A Personal Reflection by Margaret Reynolds, President, WILPF Australia

One of the frustrating experiences of ageing is watching how younger generations seem to ignore or avoid the lessons of history! At best younger policy makers try to reinvent the wheel or at worst they disregard aspects of older policy that might assist deal with new challenges .

If I were in a position to design the forthcoming Referendum campaign I would start by outlining the history of Australian indigenous public policy over the last fifty years. Older Australians should remember the significance of the resounding YES vote in the 1967 Referendum to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the Australian Census thereby conferring citizenship so long denied. Indigenous Australians.

That referendum was a significant step forward in ensuring the Federal Government could take responsibility for public policy that would plan and fund long overdue reform to benefit the indigenous peoples of Australia. In North Queensland we celebrated the success of an overwhelming positive response from a vast majority of Australians.

But old habits die hard, and the paternalism of well-meaning politicians and bureaucrats has not yet fulfilled the promises we imagined would follow the 1967 Referendum. That is why we must change the way we work with indigenous communities and support policies that come from their knowledge and experience instead of imposing our ideas. Australian indigenous policy needs to be reset to value their traditional knowledge.

Six months after the !967 Referendum, the Townsville community hosted a conference “We the Australians -what is to Follow the Referendum? ” inviting national identities Faith Bandler, Joe Mc Ginnes, Colin Tatz and Charles Rowley to help us plan a local program to upgrade education, employment and justice policies that would start to introduce new opportunities for this North Queensland community where 10% of the population was so marginalized.. It was the first attempt for our local council, trade union, university, church and community groups to bring together indigenous and non-indigenous people to work together for a fresh approach to race relations and social justice.

Our good intentions could not overcome the apathy and distrust of that era. Only one initiative discussed at that conference -a small voluntary preschool program -survived . Kindergarten Headstart employing aboriginal staff and run by Aboriginal and Islander parents, this educational innovation battled the indifference of educational bureaucrats to continue its work until it was finally fully recognized and funded . It remains a significant education landmark in Australian Aboriginal education and its longevity is a tribute to all those indigenous families who were determined to maintain it in their own traditions.

Sadly there have been a wide variety of innovative Aboriginal and Islander schemes and programs over the last fifty years but too many have been allowed to “fail” because the work of local communities has not been respected , understood or supported . Those well-meaning bureaucrats and politicians fly into remote areas just long enough to pronounce what is best for indigenous peoples whose traditions and culture are unknown. Of course, there are those workers who choose to live and work within traditional communities but they also find it difficult to adapt centralised public policy criteria to the lives of people with very different experiences and needs.

Australians need to vote ‘Yes’ to the referendum on the Voice because we need to listen and respect that there are alternative ways to approach the development and implementation of indigenous policy.

The Voice comes from the Uluru Statement from the Heart presented to the nation five years ago on 17 May 2017, after a four-day National Constitutional Convention. when an overwhelming majority of the 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates agreed to

‘The establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution and a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement making and truth-telling about our history “

Reconciliation Australia surveys national attitudes in 2022 found:

  • 93% of Australians believe it is important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to have a say on matters that affect them
  • 87% of Australians believe it is important to protect an Indigenous Body within the Constitution so no government could remove it

During the forthcoming public debate Australians will hear arguments for and against the referendum and there will be extremes of opinions against the Voice . Some indigenous Australians will argue for treaty and sovereignty as priorities, but without a Voice these important debates cannot be progressed.