The Voice to Parliament is a beginning, not an end

Dr Summer May Finlay on the Uluru Statement and Voice to Parliament

The Uluru Statement from the Heart, particularly the Voice to Parliament element, has recently received much attention in the media and on social media.

This is no surprise, given the Labor government has announced that a referendum on the Voice will be held this year. Also fuelling the debate was Victorian Senator Lidia Thorpe's resignation from The Greens to sit as an independent. Her resignation was prompted, at least in part, by an inability to speak against the Voice as a member of the Greens and First Nations Spokeswoman.  

With so much media attention and conversation on social media about the Uluru Statement and the Voice, many people are seeking to understand what it means now and in the future.  

To understand the Uluru Statement, including the Voice, you need to be clear on what the Statement says and be aware of the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation in this Country.  

What is the Uluru Statement, and how was it developed?  

The Statement was created in 2017 by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who attended through 13 Dialogues. The Dialogues culminated in a National Constitutional Convention at Uluru and involved other dialogues' representatives. A consensus approach was used to develop what is now known as the Uluru Statement. 

The Statement has three main parts, Voice and Treaty and Truth. Voice is about enshrining a First Nations Voice in the Australian Constitution. Treaty and Truth, under the banner of Makarrata, are about a coming together after a struggle. The Treaty aspect of Makarrata seeks to progress agreement-making between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The Truth telling element Makarrata is an opportunity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's histories to be told. 

The Voice is the most polarising element of the Uluru Statement. News and social media are awash with divergent opinions on the usefulness of the Voice to progressing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's prosperity.  

There are many myths about the Voice. The most prominent one is that if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are recognised in the Constitution, our sovereignty will be ceded. While including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution has been disproven to mean we have ceded sovereignty, some people still believe it. It is myths such as these which are making the discussions on the Voice even more complicated.  

Another complicating issue is some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's scepticism of the utility of the Voice, which is why they call for a Treaty. The core aspect of Treating is our self-determination on matters which impact us. While I support the Voice and believe it should be the first element of the Statement enacted, I understand some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's scepticism. Since invasion, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have experienced numerous broken promises and tokenism engagement on issues impacting us.  

A graphic of Uluru in the shape of a heart, with black and yellow text reading 'We support THE ULURU STATEMENT'

The University of Wollongong formally pledged its support for the Uluru Statement in 2022

The 1836 Letters Patent establishing the Province of South Australia is an example of a promise unfulfilled. The Letters Patent included recognising Aboriginal people's rights in South Australia, including their rights to Country. These rights were ignored as land was granted to colonists, dispossessing the traditional custodians. 

In more recent times, the disbandment of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), a national legislated body, is another example of governments contradicting the wishes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Formed in 1990, ATSIC was tasked with delivering programs and representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's interests. ATSIC, while overseen by the Commonwealth Government, was run and managed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. That is until 2004, when the Liberal Government, led by John Howard, abolished it against the wishes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.  

After abolishing ATSIC in 2010, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people established the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples (Congress). Congress, funded by the Labor government for five years, was set up as a member-based organisation allowing it to be the Voice for Aboriginal and  Torres Strait Islander people. Congress was established as an independent company to reduce the government's ability to decide its fate. In 2013, the incoming Liberal government withdrew its support and funding. The organisation continued for several years after the funding cut, however without government support, it was forced to close in 2019 

These are just three of the many broken promises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have experienced post-1788. The impact of the broken promises is disillusionment with anything governments touch that relates to our People, which is why some mob call for Treaty first. While I appreciate this sentiment, Treaties with each Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander 250 nations will take longer than the Voice. We should progress Treaty. However, we should also have a Voice to Parliament to ensure our views on legislation impacting us now are heard.  

So why do I support the Uluru Statement’s Voice to Parliament? The Voice is our best option for negotiating a Treaty and Truth-telling process. It will be parliament which will progress a Treaty and Truth-telling processes. The Voice is one of the mechanisms that can be used to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a say in managing the Treaty and Truth-telling processes. 

If the Referendum is successful, the details of what the Voice looks like will be fleshed out in legislation and is likely to change over time. Referendums are always simple questions. Firstly, the Constitution includes high-level guidance with the details legislated. The people who created the Constitution had the foresight to recognise that as society changes, so will the nuances of how the government would need to enact each part and clause. Secondly, there needs to be extensive engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on exactly what the Voice should look like. This will take time and money. It is reasonable to expect that this process occurs after the Referendum.   

What is the benefit of the Voice?  

There are many decisions, including legislation and policy, made by parliament. Currently, there is no systematic way Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can provide their views on decisions impacting us. The Voice will be one way of ensuring our voices are heard. Consider how the 2007 Northern Territory National Emergency Response, otherwise known as the Northern Territory Intervention, would have looked if we had been able to provide advice on its development and implementation. Or would this damaging legislation never have gone ahead? The 2008 Closing the Gap targets, first developed in 2008 without the input of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, wouldn’t have needed to be revised 12 years later in 2020 through a co-design process with the Coalition of Peaks. 

The Voice should, however, never undermine the capacity for each Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nation and community to have a say in what happens in their region. Local input is just as crucial as a coordinated national approach.  

Ultimately, there is much to consider when considering how you will vote in the Referendum. 

And for me, the most critical consideration is whether it will benefit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I believe it will. It's the first of many steps required. It's a beginning.  

How every person votes on the day will be up to them. All I ask is for people to understand what they are voting for, how our history has played a role in the push for the Voice and what opportunities the Voice will create for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.  


Dr Summer May Finlay is a Yorta Yorta woman and Senior Lecture (Indigenous Health) at the University of Wollongong. She is Co-Chair of the Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council of NSW Ethics Committee and Co-Chair of the World Federation of Public Health Associations Indigenous Working Group which she helped establish in 2017. Follow her on twitter:  @SummerMayFinlay.