Yes/No 2023 Referendum: Some things to consider

6 Oct 2023

We’re all being asked to vote ‘Yes or No’ in the Voice referendum. Wiradjuri academic Emma Olssen gives us some things to consider when taking part in the vote.

Misinformation about referendum

As an Aboriginal woman, I have been asked, called, emailed, and messaged about my thoughts and views on the Voice in addition to being expected to tell those who asked, what they  should vote. In some part it made me feel proud, as they must think so highly of me that I must know.  It also made me feel tired, that my time isn’t as important as theirs, for I know that more often than not, in the Indigenous space, people don’t really want to know or learn. They just want to hear your thoughts to debate it with you, rather than learning and finding out themselves.  

The day I wrote this article, I attended a panel discussion titled the Voice: Know Your Stuff, at The University of  Queensland.  

This panel consisted of  Dr. Dylan Lino, a Senior Lecturer in Constitutional Law at the University of Queensland and MC  for the discussion; Allira Davis, the co-chair of the Uluru Youth Summit and the co-convenor of the Uluru Youth Dialogues; Kevin Williams, a First Nations Professor of Law at the University of the Sunshine Coast; and Marcus Waters, an internationally renowned published First Nations playwright, screenwriter,  journalist, and Associate Professor and Dean at Griffith University. 

I felt the panel discussion’s purpose was to provide information rather than to sway one’s opinion, although it was clear what their position was, regarding the referendum vote, which they spoke to, but at no time did I feel that they were pushing this.  I feel their narrative was to provide a platform to indicate where you could find information and debunk some of the myths. 

I had attended quite a few discussions in the hope of gathering information on the Voice.  However, unlike many others, I stayed at this one the entire time. And for the first time I realised why I  had walked out of the others. That was because I hadn’t known I was walking into a hostile environment. Hostility comes in many forms, at times it’s not conscious and can be experienced by hearing whispers under the breath, hushed conversations that sometimes have racist remarks., Some of us are challenged is we’re not seen as aligning one way or the other or if we’re in opposition or just the feeling that we’re the odd one out.

I stayed at this session because, at the very beginning, I had an Uncle who walked in, looked around (he looked familiar to me, but I couldn’t quite place him), and then looked right at me proper and said, ‘good turnout ay?’ I was like’ yep’, he asked, ‘who ya mob’, ‘Wiradjuri’, I responded. While we yarned, he pointed me out to his mob loud and proud, and said there’s other mob here! I felt safe, and it was then I realised that previously I hadn’t felt safe in these spaces. Thank you Uncle for making me feel safe. That Uncle was Dr Marcus Waters, who was also  one of the panellists.

How unsettling is it, that a 42-year-old Aboriginal woman was scared to attend a discussion about the Voice, because of her experiences at previous events?  The Voice is about us, and the next generation, my children, nieces, nephews, and their children. We should be able to walk into a room without fear and know we are acknowledged and accepted regardless of the decision we make in this vote. 

How to get informed before the referendum

Like many others, there was a time when I felt overwhelmed and unsure about all the information  that was circulated about the Referendum and the Vote. I knuckled down and looked more deeply into it; first by getting a better understanding of how referendums are conducted; learning more about previous referendums and learning more about the voice principles

Information is available to anyone that is wanting and willing to have a deeper understanding around the referendum and the voice, however, the information is complex. People’s lives are busy, there is constant noise from political propaganda and there is a lack of understanding on where to find the information. I think this is a key driver for people wanting something that is easy to read and gives the key points and facts. 

There are some websites I found that provided straightforward information on the referendum and the Voice such as the Deadly Story, A Voice to Parliament and the Uluru Statement,  Uluru Statement from the HeartWhat is The Voice and  FAQ’s Voice. 

Additionally you can find more information about the referendum, via the Australian Electoral  Commission, ‘Referendum 2023’ or if you are seeking more information about the Voice Historyprinciples, you can find them on the Australian Government  website, Voice Principles, 2023’.  

Referendums are not meant to be complicated. It is a national vote, meant to pose a simple question, about a proposed change, Voice Principles to the Constitution (AEC, 2023). If you are seeking more information on Referendums, you can find it on the Australian Electoral Commission, ‘The role  of referendums, 2023’.  

It’s important you remember it is not the responsibility of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to help you decide which way  you  should vote in the 2023 Referendum. 


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Food for thought

After watching countless news stories, reading articles, attending the panel discussion and discussing with family and friends about the referendum and The Voice,  I’m reminded that with every political  campaign, there are those who have money, influence and are loud and those who are  not.  This is leading to a lot of people’s uncertainty and fear being ignited, which has an interesting picture and familiarity to it.  

When I started hearing some of the misinformation and big claims being made, I found myself immediately reflecting on Y2K. This led to looming feelings of dread, despair, and impending doom. The overwhelming amount of information and misinformation muddied the waters, so much that it was the sheer panic of chaos that seemed to become the loudest. This is not to say that there could have been a catastrophic glitch in computer systems if many programmers had not done a massive software rewrite. But it went  far beyond that for me and many others, with the notion that the world might actually end, in a big  bang kind of way. But this was simply because, A) I was young, and naive and B) ill-informed.  

I feel the reflection of this, this weaponisation of fear, in the campaigns that say if ‘you don’t know, vote no!’. Or hearing the theory that Aboriginal people won’t hold sovereignty anymore if we are included in the constitution. Part of these sub-campaigns is a lack of information and a lack of people seeking it. 

“If in doubt, find out”! ~ Allira Davis (panel discussion).

I am not here to tell you what to vote, just my thoughts and feelings from engaging with it.  

My purpose for this discussion was for my benefit, to lay it out and reflect upon it, I thought it might  also be of interest to you. It is not here to pose a decision to you or sway you. But I do want to leave  you with a final thought.

During the question time of the panel discussion, and listening to the answers  to the questions I kept thinking: people are so focused on the decision of yes and no. But really, it’s about the impact that decision has, once it is made.

How will a ‘Yes or No’ vote, once the decision is made, affect you, your family and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s lives around you?

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