Organise Together for a Massive 'Yes' Vote for a First Nations Voice to Parliament!

SEARCH Foundation statement on the Voice

SEARCH Foundation fights for a democratic, ecologically sustainable, and socialist Australia. We recognise this land was never ceded, but was taken without compensation, without consent and without Treaty. We oppose the ongoing impacts of colonialism and the racism inherent in Australian society. In 2017, we committed to the Uluru Statement from the Heart process of Voice - Treaty - Truth. Now, in 2023, we call on our members, supporters, and the progressive social movements to join the campaign for a massive Yes vote in the Referendum to enshrine a First Nations Voice in the Australian Constitution.

The Constitution is the foundation document of Australia’s settler state. We believe recognising First Nations’ prior and ongoing occupation of this continent, and enshrining the Voice in that document, is critical to self-determination, treaty, and truth-telling. It is constitutional reform that will help shift Australian society towards an anti-colonialist and anti-racist politics and culture. This statement explains why we have adopted our position.

Standing ground to 1967

For thousands of years, sovereign First Nations peoples have lived on and cared for this continent and the islands around it. Settlers – whether we regard ourselves as progressive, anti-colonialist, socialist, or not - are the invaders, the colonisers, the beneficiaries of imperialist conquest.

Modern Australian history for most of the last two hundred and thirty-five years saw First Nations peoples’ rights to their lands, languages, and cultures constantly denied. And while always and everywhere Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples resisted invasion, no significant progressive movement among the settler population supporting this resistance emerged until the early years of the last century.

Radicals and socialists, including our Foundation’s forebears in the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), were among the first to recognise that genocide, exploitation, incarceration, systemic poverty and marginalisation were integral to the development of a capitalist Australia. In solidarity with First Nations’ peoples and organisations, CPA members and other progressive activists, played key roles in campaigns for First Nations recognition as peoples, for land rights, fair wages, abolition of racist laws, an end to police brutality, and above all self-determination.

By the end of the last century, this movement of First Nations people and supporters had won significant gains. Perhaps none was more dramatic than the overwhelming popular vote in the 1967 Referendum, which authorised the Commonwealth to pass legislation to improve the lives of First Nations people, recognise their rights to equality as Commonwealth citizens, and made Commonwealth governments more accountable in the international arena. Constitutional change can make a difference.

Towards self-determination and justice

The mass popular movement which won the Yes vote in 1967 created the momentum and mandate on which the Whitlam Labor government of 1972-75 built further progressive policy and actions. By the time of its dismissal, this government had begun funding community-controlled First Nations organisations, passed the Racial Discrimination Act, and drafted a bill for land rights in the Northern Territory.

In the fifty plus years since, these and subsequent reforms have driven significant improvements in the rights and conditions of many First Nations peoples and their communities. But these gains were won only through determined and broadly-based political struggles led by First Nations community-controlled organisations: the land councils, women’s councils, primary health and legal services, housing organisations, childcare providers, schools and colleges. These are the building blocks of self-determination and self-government. We support these First Nations struggles, and the wider fight to force governments to fulfil their obligations as both guarantors and providers of education, health, housing, justice, and other essential citizenship rights for all. Still, there is much more to be done, including eradicating ongoing institutional racism. The struggle continues!

First Peoples rights, including sovereignty – ‘freedom from external control’ - are not fixed in constitutional law. They must be fought for and defended, inside and outside the institutions of government, or the state. First Nations representatives and constitutional lawyers have pointed out that a Yes vote does not cede sovereignty and that arguments about sovereignty and the primacy of treaties now may be confusing and divisive, potentially strengthening right-wing opposition to the Voice.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart, released at the convention in May 2017, is an invitation to the Australian people to walk with First Nations people for Voice, Treaty, Truth. The Statement was built on decades of negotiations and discussions. It reflects an extraordinary level of national unity among multiple First Nations elders, activists, communities, and organisations. It was agreed to by all but 7 of the 250 delegates elected from twelve regional dialogues over the two years prior, involving over 1000 representatives, all of whom were First Nations people. The majority (80 per cent) of these dialogue participants were traditional owners on their own country and representatives of local and regional community-controlled organisations.

