"

As demonstrated by Lydia Thorpe and Jacinta Price, Indigenous representatives are not obliged, under our parliamentary structure, to represent the views of the majority of Indigenous Australians (and nor should they be).  The Voice will be charged with incorporating the views of Indigenous Australians from all regions. So Senator Lydia Thorpe could continue to espouse her views, but the majority view, rather than a few politicians, will inform government.


“Treaty first!”? 

A ‘Treaty’ (or similar agreement) needs to be negotiated.  So who will we (Australians) negotiate that treaty with? That’s why the Voice needs to come first; then ‘treaty’ (or its equivalent—a ‘Makarrata’ as named in the Uluru statement).


“Blak Sovereignty first!”? (as promoted by Senator Thorpe and others)

While sovereignty (which was never willingly ceded) is a vexed issue,  the Voice will in no way change levels of sovereignty.


“How will a Voice ‘close the gap’?"

Efforts to ‘close the gap’ for Indigenous people have been handicapped by the lack of a powerful Indigenous voice. Of course, there’s no way that the Voice will close the gap immediately. But by ensuring that policies are guided by Indigenous people themselves, there is much greater chance of long-term change.

Whether or not there’s a Voice, we do need to redouble efforts to respond to the underlying causes of disadvantage. A Voice will not distract from that. It will shine a brighter spotlight on these issues.


“What’s the point of having a ‘Voice’ when we’ve ignored so many recommendations from the ‘Bringing them Home’ report, the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Royal Commission, etc.”

Ummm…that’s the point. A Voice will ensure that such recommendations are not ignored.

And also…those who are (rightly) appalled that we’ve ignored those reports should surely not be calling for us to ignore the results of the massive Indigenous-led dialogues, and subsequent 2017 Convention at Uluru. That would be yet another betrayal.


“What about the detail?”

Now the question and proposed amendments have been finalised, it’s pretty clear. We as Australians are being asked—do you want Indigenous people to have a ‘place at the table’ for policies that particularly affect them? The detail of that mechanism  is appropriately left to Parliament, in consultation with  Indigenous leaders from all regions.

Our constitution sets out, very broadly, how we want to govern ourselves. It is deliberately light on detail so that we can continue to adjust, over the decades and centuries,  to changing circumstances.


"This will give one group special  power  over our laws; a power that others don’t have!”

The proposed amendment limits the Voice’s power to make representations  “on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”. They won’t take over your life! 😊

So…I hope that’s helpful? If you have corrections to offer, or you know of other ‘no’ arguments I’d LOVE to hear them.

Let’s hope that this can be a moment of national pride and unity, eh?  I hope we can all, including that young guy at the BBQ, cut through the ‘shit’ that gets said, and bring this simple, powerful proposal into being.Update: We didn't.



Tim Muirhead.

March 24th, 2023

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