For everyone ‘Unions for Yes’ backing an Indigenous Voice to Parliament

  • By Rachel Power
  • This article was published more than 1 year ago.
  • 4 Apr 2023
Clockwise from top right: Lara Watson, Correna Haythorpe and Sally McManus.

The union movement has long campaigned for equality and a fair go for all Australians – and that is why we are supporting a Voice to Parliament for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

The trade union movement across the country has committed to supporting a ‘Yes’ vote at the upcoming referendum on recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the Constitution. The AEU affirmed its commitment to the Yes campaign at its national conference in February.

Addressing the event, Russell Honnery, Chair of Yalukit Yulendj (AEU National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Committee) said it was a historic moment, symbolising the first step towards Australia’s reconciliation with its past.

“In 2017, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people gave Australia the gift of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and, in 2018, the AEU and other education unions endorsed it. Today, we ask you to walk with us to support the Voice to Parliament.

“The referendum is not a choice between improving people’s lives or amending the Constitution. We can do both, but it will require bipartisanship, all levels of governments working together, and it must involve those most affected, namely Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”

Professor Tom Calma, Senior Australian of the Year

“The United Nations Declaration of Rights for Indigenous Peoples article three says: ‘States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with Indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior consent. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have continually called for representation in decision making about their own affairs. This year, 2023, is the time to finally make this happen in Australia.”

At the ‘Unions for Yes’ campaign launch, ACTU president Sally McManus called on all union members to vote yes, “because our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members have asked us to walk alongside them. They’ve told us they don’t just want words, they want practical change. They want one simple thing – to have a say when governments make decisions about them. It’s time to step up.”

McManus noted that even well-intentioned governments have not been able to supply solutions to the impact of invasion and dispossession on Australia’s Indigenous people. “Policy mistake after policy mistake that weren’t just mistakes – they’re people’s lives.”

“It’s not complicated, it’s not confusing, and I don’t think it’s a big ask. It’s a seat at the table.”

Lara Watson

Indigenous officer Lara Watson agreed. “You look at the past 200-plus years and we are still in a very poor position … so there needs to be that reform so that we can have equal footing – a seat at the table in parliament to offer advice to government on policies and laws on the matters that affect us. That will allow us self-determination around those matters. We’ll be able to tell government exactly what is needed and what we think will help. Asking for a voice on the decisions that are made for us – it’s not complicated, it’s not confusing, and I don’t think it’s a big ask.”

AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe says the AEU will work in consultation with Yalukit Yulendj to educate members and the broader community on the significance of the Voice to Parliament.

“For too long, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been ignored or had little opportunity to have their say about the policy and decision-making processes that impact their families and communities. The Uluru Statement from the Heart stated that a First Nations Voice to Parliament must be the starting point in ensuring that First Peoples get a say in the decisions that affect their lives and the lives of their communities.”

“It’s about drawing a line on the poor outcomes from the long legacy of failed programs and broken policies… This is about making sure that what happens in federal parliament is a positive step forward [for] us as a nation but also the life outcomes for First Nations people.”

Linda Burney, Minister for Indigenous Australians

Lara Watson has designed a suite of merchandise to help union members show their support for the ‘Yes’ campaign. The symbol she has used means ‘wadja gathering’ in Wiri language which means ‘speech’ or ‘word’, the closest word to ‘a voice’.

“I have no doubt that Australia’s ready. I think they know enough is enough and there needs to be that platform for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices. My faith is in the trade union movement – a movement committed to holding government to account.

“Opposition is very good at creating confusion. But basically, what it is about is recognising a people – the oldest living Culture in the world – in our 122-year-old Constitution. All we’re asking for is a seat at the table when it comes to policies and laws made for and about us, so we can have input on best practices and self-determination on those matters,” says Lara. “It’s simple. All we’re asking for is constitutional recognition.”

“Before us there is an opportunity to change the trajectory of our nation when it comes to recognising the rightful place of First Nations people.”

Teela Reid

How will the Voice work?

The Voice is a way for Aboriginal and Islander people to directly advise all levels of government about laws and policies that affect their lives. This body would advise the Australian parliament and government on matters relating to the social, spiritual and economic wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Parliament and government would be obliged to consult it on matters that overwhelmingly relate to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The Voice would be able to table formal advice in parliament, and a parliamentary committee would consider that advice. But all elements would be non-justiciable, meaning there could not be a court challenge and no law could be invalidated based on this consultation (read more on this).

The Albanese government has suggested three sentences be added to the constitution:

  • There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice.

  • It may make representations to parliament and the executive government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

  • The parliament shall, subject to this constitution, have power to make laws with respect to the composition, functions, powers and procedures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice.

The Indigenous Voice Co-design Report outlines the proposals and recommendations for an Indigenous Voice. Produced by professors Marcia Langton and Tom Calma, it is the result of 18 months’ worth of surveys, consultation, stakeholder meetings and webinars. Read the final report at: voice.niaa.gov.au/final-report


Support Unions for Yes

Write ‘Yes’ on your hand, hold it up, take a pic and post on your socials with #Yes23 and #UnionsForYes

Purchase ‘Unions for Yes’ merch at shop.australianunions.org.au/collections/unions-for-yes

For classroom resources, see ‘My Favourite Things’.

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