Constitutional reform or recognition, through a Voice, will not in itself solve First Nations exploitation or decolonise the country. It is an important ‘place-marker’, along a path towards a future in which different forms of recognition, sovereignty and human rights are achieved. The majority of First Nations leaders speaking for communities in urban, regional, rural and remote areas identify this as an opportunity to make significant gains now. A constitutionally enshrined First Nations Voice to Parliament, they have told us, will enhance First Nations self-determination, and establish foundations for achieving treaties, truth-telling, and greater equality of outcomes.

Our view of the 2023 referendum campaign

The irony of a Referendum to recognise the rights of First Nations, who make up only a small minority of electors, is that it can only pass with a “super majority” of the settler population – a majority of electors nationally, and also a majority of electors in at least four states. The Referendum for a Constitutionally enshrined First Nations Voice to Parliament cannot succeed, therefore, without a peoples’ movement to convince the majority of the non-Indigenous population to vote Yes.

This campaign is an opportunity for socialists and progressives – Indigenous and non-Indigenous - to work together, to construct a broad alliance to roll back Australia’s colonialist and racist governance, economy, and dominant culture, and its traumatic legacy. SEARCH will work as part of this broad alliance to get out the Yes vote.

By grounding our cultural, economic, and political institutions in the cultures and histories of the continent’s First Nations’, we can begin to rewrite Australia’s racist Anglo-centric story as a sub-imperial power in our region. This will also necessarily involve drawing much more from the histories, cultures, stories, and traditions of the many and diverse waves of immigrants who come to live on these First Nations lands.

As the clock ticks down towards a referendum vote in late 2023, opposition from the conservative and right-wing side of politics is increasing. Some are already actively organising and waging a divisive No campaign, with their supporters in the media, the Institute of Public Affairs and other right-wing think tanks, and the hard right of the Coalition parties.

Some on the left are standing back and not participating, or even opposing a Yes vote for the Voice, because it is insufficiently radical, lacks power, and requires more grassroots consultation before its final form is legislated. Such non-participation or opposition risks dividing and weakening the chances of building a strong campaign to win majority support for the Voice in the short time available.

The Uluru Statement is very clear about the need for Treaty, following a successful Referendum Yes vote for the Voice. If right-wing opponents to the Voice succeed in defeating the Yes vote, they will be empowered and emboldened by the result. A failure for the Yes vote will set back, for who knows how long, critical progressive changes for First Nations and us all!

As progressive and socialist activists, we need to build the Yes campaign as a powerful social movement to win longer-term, radical, and progressive social change for Australia’s First Nations peoples, including for treaty and truth-telling. We cannot allow corporate and neo-liberal campaigners, with minimal social justice agendas, to drive it.

Just as in 1967, the peoples’ movement to win constitutional change cannot stop at the Referendum. Constitutional change is critical to rolling back the process of colonisation, which is fundamental to the struggle for a better Australia - along with campaigns for social and economic equality, democratic rights, climate justice, protecting biodiversity and repairing ecosystems on which life depends, stopping war and militarisation, and halting deaths in custody the removal of children, and other human rights abuses.

First Nations communities have been at the very front of these struggles for the last two hundred and thirty-five years, resisting the violent imposition of Australian capitalism on their lands.

SEARCH has a particular focus on grassroots organising to win the Yes vote in workplaces and unions; in diverse locality and community groups; in migrant and refugee communities and organisations; in the women’s movement and LGBTQI+ communities; in local governments; and in the environment, public health, community justice, human rights and peace movements.

The question we need to ask ourselves is: ‘Which side of history will we be on?’

Organising together for Yes to a constitutionally enshrined First Nations Voice to Parliament, is an important step in an historic struggle for recognition and restoring sovereignty and self-determination of First Nations peoples of Australia. This is and always will be the essential foundation of a democratic, ecologically sustainable, and socialist Australia.

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