Turnbull is not the referendum messiah he thinks he is

Lawyer and Wiradjuri/Wailwan woman

Malcolm Turnbull’s revelation that he will now vote “Yes” to a First Nations Voice to parliament at a referendum is unsurprising. Public support for the Voice has grown as the result of heavy lifting by First Nations’ advocates,despite the fact it was Turnbull’s job to show leadership and respect when he was prime minister.

When it really mattered,Turnbull rejected the Voice. He is not the referendum messiah that he thinks he is.

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has changed his mind on the Voice to parliament.

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has changed his mind on the Voice to parliament.Alex Ellinghausen

As the then prime minister,rather than accepting the invitation to work with First Nations people to galvanise public support,Turnbull broke many hearts by projecting his own failure in the 1999 republic referendum,demanding unnecessary detail on the very important question of Indigenous recognition.

If he had learnt any lessons from 1999,it ought to have been that it is not the detail that is critical,rather the focus must be on the purpose of why such a question must be put to the people.

Australia is yet to formally recognise First Nations people as part of its constitutional framework. This glaring omission is at odds with other liberal democracies and is inextricably a legal,political and moral issue. It cuts to the heart of who we are as a modern democracy that is yet to fully embrace the extraordinary possibilities within the First Nations.

The backflip from Turnbull is welcomed and necessary to mobilise towards a successful referendum on the most important question put to the people in our lifetimes. Although he deserves no credit for how far we have come since his elaborate rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Teela Reid (left) in 2018.

Teela Reid (left) in 2018.Supplied

As Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced at theGarma Festival,this crucial question is likely to be:“Do you support an alteration to the constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice?” This is a very simple proposition. It requires a simple Yes or No response.

The campaign proper must articulate to the public why establishing a Voice to parliament is important in upholding democratic values by ensuring the rightful place of First Nations voices is at the centre of decisions that affects our lives. A mandate from the public would give the Voice the certainty it needs to develop over time. A referendum is just the start and not the end point to facilitating the self-determination of First Nations through a formal Voice mechanism enshrined in the Constitution.

It is also essential that Labor,particularly Linda Burney,the Minister for Indigenous Australians,continues to listen to First Nations people as they undertake the process to establish and implement the Voice. This will need to be transparent and include the steps both before and after the question is put to the people. It is not possible to fully flesh out every single detail of a First Nations Voice model overnight because each First Nation ought to have ongoing input.

What is clear from public discourse is that First Nations people want a nation-based Voice. This is consistent with what was said in the process culminating in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It is a fair and reasonable request,that any Voice must recognise the ongoing connection First Nations people have to their traditional countries.

It is a commonsense approach and already customary in Australia,particularly through native title or protocols such as Acknowledgments of Country and Welcome to Country. The government must establish a Voice to parliament that recognises the many First Nations,rather than just the artificial local,regional or state-based boundaries,as endorsed in thegovernment report into the Voice co-design process by Marcia Langton and Tom Calma.

As an advocate for the Uluru Statement from the Heart,I was told by Turnbull on national TV that if the Voice were put to a referendum “it would go down in flames”.

The one lesson that we can take away is that it is First Nations people who know what is best for our communities:the time for whitesplaining is over. And,more to the point on referendums,when it comes to any future Australian republic question,it ought to be a model enshrining First Nations sovereignty.

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Teela Reid is a Wiradjuri/Wailwan lawyer and practitioner-in-residence at Sydney Law School.

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