A compelling discussion on the Voice referendum was held at Mona Vale Memorial Hall last night (Monday, 28 August).

Hosted by Aboriginal Support Group — Manly, Warringah and Pittwater (ASGMWP), the discussion was always going to favour the Yes case, but did so in the most balanced and compelling way heard to date on the Northern Beaches.

Neil Evers

In presenting an event that focused on the case for voting Yes, Chair of ASGMWP Uncle Neil Evers (image above) opened the evening with an impassioned plea to all in attendance to listen with respect to the other side of the debate.

Julian Leeser MP, Jeff McMullen AM and Professor Tim Rowse

The forum, which attracted up to 200 attendees, was moderated by renowned Australian broadcast journalist Jeff McMullen AM (image above, centre), who himself has a wealth of personal involvement in Aboriginal issues.

He was joined by Western Sydney University Emeritus Professor Tim Rowse who has written extensively on Australian and indigenous history and Liberal MP Julian Leeser, a constitutional expert who resigned from Shadow Cabinet to campaign in favour of the Voice.

Prof Tim Rowse

Prof Tim Rowse (image above) said the Voice was the form of recognition that Aboriginal people had selected for themselves following years of consultation and democratic discussion.

“To recognise someone, you need to know something about how those who you wish to recognise see themselves. There is no point offering recognition unless you know what form of recognition will satisfy their desire to be recognised.

“If we don’t know how indigenous Australians wish to be recognised, then our offer to recognise them, however well intentioned, will fail. Indigenous Australians have told us what form of recognition they want. They have told us that they want the Australian Constitution to be amended so that it provides for the existence of an indigenous advisory body,” explained Prof Rowse.

Julian Leeser MP

Liberal MP Julian Leeser (image above) said he had opposed the referendum in favour of Australia becoming a republic, because it was a radical proposal, but supported the Voice to Parliament as it was a modest proposal with only one change to the Constitution and gave Parliament control over the Voice.

“The single most important thing I’m going to say tonight is the referendum question, ‘A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?’

“Some of my friends on the No campaign have said that this is the biggest change to our Constitution in history. I think we have a good Constitution, so most of the time, you’ll find me on the No case for a referendum.

“Indeed in 1999, I was on the No case for the Republic referendum. That was a big change to our Constitution. The Republic brought about 69 separate changes to our Constitution. By contrast, this is one of the smallest changes to our Constitution, we’re talking about one new section. That’s all this is,” explained Mr Leeser.

A constitutional expert, Mr Leeser then read the exact amendment that would be made to the Constitution as a result of a Yes vote being successful. The amendment can be read on the Australian Government Voice website but is reproduced below.

“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.”

Public forum on the Voice referendum at Mona vale Memorial Hall

Jeff McMullen said after many years witnessing the failure of government to improve the lives of Aboriginal people, he was convinced of the need for the Voice.

“I will vote Yes in the referendum because I am convinced that it will strengthen our government and strengthen our nation. It will put into the Constitution for the first time a missing foundation stone. The recognition of the world’s oldest continuous cultures, has been missing from the document that defines who we are, in our own eyes, and how the world sees us as well.

“John Howard said on the front page of The Australian just two weeks ago, the reason the whole sector of Aboriginal development has failed is because ‘government is not good in this area’.

“Although John Howard is a fierce opponent against the Voice, and of this particular offering in this referendum, he has told the truth about why we are failing as a nation to close any of those dreaded gaps.

“The truth is, government has failed to listen. The Voice is a hopeful offering to breathe some life and light into that space. Perhaps, to enhance the power of First Peoples to get those who have not listened, to deeply consider the advice that was given to them,” said Mr McMullen.

Public forum on the Voice referendum at Mona vale Memorial Hall

Although the public forum organised by ASGMWP was clearly making a case for the Yes vote, it was done in a respectful, thoughtful, and thought-provoking way.

The meeting sought to allay fears, without portraying them as unreasonable. By all expectation the evening should have been solely friendly to Yes voters, but those who have not yet been convinced by either side of the argument would also have found it informative.

More information about the referendum and the proposed changes to the Constitution can be found at the Commonwealth Government Voice website and the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) Referendum 2023 website page.

Images: Northern Beaches Advocate

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