Originally published in The Canberra Times on September 2, 2023

There are just a few weeks until Australia holds its first Referendum since 1999, on whether we should establish an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament. 

If you don’t know how you’re going to vote—and polls suggests more than one in ten Australians are still undecided—now is the time to ask questions so you can make an informed decision on Saturday the 14th October.

If you don’t know, just ask. Do not be afraid to ask questions if you unsure about the Voice. The Yes campaign has been very busy explaining what the Voice is to people who are just tuning in for the first time or who have doubts. If you are unsure or leaning No, they would love to answer your questions. The Yes campaign has been holding Voice to Parliament Referendum Q & A information sessions in towns from Deniliquin to Cooktown and they recognise that people have genuine questions about what the Voice is, why it’s necessary and how it will work.

Australia Institute research released this week shows that in the key state of South Australia, a majority of South Australians (52%) are currently inclined to support the Voice at the upcoming referendum. Support is highest among younger voters and lowest among older voters and this is broadly the same around the country. If young Australians want the referendum to succeed, it’s clear that they need to talk to their parents and grandparents about why they so strongly support the Voice and will be voting Yes.

The reality is the Voice to Parliament is a simple proposition. We will be asked whether we approve altering the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing a body called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. The Voice will be able to make representations to Parliament and the Executive Government, that’s it. It’s pretty straightforward.

If Australians vote Yes on 14 October, then our democratically elected Parliament will decide on the composition, functions, powers and procedures of the Voice. We are not being asked to decide how many people the Voice should employ and what it should work on, but whether or not we think the Voice should exist in the Constitution.

The Voice is not a silver bullet that will magically close the gap in life expectancy or reduce over-incarceration overnight, it will have to work hard to create change. But there’s no doubt it will make things better. Whenever Aboriginal people have a real Voice, their outcomes are better – and that’s what the Voice is all about.

How will a No vote improve anything for anyone? It won’t.

Sadly, instead of explaining what the Voice actually is, the Yes campaign has been fighting off a tidal wave of misinformation about things the Voice is not. There are all sorts of wild claims being made about the Voice.

The Australian Electoral Commission maintains a Disinformation register to counter disinformation about the Referendum process, but, as the saying goes, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it”. I doubt many people even know the Register exists and it does nothing to stop the lies invading people’s social media.

The fact is, it’s perfectly legal to lie in a political ad in Australia and it shouldn’t be. We still have no Truth in Political Advertising Laws at the federal level and social media is still effectively self-regulated, despite growing evidence it is rotting democracies from within (Facebook knows its algorithm radicalises people).

Whether from the No campaign, or bot farms, trolls, Neo-Nazis or fake accounts on social media, disinformation about the Voice has been rife, with claims about everything from rigged Dominion voting machines (we’ll vote on paper ballots) to unleashing a New World Order (whatever that is). Opposition Leader Peter Dutton even stooped so low as to suggest the AEC has ‘rigged’ the vote – a radical and untrue claim from the alternative Prime Minister of this country.

Dutton’s rhetoric is damaging to our democracy. It’s no different to the lies Donald Trump spread to undermine confidence in the last US Presidential election results and it has rightly been utterly rejected and condemned by the AEC and others. So much for conservatives preserving our traditional institutions.

The disinformation ranges from nasty to whacko to plain racist. But all of it is designed to muddy the waters and make people fearful, or as Indigenous leader Noel Pearson described it, the intention is to exploit fears about Indigenous people and reconciliation.

“Well, the no campaign might be inciting rage; we’re gonna incite love and faith and the removal of fear, [and] belief in Indigenous people…maintain the love, there’s no rage path for us,” said Pearson.

Six years ago, Australians chose the love path. We voted for Marriage Equality and the sky didn’t fall in. No one gay-married the Sydney Harbour Bridge, as one Liberal Senator warned about. All that happened was that a lot of couples who loved one another got hitched.

In the Marriage Equality postal vote, 61.6% of Australians responded Yes. That’s about the same percentage of Australians who said they supported the Voice (65% Yes) when the Australia Institute first surveyed them in June last year. The first instincts of Australians were to support the Voice. The No campaign may have managed to instil doubt, but there is a still a strong core of support for the Voice.

As Pat Anderson, co-chair of the Referendum Council and one of the architects of the Uluru Statement from the Heart says, this is an opportunity for Australia to make a judgment call on what kind of a nation we want to live in.

“We have to re­imagine what we could and should be. We have to reimagine something different, something better, something that’s best for us all, as Australians.”

How often do we collectively get the chance to genuinely reimagine something better for our country? What a rare gift we’ve been offered by our First Nations brothers and sisters. Let’s choose the love path.

Authorised by Ebony Bennett, The Australia Institute, Level 1 Endeavour House, 1 Franklin St Manuka ACT 2603

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