The fate of 3 percent of Australia’s population is in the hands of 25 million as they vote to give a voice to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in parliament. 

Voters will say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to the proposal to change the constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by creating an advisory body.

Many ‘No’ voters fear it will give First Nations people power of veto in parliament (it won’t). They are warning it will create a rift and that an isolated group of people will be given privileges other Australians won’t get (also not true). Supporters for change say it is only the first step.

Palawa woman Jillian Mundy from Lutruwita (or Tasmania) sees it as symbolic rather than immediately life changing for many Aboriginal people who struggle daily with poor housing, education and unemployment.

“It’s certainly nothing like a treaty,” says Mundy, a freelance photographer and journalist for Koori Mail, the national Aboriginal newspaper.

“We’ve never had a treaty. Our history is very much swept under the carpet. It’s only just being taught in schools, people act like they’re allergic to truth-telling.” 

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is urging people to vote ‘Yes’ in The Voice referendum. Photo: Getty Images

Mundy visited Aotearoa recently for a hui with other indigenous journalists from the region and says she noticed a marked difference between the two countries.

“One thing that really stood out to me was watching the election debate between the two Chrises and some of the things they were debating like co-governance, reverting to the real name of New Zealand to Aotearoa. I just thought it really highlighted how your country got off on a different foot when it was colonised.”

She explains to The Detail that The Voice grew from the Uluru Statement from the Heart in 2017 when 250 Aboriginal leaders gathered at Uluru and debated what form the constitutional recognition should take.

Mundy is hopeful it will make a difference and be the start of discussions on treaty and truth-telling.

“But it’s easy to be cynical because we’ve always had a voice – it just hasn’t been listened to.”

Campaigning by the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ sides has been controversial and bitter at times and polls indicate that the naysayers are in front. Mundy says October 15 – the day after the referendum – will be a very disappointing day if that is the result and the “right-wing no” rejoice in the fact that the referendum lost. 

“I see it as something quite symbolic, that it will be symbolism that wider Australia does not want positive change for Aboriginal people.”

Broadcaster Moana Maniapoto travelled to the Northern Territory for the Barunga festival, where The Voice was on the agenda for leaders at a hui. She interviewed politicians, community elders and festival participants for an episode of her current affairs programme, Te Ao with Moana, and says there are many similarities but also pronounced differences between the neighbouring countries.

Broadcaster Moana Maniapoto travelled to Australia to speak to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders about the impending referendum. Photo: Te Ao with Moana/Whakaata Māori

“They don’t have a treaty, which is our linchpin. They don’t have the kind of electorate seats we have for Māori that are dedicated Māori voices. They don’t have a Waitangi Tribunal. So there doesn’t seem to be any mechanism in place that connects the dots between those on the ground in these very remote communities and the ones that are making the decisions.”

Maniapoto says a lot of people are confused about The Voice, but leaders at the hui were clear that the advisory body would be a pathway.

The referendum question is simple, she says, but vote counting is complicated because of the many different states and territorial governments, as well as the federal government.

The system is also complicated by the fact the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island population is disparate, with many languages and nations within Australia.

In New Zealand, “we’re such a little wee country and everyone speaks the same language. We’ve got so many different collectives that often come together and develop a position on something”. 

Maniapoto tells The Detail why she fears a ‘No’ vote will win on October 14.

“If Australia doesn’t accept this … and build on it, then how can you stand up in the world? How can a country stand up and say they’re a modern, liberal democracy when the indigenous people are slammed into the background?”

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Sharon Brettkelly is co-host of The Detail podcast.

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