Dear Friends,

Tonight at 7:30pm the BIG Book Group is taking place in the church hall – several book groups and many individuals coming together to discuss The Voice to Parliament Handbook by Thomas Mayor & Kerry O’Brien. (It takes the same time to read as it takes to watch a film – so if you can get hold of a copy of a copy this afternoon – feel free to join us!)

We are going to be discussing:

  1. What we’ve learnt about the First Nations ‘Voice’ from reading the book,
  2. What we’re still confused about, and
  3. What we think the book did not address.

And I am going to jump in early on the first question because what I’ve learnt – or realised – from reading The Voice to Parliament Handbook is just what an extraordinary group of extraordinary women have contributed to the journey of the Voice!

The book first speaks of Faith Bandler who, “along with Pastor Doug Nicholls and other leaders in the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, drove a new petition proposing constitutional change to allow the Commonwealth to make laws on behalf of First Nations people – …collecting more that 100,000 signatures by 1962.” Faith was “an inspirational figure in her decade-long campaign for a referendum…. The hardest part of the campaign…, she said, was ‘to get people to think of the Aboriginal people as people’. Yet the 1967 referendum remains the most resounding ‘Yes’ vote in 122 years.”

The next woman the book highlights is Lowitja O’Donoghue. “As the Foundation Chair of ATSIC (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission) from 1990 to 1996, she had a platform to speak from, but no power of authority beyond that prescribed role. With the sheer force of her will and sense of moral authority, O’Donoghue forged a leadership team to negotiate with the Commonwealth…. The result was the Native Title Act 1993, which reflected compromise by all parties but provided a pathway for orderly processing of Indigenous claims to Native Title around Australia.”

The book also highlights the work of Professor Marcia Langton AO and Dr Tom Calma AO  (Chancellor of the University of Canberra). Their 280-page report, commissioned by the Morrison government, included a proposed model in which the Voice would consist of 24 members, comprising two from each state, territory and the Torres Strait Islands, a further five from remote areas in the Northern Territory, Western Australia, Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia and one Torres Strait Islander living on the mainland. This is one proposed model, but the first step is for the referendum to agree that a model can be developed. The final model will then be discussed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate before it is decided by a vote in both houses.

The final woman celebrated in the book is international human rights lawyer, Megan Davis. Davis was an international lawyer at the United Nations where, from 1999 until 2004, she helped work on the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In 2010, she became the first Indigenous Australian woman to be elected to a United Nations body when she was appointed to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. She also served as a member of the Prime Minister’s Referendum Council from 2015-2017, and as a member of the Referendum Council, she was instrumental in assisting the development of the Uluru Statement From the Heart, designing the deliberative dialogues and chairing the Council’s sub-committee for the First Nations regional Dialogues and the First Nations Constitutional Convention in 2017. It was extraordinary to hear her speak here in Canberra in March about the long and careful process of consultation across Australia that resulted in the Uluru Statement and has carried on in the call for the Voice.

To quote a man quoted in the book, Gough Whitlam declared at his campaign launch for the 1972 election, “We will legislate to give Aborigines [sic] land rights – not just because their case is beyond argument – but because all of us as Australians are diminished while the Aborigines are denied their rightful place in this nation.” Acknowledging the extraordinary achievements of these extraordinary women and wanting to be part of this effort that honours their efforts, is, to me, one step towards being a more unified country, to becoming a country for all Australians.



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