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From Garma to the Referendum

The Hon. Linda Burney MP

Amid the enormous amount of work that goes with being a new Minister, I’ve been doing a lot of reflection recently.

Perhaps it’s the stage of life that I find myself.

I’ve been in politics for a while now –

From the walk for Reconciliation over the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

To the Apology.

To the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

And soon a referendum on an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament.

Indigenous people have a special connection to the past and the future.

Charged with this great task to implement a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament.

I have never felt a stronger connection to the past and the future.

I want to thank Patrick Dodson for his wisdom and leadership on this issue over a long period of time.

Now, I must admit, I shed a tear during the Prime Minister’s speech at Garma.

I believe it was the most significant speech by a PM on Indigenous Affairs since Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008.

In the red dirt of North East Arnhem land – The Prime Minister proposed a simple question and possible amendments to the Constitution.

The PM’s Garma speech gave us hope.

Hope for a better future.

Hope for a more reconciled Australia.

Hope that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children will grow up with more opportunities and better outcomes in life.

Because the Uluru Statement from the Heart is a plan for the future.

And a Voice to Parliament is about ensuring First Nations voices are heard.

Heard on policies.

Heard on laws.

Heard on what works.

A Voice to Parliament - recognises the right of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to have a say on the decisions that affect our lives.

Pretty simple isn’t it? It’s common sense.

The Voice will deliver practical change that will lead to better outcomes in areas like health, education and housing.

To understand the road forward, we need to look at the past.

To reflect on how far we’ve come.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart, is a historic First Nations consensus on the way forward.

It is the best chance Australia has ever had.

Perhaps will ever have, to address the injustices of the past and structural change that will create a better future for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

And then there is the historic and extraordinary process that lead up to Uluru.

The First Nations Regional Dialogues that commenced in 2016 –

Were designed to ensure that Aboriginal decision making was at the heart of the process for constitutional recognition.

Bottom up.

Not top down.

The stories that were recounted in those Dialogues were then read to the First Nations Constitutional Convention at Uluru in May 2017.

This was Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people telling the rest of Australia what we wanted.

The Convention endorsed the work of the Dialogues and issued the Uluru Statement from the Heart to the Australian people.

Voice, Treaty and Truth.

This is what Indigenous Australians want. This is our aspiration.

As the Uluru Statement from the Heart states:

“We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.”

I want to pay special tribute tonight to the three co-chairs – Pat Anderson, Noel Pearson and Megan Davis – who joins us tonight.

We also owe so much to the great work already undertaken, including:

The 2012 Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition.

The Referendum Council and Uluru Statement, Joint Select Committee - from which the Dodson / Leeser Report came.

And of course the Indigenous Voice Codesign Process, led by Ken Wyatt as well as Tom Calma and Marcia Langton.

This work is important and will continue to inform the way forward.

So what comes next?

A group of First Nations people will soon meet with the Prime Minister to discuss the road forward – With Senator Dodson and myself as CoChairs.

The Referendum Working Group will work together with government and guide the big questions that need to be considered in the coming months, including:

Firstly, the timing to conduct a successful referendum.

Secondly, refining the proposed constitutional amendment and question.

Thirdly, information on the Voice necessary for a successful referendum.

Its work will be enhanced by the establishment of a second group, the referendum engagement group. Its job will be to:

Provide advice on, and assist with, building community understanding, awareness and support for the referendum.

Engagement with First Nations communities.

And advocate for the Voice.

The Referendum Engagement group will comprise of representatives from the across the country –

Including land councils, local governments and community controlled service organisations.

These are the next steps.

The plan on the road to the referendum.

One. Getting First Nations representatives together to work closely in partnership with government on key issues relating to the referendum.

Two. Continue to build a broad consensus of community support from across country.

Already at National Cabinet all state and territory leaders have given in-principle support for the Voice to Parliament.

Three. Harness the goodwill in the Australian community to take Australia forward by supporting this nationbuilding project.

These are the necessary ingredients to winning the referendum.

There is much to work to do.

Many more steps to be taken on the road to the referendum.

And let’s be clear government cannot lead this referendum.

This will come from the grassroots.

From communities.

Because the Voice is a nation-building project.

We will need a united “Yes” campaign that captures your attention and the imagination of the Australian people.

Everyone has a part to play.

From sports clubs, schools, community groups and the union movement.

It’s everyone’s responsibility to get this done.

In the years to come, we will be able to measure the success of referendum not just by the number of people who vote for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, but by the lives that the Voice helps to improve.

This is an edited version of a speech delivered on the 8th of September 2022 to the Centre for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) State of the Naiton conference at the National Museum of Australia

The Hon. Linda Burney MP is the Minister for Indigenous Australians


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