The Voice, the Referendum and public health

Terry Slevin wears a Yes T-shirt and gives the thumbs up. He is standing in front of a Vote Yes poster and a map showing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language groups. The image has PHAA logos on both sides of its borders.

Adj Prof Terry Slevin, PHAA CEO

This week I had the privilege to participate in a forum hosted by the Allies for Uluru, a coalition of civil society organisations that support the implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, starting with the establishment of a First Nations Voice to Parliament enshrined in the Constitution.

Public health practitioners have support for the equity of First Nations peoples in our DNA. We all intellectually and emotionally understand the importance of this Referendum succeeding, as an important, if modest step, towards genuine reconciliation with Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

PHAA has gone on the record as an organisation to support the Yes vote and the Voice to Parliament, and is an active member of the Allies for Uluru coalition. Progress towards reconciliation brings an opportunity to address the health and other inequities experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

While those of us working in public health do not need to be convinced, many of us spend our lives with people who may not agree. Others of us might struggle to understand why we are hearing so much about opposition to the Voice and the Referendum.

Among the speakers at this week’s event was Dean Parkin, the Director of the Yes23 campaign. Dean reported that their data showed that approximately 40% of the population were still undecided how to vote.

As with any election, that undecided group will determine the ultimate outcome. The Allies for Uluru coalition is aiming to help the Yes23 campaign shift those undecided to vote Yes.

The campaign team is working on the assumption the Referendum will be held in mid-October. That’s inless than 60 days. The message from the event was if every Yes supporter talked to and swayed the view of just two undecided people, the Referendum would succeed.

Dean’s message was clear: “Don’t believe the polls. It is true that the support for the Voice has waned slightly, but that was expected. But make no mistake – WE CAN STILL WIN.”

You can do that in your own world. In your family, in your friendship group, your social and sporting groups, in your organisation.

A few simple but important points are that:

  • The Voice does NOT come from Canberra. It’s from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and has 80% support among them.
  • The proposal was born from the Uluru Statement from the Heart – led, written, and driven by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
  • Be positive! There is much by way of distraction, fear mongering, and even blatant racism in the campaign against the Voice. Buying into all those negative campaign tactics will only exacerbate the fear and uncertainty and amplify their messaging. That is their strategy.

Address the fear of uncertainty by being clear what the proposed Constitutional change actually is.  That is:

Chapter IX Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples

129 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice

In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia:

i) There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice;

ii) The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;

iii) The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.

In simple terms this change:

  1. Formally recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our Constitution.
  2. Guarantees a Voice that cannot be repealed or abolished by Government.
  3. Sets out the function of the Voice: to have a say on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
  4. Provides the detail of how the Voice will be designed: by the politicians whose job it is to do so after the Referendum has passed, in a co-design process with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

This will be a new, additional section in the Australian Constitution.  I have had the opportunity to read the Constitution this week.  The proposed change will be added onto the end of the document and makes no alteration to anything that currently exists.  It is entirely consistent with the way the Constitution works. It is about values and principles that inform how our nation should function, but not the fine details.

This is a modest, simple, and sensible addition that creates a pathway by which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices are heard.  It guarantees nothing about laws, funding, powers or control.  It simply allows First Peoples to “make representations… on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”.

Aunty Pat Anderson AO and PHAA CEO Terry Slevin. Terry holds a copy of the Constitution, autographed by Aunty Pat.
Aunty Pat Anderson AO and PHAA CEO Terry Slevin. Aunty Pat signed Terry’s copy of the Constitution.


This is not revolutionary, not radical, not scary. But it can help to address the generations of discrimination, disregard and racism so unjustly brought down on the First Nations peoples of this land, simply by offering a vehicle to respect, regard, and to hear their concerns.

I repeat – If every Yes supporter sways the views of two undecideds, the Referendum will be a success.

To help, you can:

Amplify and support the positive campaign. Attend a meeting, put up a sign, wear a supportive T- shirt, post on social media (here are some toolkits in multiple languages).

Emotionally engage.  This is about self-respect for Australia – not only now, but for future generations. It is about fairness and respect for those who walked this land and nurtured it for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans.

Encourage others.  Provide people with the resources to amplify, pass on, reinforce, through whatever channels are available to you.

My take?  This is a genuine test of the soul of this nation.  I want to wake up on the day after the Referendum feeling proud that we have chosen to make a step in unifying our country.  So, I am personally invested.

Support the Voice, support the Yes23 campaign and make your own personal contribution to making Australia a better place. Time is of the essence.

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