Guugu Yimidhirr lawyer, land rights activist and community leader Noel Pearson is one of the architects of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament. A distinguished and highly respected speaker – notably, his eulogy for Gough Whitlam has been called one of the greatest Australian political speeches of all time – it was a great honour to have Pearson speak to ANMF members at our 2023 delegates conference.
The upcoming referendum, he told us, is the culmination of almost two decades of work. ‘It actually started on election eve 2007, when John Howard proposed that he would go to a referendum of the Australian people within 18 months if re-elected,’ he said.
Kevin Rudd duplicated Howard’s commitment, but after winning the election he deferred his commitment to a second term – a term that never happened.
‘So it was actually the egregious conservative John Howard who kicked off recognition,’ Pearson said, before noting that the former prime minister now repudiates the Voice ‘because the model is not what he had in mind when he made the commitment.’
Howard instead chooses to ignore ‘three parliamentary inquiries, four public consultation processes, and a mighty convention at Uluru in 2017 with Indigenous Australian representatives from around the country who said we want voice, treaty and truth.’
Voice, treaty, truth
The Voice is one of three asks contained in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a document resulting from dialogues with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across Australia who, as representatives for their communities, reached a consensus about what constitutional recognition for Australia’s first peoples should look like.
The statement – which you can read, or listen to in your language via SBS/NITV – calls for voice, treaty, truth. More specifically, it calls for voice, makarrata, truth. Makarrata is a Yolngu word encompassing the idea of treaty, or of two parties coming together after a struggle to heal the divisions of the past.
‘The Albanese Government went to the election, and on election night reiterated, and at every turn since then has reiterated, that there will be a full response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart,’ Pearson told delegates. ‘There could be no more clear political commitment than the one the Albanese Government has given us: a full implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. That means voice, treaty, truth.’
Say no to no
Pearson said of the so-called ‘progressive no’ movement that their opposition appears to be less about the purpose of the Voice, and more about the order in which the three tenets of the Uluru Statement should be implemented.
He could not be clearer in what he thinks about this: ‘The right and the “progressive no” are holding hands across the yard at six o’clock. Jacinta [Nampijinpa Price] and Lydia [Thorpe] are holding hands; Warren [Mundine] and Pauline [Hanson] are holding hands. By the time you get down in the bottom end of it, they’re indistinguishable from one another.’
He continued: ‘Don’t be deflected by the progressive no arguments. But I don’t want you to abandon your responsibility to think hard about this. Because it’s your country. It’s your constitution. And you need to decide: if it was your people, if it was your children, what would you want for them? You’ve got to make up your mind about the kind of Australia you want.’
As within any group of people, not everyone agrees. But the Voice has overwhelming majority support within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
January 2023 polling by independent market research company Ipsos found 80 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples support enshrining a Voice to Parliament in the Constitution. Only ten per cent of respondents opposed the Voice, while a further 10 per cent were undecided. These numbers have remained consistent over the five or so years since the Uluru Statement from the Heart was delivered.
And despite recent polls that suggest support for the Voice among non-Indigenous Australians is dipping, Pearson pointed out that ‘the polling has been consistent over the years that the majority of Australians are in support of recognition through a Voice’.
We have our work cut out for us, he acknowledged. ‘We have the challenge of changing the constitution in a political situation where almost the entirety of Conservative politics is pitted against us. We have this horrific situation where the Conservatives have completely abandoned this national project and it’s all because of miserable politics.
‘So we need you,’ he implored. ‘We need you to be active in this campaign. We’re facing a very big struggle. If we win this, it will be the first time the Constitution has changed without bipartisan support. But so far the Australian people, on the majority, are taking the contrary position [to the Coalition]. I think there’s got to be something profoundly connected with that.’
In closing, Pearson emphasised that the Voice is about ‘a better’ Australia. ‘A new Australia will be born out of this referendum, and it will be a good Australia. It will be a more united Australia. It will be a more respectful Australia. It will be prouder Australia. And it will be an Australia that nurtures Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children as your own.’