It’s our Voice – So let us speak

2 Dec 2022

The proposed First Nations Voice to Parliament has brought much debate, but why are we hearing so much from non-Indigenous people?

A Black person stands in the centre with a microphone. There are two white people on either side with megaphones.

The Voice to Parliament is a contentious issue, including among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are diverse. We are not one homogenous group of people and as such have many differing opinions. I would never claim to speak for anyone but myself on matters that impact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. On this I defer to the wisdom of my Elders and community. 

I feel vexed and fearful about the current Voice to Parliament proposal. I personally know Elders who were commissioners for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). ATSIC was a commission established under the Hawke government in 1990. This commission superseded the Aboriginal Development Commission (ADC) which was a statutory authority created by the Frazer government in 1980. ATSIC had a legislative mandate to engage at the highest level of government – to provide an alternative voice on issues affecting First Nations communities. This Voice was one that would have been reflective of the perspectives and interests of First Nations people and communities in Australia. ATSIC was a strong critic of the government and of its human rights failings, and although ATSIC wasn’t perfect, it was something. 

ATSIC was abolished in 2004 following wave after wave of political interference – from both sides of the aisle. The Howard government declared it a “failed experiment” and the legislation it was enshrined in was changed. In one foul swoop the abolition of ATSIC stripped every First Nations person and community in Australia of representative and legislative rights and powers. It crystalised how mob are at the mercy of the whims of government. They re-colonised us and attempted to put us back in (our) place, where the colonial white government and systems wanted us – dependent and dysfunctional. And it laid waste to any meaningful Indigenous involvement in legislative or policy development, as it related to our own communities.

In abolishing ATSIC they declared that rather than allowing Indigenous people to vote on who would represent us, they would instead “appoint a group of distinguished indigenous people to advise the Government on a purely advisory basis in relation to aboriginal affairs.”

In the years following the abolition of ATSIC consecutive governments have taken a bi-partisan approach to First Nations policy development and enacted policies that have further disempowered Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander communities. Most of which has been done without any meaningful consultation with Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander communities.

The concept of a First Nations People Voice to Parliament has always made some people uncomfortable. Pauline Hanson called for the abolition of ATSIC in her 1996 parliamentary maiden speech. 

For me, this is all beginning to sound uncomfortably familiar…

So, with the current conversations regarding a First Nations Voice to Parliament I am beginning to feel a strong sense of déjà vu (all over again). Without robust, critical debate and discourse between mob seeking clarity on what the Voice might constitute, how it can represent all of our diversities or even if it is the right-way forward, I fear the repetition (continuation) of the same wrongs being visited upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Australia.

The current Voice to Parliament has been met with many responses from mob and from non-Indigenous people

Critical conversations between mob about our business – such as the Uluru Statement from the Heart, Treaty and truth, the Voice to Parliament, Makarrata and other matters – are necessary. It means we are meaningfully attending to matters of our sovereignty – as we have done for millennia. And although there have been some opportunities for mob to speak publicly on the Voice, non-Indigenous people and personalities are being centred in mainstream media conversations.


What is the Voice to Parliament?

The proposed Voice to Parliament would be an advisory body enshrined in the Australian Constitution. The Voice would be established to facilitate select Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People to provide advice to Parliament on policies, procedures and projects that impact the lives of First Nations People in Australia. 

To enshrine the Voice in the constitution requires a national referendum where everyone in Australia eligible to vote decides whether the Voice should be enshrined in the constitution. So, in reality everyone of voting age gets to vote on our business. The Constitution of Australia is the document that established Australia as a federation under a constitutional monarchy and it sets out the basis for Australia’s federal system of governance. 

Some First Nations People are not supportive of the idea of constitutional enshrinement of the Voice to Parliament. This is because the constitution is a colonial document based on colonial structures of oppression and violence. There is also discussion about the Voice being just another advisory body. Djab Wurrung Gunnai Gunditjmara Senator Lidia Thorpe contends “We’ve had hundreds of advisory bodies to government and they’ve not really done much at all…So if we’re talking about having power and influence in this country, we need to be talking about treaty”. Thorpe makes a strong point. 

