Voice offers a better future for all our children

As the father of three boys, it's not always easy to engage my sons in the day-to-day issues in Parliament. Much as I might be excited by the intricacies of economic policy, a discussion of the Treasury Laws Amendment (Making Multinationals Pay Their Fair Share-Integrity and Transparency) Bill 2023 doesn't always spice up our dinner conversation.

But when it comes to a First Nations Voice to Parliament, they're all in. My boys have been happy to join me for barbecues, rallies and community conversations, because they feel what's at stake. Ngunnawal elders such as Aunty Violet Sheridan make us feel welcome, and her generosity is a reminder of the gaping absence of First Nations people in Australia's constitution.

Sebastian, my 16 year old, argues that voting "yes" will "give us a more democratically balanced society". In his words, "by giving First Nations people a louder voice, you're supporting equality. You're enabling Australia to make decisions based on what a more equal share of the population wants." Sebastian points out that a Voice will give a great deal to Indigenous people, but that non-Indigenous people will "lose nothing".

Theodore, my 14 year old, sees a Voice to Parliament as a start. Even after a successful "yes" vote, he thinks, there will still be work to do. To the naysayers, Theodore has a straightforward message: "there's nothing bad that comes from this."

Eleven-year-old Zachary listened to the speeches from First Nations leaders before we joined them to march to Parliament House. The march was fun, he told me afterwards - and hoped it would have an effect on the vote. Zachary reflected in a few words the simplicity of the referendum. "It's about letting First Nations people have a Voice to Parliament, and for their voices to be heard," he said. A win, he felt, will make things a little more equal.

My boys won't cast a ballot on October 14, but the outcome of the referendum will shape the country in which they grow up. Like the 1967 referendum, the Mabo decision and the apology to the stolen generations, a "yes" vote will be a milestone on Australia's reconciliation journey.

Given that I was born in the 1970s, it's unlikely that I'll live to see the 2100s. However, there's a good chance that at least one of my boys will see the 22nd century. It's impossible to know what that Australia will look like, but I imagine it will have a strong sense of pride in our First Nations people.

Archaeologists and historians will have painted a more detailed picture of Indigenous history, and that history will be more fully incorporated into our national consciousness. The more we know those stories, the prouder all of us will be to share them.

As we look to the future, it makes sense to update our constitution, and it's important to recognise how modest the proposed change will be. Right now, the Australian constitution consists of 128 sections.

If Australia votes "yes", a new section 129 will be added. It's simple, powerful, and so short that I can quote it here. The new section will read: "Chapter IX: Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples

"129. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice

"In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia:

  1. there shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice;
  2. 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."

A Voice will not be a third chamber of Parliament. It will not provide a veto.

The idea for a Voice came from Indigenous people, gathered together at Uluru in 2017. It is a gracious offer that will move our nation forward. A Voice is about recognising and listening, nothing more. A "yes" vote will hurt no one. It will help all of us, especially First Nations people.

Let's vote "yes" and shape our country's future for the better.

This opinion piece first appeared in the Canberra Times, Monday 25 September 2023.