by Dean Parkin
It is hardly the most original of observations that modern politics is more polarised than in the past. It is the age of digital tribes and ‘alternative facts’. Reassuring echo chambers are easy to find for even the most peculiar perspectives on how the world works, as long as you have a connection to the internet.
What is new, however, is that Australia has never held a referendum in this novel communications landscape. The last time Australians were asked to vote on a Constitutional amendment was almost a decade before the invention of the iPhone. Mark Zuckerberg was in high school. Nobody had even heard of a selfie.
In campaigning across the country for a Yes vote in the referendum on constitutional recognition through a Voice, I have frequently remarked publicly that there have been two different conversations running in parallel on the subject. One stream of conversation happens in media and political circles. It is robust and assertive, and occasionally vicious. It parses language carefully, sometimes even tortuously. It can be wildly complex. On more than the odd occasion, there are raised voices, and ad hominem attacks.
In contrast, there is the other conversation that happens in communities. It’s on doorsteps and street corners, around barbecues or in parks. This conversation is curious and good-natured. It is simple and open. It talks of aspiration, and of values like fairness.
The qualitative gulf between these two parallel conversations is magnified by the sheer magnitude of the digital information stream. While broadcast and digital media are furiously marking scorecards and debating a kaleidoscopic range of points, on the ground the conversation is focused, clear, and about basic values.
Some people might despair at this. But to the contrary, it is what makes me confident that this referendum will succeed, and that Australians will choose to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution through a Voice to Parliament.
In some ways this gap between what’s said in the media and political circles and then out in the streets is another proof point on the need for a Voice. Underlying the request for a Voice as a means of recognition is the demonstrated inability of our political firmament and machinery to deliver the practical results that Australians expect in basic outcomes in areas like health and education for Indigenous people. For decades, bureaucrats and political leaders — often with the very best of intentions — have tried, but the solutions have been imposed rather than built from the ground up in partnership with the practical input of the affected communities. Some of the proposals may as well have fallen from outer space, such is their lack of relevance and utility.
Again, it reflects one character of conversation in government and political circles while another is running on the ground. The people who might have helped with the solutions weren’t properly involved in the policy process. This lived reality for Indigenous communities was what led to Indigenous people from across the country, through the Uluru Dialogues process, coming together in a moment of unity to call for a Voice to Parliament.
Though the challenges for Indigenous communities are undoubtedly complex, the foundations for solutions need not be. As the co-convenor of Liberals for Yes, former ACT chief minister Kate Carnell, likes to say: “Listening to people results in better policy.” Contained in those seven words is a compelling and obvious reason to support a Yes outcome in this referendum.
Or take Roy Gibson, a Yalanji elder from Mossman Gorge in Far North Queensland. He has had a vision for sharing the stories of his people and their land through tourism in the area, on the edge of the Daintree Rainforest. While a tourist centre has been developed for the area, locals have been largely excluded. As Roy outlined in The Guardian earlier this year, it hasn’t provided much by way of pathways for better economic participation for the locals.
“We had the architecture of a success story, except one foundational building block — our voice,” he wrote. “We had envisaged a partnership where we learn the ropes and after 10 years of development and capability building, in partnership with the government and tourism expertise, our mob would be ready to transition to management. But an operator was appointed without community links. There is limited local artwork, mostly mass-produced stock. Like most artefacts of mission days, our places are dominated by public control.
“No matter the energy, ideas, knowledge, and solutions we bring, while governments maintain control, we cannot shift the dial on disadvantage to get ahead. Unless public servants are obliged to partner with us, nothing shifts.”
Consultation is the cornerstone of effective policy reform. It pulls stakeholders together and gives them a shared interest in a positive outcome. A referendum, then, is the ultimate consultation process; it is asking the entire voting population to support a path forward. Everyone takes an ownership stake in the future.
So when we remind people out in our community conversations that their vote can directly lead to better policy, they are empowered. They see that they each have a part to play in ensuring Indigenous inclusion in our political life, joining together our ancient past with our multicultural and dynamic present, and in the process delivering better practical outcomes.
These are the moments when you see the lights going on for Australians when discussing the Voice. And this is the reason to look forward with hope and optimism not just to the referendum, but to what follows.
The communications context for this referendum is novel and it is perhaps an even more testing environment when coupled with what’s going on in the economy. This has been a difficult year for Australians. Rising prices for living essentials coupled with interest rate increases have stretched household budgets for millions of families. Many people have a sense they are going backwards.
At first blush, this may not seem conducive to a campaign that must appeal to a certain generosity of spirit. But in the conversations we have with people, it is there in abundance. The goodwill towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is an unshakeable reality of underlying Australian community values.
This is, in the end, quite a simple proposition: a Voice is a standing committee of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who will advise the government on making better policy on Indigenous issues.
The complexity of the communications environment and the day-to-day pressures that people are under have made that proposition perhaps harder than it should be to land in the minds of voters.
But as I write, the time remaining to the referendum is becoming a question of weeks rather than months. We are rounding the final turn. And when Australians fully apply themselves to what is being asked, I am confident they will respond with a resounding — and reassuring — Yes.
About the author
A proud Indigenous Australian, Dean Parkin is from the Quandamooka peoples of Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island) in Queensland. Having been closely involved in the process that resulted in the historic Uluru Statement From The Heart, Dean continues to advocate for constitutional and structural reform as national campaign director for Yes23.