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6 min read

Taking the next step: First Nations leaders on the Voice to Parliament

Profile of Dom O'Donnell
Written by Dom O'DonnellPosted on 4/4/2023

Later this month, our giving community will come together to meet First Nations advocates and campaigners mobilising around the upcoming Voice Referendum.

Voices for Impact on 27 April is our Impact Fund Showcase for 2023 – our community’s key opportunity to learn how we can lend our collective support to this important work.

“It’s not a new conversation, but pushing into action this year requires a lot of effort and a lot of support,” says proud Luritja man Chris Croker, Australian Communities Foundation (ACF) Director. “The 1967 Referendum saw us counted in the population. That was over 50 years ago now. So, how do we take this next step?”

A senior strategy adviser with expertise in Indigenous economic development, Chris is now bringing his experience to his role as a member of ACF’s First Nations Advisory Group (FNAG).

Formally established in 2022, the Group oversees grants from the Impact Fund in the Indigenous Self-Determination impact area, and advises on other elements of ACF’s work in supporting First Nations communities, including our work in relation to the Referendum. Other members include proud Gunditjmara man Rueben Berg and proud Deaf Aboriginal woman Jody Barney.

Watch: ACF Director and Gunditjmara man, Rueben Berg, shares his opinion on the Voice.

‘Generations of community effort’

When thinking about the current moment and the work being led by First Nations communities today, we need to acknowledge the long road of work that has led to this point, says Chris.

“Although this time is thrust upon us, this work is built on the back of years and generations of community effort.”

These efforts can be broadly categorised into three pathways for better outcomes for First Nations communities – Voice, Treaty and Truth, as set out in 2017 in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

“We have seen great support for First Nations communities around the Uluru Statement, which is really quite a humble request from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives to the wider Australian people,” says Chris.

“After this referendum, we should be able to come together and build out the identity of Australia as a whole – a country with ongoing connections to the oldest living culture in the world.”

A diverse group with a common goal

There has been significant media coverage in recent months on the diversity of perspectives among First Nations communities around the Referendum.

“We, as First Nations people here in Australia, have lots of different goals,” says FNAG member Rueben Berg, ACF Director and Representative for the Metropolitan Region at the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria.

“We aspire to different things, but there’s a common goal amongst us as a broad community – to achieve better outcomes for our community for now and for the future.”

“A way of summing up what those aspirations look like is the realisation of the goals and the rights set out within the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. One of its underlying principles is the idea of self-determination – the idea that Indigenous peoples globally, including here in Australia, should have the right to control things that directly affect them.”

We aspire to different things, but there’s a common goal amongst us as a broad community – to achieve better outcomes for our community

“In terms of the realisation of those rights, there are lots of different things you can achieve along the way: Voice, Treaty, Truth.”

As Rueben notes in an insightful explainer video, we’re now seeing “a really powerful conversation” around Voice. “But that’s just part of the pathway to achieving those rights under the UN Declaration – if we can achieve Voice, that will be really powerful in enabling us to progress [to Treaty and Truth outcomes]. There are other conversations being had though… different perspectives within the community.”

As Rueben explains, opposition to the Voice among First Nations communities largely stems from differing views around the order in which Voice, Treaty and Truth should be pursued.

“There are these conversations that instead of the current proposal to have a referendum around Voice, we should be having a conversation first around Treaty, Truth or a much more powerful Voice. I think those are all valid points and I would love the idea that we could achieve all those things, and I’m not too bothered, to be honest, about what the order is.

“[But] I’m very hesitant of this idea that we shouldn’t support the Voice because hopefully in the future we’ll be able to have conversations around Treaty instead or around Truth instead.

“To my mind, the best chance we have of achieving Voice, Treaty and Truth is to take the opportunity that is in front of us and grasp that opportunity and get a Voice for our people.”

Accessibility a priority for reaching diverse communities

For FNAG member Jody Barney, founder of Deaf Indigenous Community Consultancy, the campaign for the Voice can only be successful insofar as it makes space for diverse communities to understand the conversation and make informed decisions.

“The consideration that I make around the campaign is about diversity, inclusion and access – ensuring that the information imparted has a contextual application,” says Jody. “It’s important to ensure that the information provided is accessible to everybody.”

“This campaign is giving us an opportunity to be heard in an appropriate way, but there’s only a small minority who are assertive enough to stand up and be active in this space. The rest of the community looks at these people to speak.”

‘A serious, massive task’

As we look to the months ahead of important campaigning work, it is clear this is a rare opportunity before us.

“We talk about this being a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a difference,” says Chris, “but this is like a once-in-200-plus-years chance of actually doing something, of doing the right thing.”

Reflecting on the same-sex marriage plebiscite, Chris points to the “mammoth effort” to secure legislative change in Australia.

“This time around it’s even more difficult. We need to reach more people because of the double majority test when it comes to constitutional change. It’s a serious, massive task.

“We need to work at the grassroots level. We need to support the groups that actually have the deep connections to families, to kitchen table discussions, to workplace discussions. That’s actually where we can educate and share information.”

“It’s about finding an approach that allows for a space of collaboration and allyship,” adds Jody. “A space where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders feel a part of Australia.

“We are already very much a part of Country. We just need to feel very much a part of Australia.”

Join us on 27 April

Join us for Voices for Impact to meet the First Nations leaders mobilising around the Referendum.

Thursday 27 April
5:30pm Smoking Ceremony for 6pm start
The Edge, Fed Square
Melbourne 3000