Also, many First Nations protocols and customs state it is against lore/law for any one person or Nation to speak on behalf of anyone else or outside their own mob. It is not right-way or proper-way of doing things. Right-way or proper-way are not terms that imply there is a wrong-way (although there may be), but rather it is meant to bring people together to respectfully discuss important matters related to the business of our communities.


  • Is built on the foundation of trust and respect
  • Opens up communication pathways  
  • Answers all questions all interested parties need or want to explore
  • Is a collective/shared approach
  • Includes a mix of Peoples, Knowledge Systems and methodological approaches 
  • Protects and respects First Nations Knowledges and Sovereignty 
  • Provides opportunity for data/information to be interpreted and protected
  • Acknowledges all involved

This is why the Voice is a serious point of discussion in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. We are not one group of peoples. Although we are interconnected, we have differing lore/law, histories, stories, needs, opinions (political and otherwise), thoughts and ideas. And it is still unclear how the Voice will be able to facilitate a harmonious voice for all of us. As such critical discourse, right-way is required to respectfully flesh out any concerns.


So far we are hearing a lot of white voices

The Voice has been met with much criticism, particularly from white “conservative” media personalities.

The Voice has been described by these people as “impotent”, “fundamentally inegalitarian” and “aparthied”. 

The ABC program Q and A recently included discussions on racism, hostility towards First Nations Peoples and the Voice to Parliament. Q and A initially announced an all-white panel, but following criticism added an Indigenous panellist, Ben Abbatangelo, a Gunaikurnai and Wotjobaluk creative and writer at the last minute. However, the panel still consisted of four white people, one First Nations person, and included conservative commentator and broadcaster Alan Jones. Jones has frequently misrepresented what the Voice to Parliament sets out to do.

Three consecutive Liberal Party leaders (all white men) have misrepresented what the Voice is, insinuating it would become a third chamber of Parliament. In 2017, the then Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull rejected the Uluru Statement from the Heart, saying it would “inevitably be seen as a third chamber of parliament”. In the same year the then Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce also dismissed the Voice as an “Indigenous Chamber”. When the current leader of the Liberal opposition Peter Dutton was Minister of Home Affairs he labelled the Voice as a “third chamber” as did former Prime Minister Scott Morrison. All of these statements are incorrect and one could argue designed to be misleading.

Additionally, ABC journalist Patricia Karvelas has written and commented extensively on the Voice as has broadcaster, author and academic Waleed Aly. Both are considered and articulate, however both are non-Indigenous peoples with no expertise in the area.

Dr Amy Thunig, Gomeroi/Kamilaroi academic, author, media commentator and panellist has commented that Aly lacked understanding and argued:

“Adding your own voice – particularly when you have a loud, platformed voice – to the chatter, actually drowns out Indigenous voices and then gathers/steals support from non-Indigenous people who otherwise may have been there to support our work, ideas and pathways. It’s not helpful”

I agree with Thunig. It is far from helpful. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities have been systematically violated and silenced since the invasion and colonisation of Australia. In addition, our Knowledges have been appropriated and misused. So, for a non-Indigenous person to wander in and express opinions, thoughts and ideas about our business – without expertise – from a significant media platform, further violates and silences our voices. It also appropriates our cause and re–directs the light and attention onto them and further away from us and our opinions, thoughts and ideas about our sovereign business.

Mobs voices should be front and centre

When discussing matters that impact the nation now called Australia, it is imperative that those affected, such as First Nations peoples are centred and privileged in the discussion. This means those who are non-Indigenous must remain respectfully silent unless invited into the conversation by us. Otherwise the risk is privileging whiteness and perpetuating racism and discrimination. 

There is also great harm in centring the wrong voices regarding the Voice to Parliament. This is not right-way. It de-platforms and de-rails the issue and potentially spreads detrimental misinformation. It directs attention away from critical discourse between mob and collectively silences us. It also recolonises us and perpetuates what WEH Stanner refers to as the “Great Australian Silence.” 

We also do not need allies that appropriate our knowledge or set up any sort of expertise about us or our business, who interfere or have opinions and judgments about our business. We do not need allies that position themselves as experts. This minimises the very real and meaningful discussions Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities must have about our own sovereign business. These discussions are not trivial and must be listened to in a manner that is appropriate, respectful, shows humility and also minimises racism and inherent white privilege.


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