University students have been urged to get involved with the upcoming referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament.
The Australian National University hosted a nationwide Voice dialogue overnight that involved 23 universities. The dialogue urged students to engage in the Voice debate and support the upcoming referendum.
At the University of Wollongong, a five-student panel discussed the Voice issues and encouraged students embrace opportunities to volunteer provided by the Student Advisory Council.
ANU Vice-Chancellor Prof. Brian Schmidt opened the event and called on students to take an active role in educating their friends and family about the Voice.
“Voting in a referendum gives everyone real power. It’s not just showing up for the democracy sausage, it’s a change to our constitution,” he said.
“To use that power properly and with integrity, each of us need to understand the issues at stake. We have to listen and learn before we cast our vote.”
ANU professor Mark Kenny moderated the panel discussion. The panellists included Jana Stewart, the first aboriginal Labor Senator representing Victoria, Andrew Bragg, the Liberal Senator from New South Wales, Dean Parkin, the Director of From the Heart, Sally Scales, the Partnership Manager of the Uluru Statement, and Megan Davis, the pro vice-chancellor indigenous from University of New South Wales.
Prof. Kenny asked Mr Parkin for his assessment of how Australians were engaging with the issue, as he has been touring the nation for the campaign. Mr Parkin said there was a huge contrast between the atmosphere in the media and the sentiment at the grassroots level, and said most Australians are excited to have their say.
“We’ve built a campaign very quickly over the last few months that we’ve got 20,000 active volunteers on the ground at a door knocking now on a daily basis,” he said.
“More than half of those volunteers by the way have never participated in the political process before, they are not the members of the political party, they are just Australians getting behind this ‘Yes’ vote.”
When asked about the stance of fellow indigenous Victorian MP Lidia Thorpe, who said the Voice is not enough, Senator Stewart said it was not possible to convince everyone.
“The most recent survey showed that 83% or 84% of first nation people across the country support enshrining a first nation voice in our constitution,” she said.
“That is a thumping majority by anybody’s standards, but somehow first nation communities are getting held to a higher standard than 83%.
“We all agree that we need change, we might have different ideas of how we’re gonna get there but something needs to shift, and this is the opportunity before us, enshrining a voice in our constitution.”
Senator Bragg, who supports the ‘Yes’ campaign despite his party opposing it, said the government had not done enough to build a strong middle-ground consensus.
“The government developed an approach, they introduced a bill into the parliament and that was the government policy,” he said.
“It wasn’t an approach where there was a long-running committee of the parliament that made a bipartisan recommendation ideally and then we went from there so I felt that the process was mismanaged.
“I still think it’s possible that it could be successful but I think it’s going to be so much harder than it could have been.”
Ms Scales said she was confident the Voice would bring positive changes.
“We’re good at talking about change but we actually aren’t about implementing it. If we don’t change it, it’s going to be the same old same old,” she said.
“How come there’s no aboriginal young people standing there and talking about climate change? It impacts our communities as well. Who is in the room? Who is having those conversations?”
In answering a question about a claim the Voice would legally prevent a treaty in the future, Prof. Davis said there was no such provisions in the Voice.
“There’s nothing in the recognition provision that would prevent the negotiation of treaties anywhere within the commonwealth, but also because the treaty has already been done at a state and territory level by states and territories,” Prof. Davis said.
Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney encouraged students to take the lead.
Minister Burney echoed the late Charles Perkins who in his Freedom Ride said: “A handful of motivated students can change the nation.”
“You are our future and our strongest allies, this is your moment. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have asked us to walk with them so do not wait for the flare to rise from Canberra and tell you to get started,” Ms Burney said.
“The referendum campaign has begun. We will win this referendum through conversations. Silence doesn’t make history, people make history and this is our time.
“Let’s make history together.”
The University of Wollongong was one of the first institutions in the country to support changing the Constitution to establish the Voice.