Australians are being asked to vote on 14 October 2023 in a referendum on:
A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?
To establish an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice the Parliament of Australia has agreed to propose adding a new chapter, Chapter IX-Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to the Constitution. The chapter would include a new section 129, which would be as follows:
129 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice
In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia:
i. there shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice;
ii. the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;
iii. the Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures. Referendum 2023 (aec.gov.au)
This proposed change to the constitution has stimulated much debate and many people are undecided or unsure of how they should vote. Some have said that this raises important questions about sovereignty, I agree. But I don’t understand sovereignty in an all or nothing way. Here I take the lead from scholars who draw our attention to the possibility of acknowledging fragmented or multiple sovereignties.
If we think about it, the land we now call Australia has a long history of fragmented, overlapping and/or contested sovereignties. This was likely even before the arrival and occupation of the settler state that established various territorial boundaries, which themselves have been contested over time. For example, the sovereignty of places we now know as states and territories, were/are challenged by the formation of ‘the commonwealth’.
From my perspective Australia has been, and remains, a place of multiple and fragmented sovereignties; a site of contest that is unlikely to be settled soon, or ever. We have lived with this, some of us much less comfortably than others. Accepting the existence of fragmented and/or multiple sovereignties might allow us to think differently about some of the challenges First Nations people live with. But that is perhaps beyond the scope of what I want to say.
Working as a criminologist since the revelations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, I have despaired our ongoing failure to reduce the unacceptably high number of deaths in custody, increasingly high rates of incarceration and contact with the criminal justice system of Indigenous Australians, and the relentless reproduction of marginalisation, disadvantage and discrimination in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across every domain of life – education, health and wellbeing, employment, housing etc.
In the face of this I have witnessed the strength, knowledge, and passion that Indigenous Australians bring to conversations about how we could have a different future together. This was most recently evident in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which calls for a First Nations Voice and a ‘Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history’.
This is the context for the upcoming referendum, and for understanding the difference between yes and no. While the yes vote provides for the establishment of the Voice, the Blak Sovereign movement adds to the complexity of decision making by siding with other no campaigners, arguing that we need to go further, that we need treaty as other First Nations peoples have.
It is our responsibility to make sure that we understand what is at stake here. It is not up to someone else to tell us how to vote. One of the biggest injustices would be to mindlessly accept the no campaign’s direction ‘If you don’t know, vote no”. Rather, if we are to end injustice and push back on racism, we must be active decision makers. ‘If you don’t know, it’s your responsibility to find out.’
Here are some credible sites that can help us navigate misinformation and racist claims linked to the referendum.
QUT as an organisation pledges support for the Voice. Taking the position that this change will give Indigenous Australians the opportunity to participate in matters that affect them by informing and advising on decisions that impact their lives.
I have made the decision to vote yes. I agree with the case for the Voice and the case for Treaty. I don’t see these as mutually exclusive. I look forward to a time when the sovereignties of Indigenous Australian peoples are unambiguously acknowledged and respected and they are at the centre of the decision making that impacts their everyday life.
Professor Melissa Bull
Director, QUT Centre for Justice