BY ROSE MARY PETRASS | THURSDAY, 4 MAY 2023
A prominent Australian First Nations academic has called on Australia’s business community and financial services industry to signal their support for the Voice referendum to be held between October and December 2023.
In a discussion held at the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors (ACSI) conference on Wednesday, professor Marcia Lynne Langton outlined the disadvantages and prejudices that First Nations Peoples’ face in Australia, and how the Voice will address this.
The Voice is not just a moral but an economic issue, Langton said. First Nations Australians represent just 4% of Australia – yet about 30% of Indigenous households are living in poverty and are more than twice as likely to be in the bottom 20% of weekly household income.
At the end of this year Australians will be asked to vote on constitutional recognition of a Voice to Parliament, which will inform policy and legal decisions that impact the lives of First Nations peoples, and support stronger relationships between business, investors and communities.
Louise Davidson, CEO of ACSI called on business to go beyond “political football issues” and called on the community to educate themselves on First Nations issues and how they can change things internally in their businesses and communities.
Panellists Langton and Jamie Lowe, CEO of National Native Title Council, said that it is time for financial institutions to follow suit behind the likes of Woolworths Bendigo Bank, and NAB, to publicly declare support.
In a panel discussion later in the day at the conference,, Christine Holman, non-executive director of Metcash and Collins Foods; Rob Sindel, Orora and Mirvac chair and non-executive director of Boral; and Mike Wilkins, chair of QBE and Medibank and non-executive director of Scentre Group; said they would support internal education within their companies to support the Voice as a first step.
“Achieving policy change is hard work and nothing will be achieved without support from businesses and the financial community,” Langton said.
Lowe and Langton said that there was a dearth of understanding the background to the Voice and that it is important for business and investment to educate themselves and signal their support, and that conflict is “a waste of time”.
The question put on the ballot will be set out as follows: “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 of this alteration?”
If voted Yes, Section 129 will be added to the Australian Constitution. This section will recognize Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia and establish a new constitutional entity called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. The Voice will have a representation-making function and the Parliament will have legislative power to make laws regarding the Voice’s composition, functions, powers, and procedures.
Without constitutional recognition, “we are acutely aware that our voice can be dismantled on any day of the week,” Lowe said. “What if there was a no vote? I think that would push us back decades in terms of reconciliation.”
Concerns that the Voice will be “Canberra-based” are baseless, he said, stating that “the opposition is disingenuous in representing the shortfalls of the Voice proposal.”
“Australia is fundamentally playing catch-up with regards to First Nations people,” he said. “This is the most significant step in recent history towards reconciliation with First Nations Australia.”
He said that getting the investment sector on board is critical to hold industry to account, especially with regards to heritage issues.
These heritage issues include recent examples such as the May 2020 destruction of two ancient rock shelters in the Juukan Gorge in the Western Pilbara by mining company Rio Tinto.
“The Juukan Gorge destruction is one of many assaults on Indigenous People,” Langton said. “both the spirit of arrangements with Traditional Owners and the terms of the Aboriginal Land Agreement were expeditiously breached… and we could refer you to hundreds more [examples].”
“People believe that the  referendum corrected the constitution and gave people equal rights, but that is not true,” Langton said.
Two-thirds of the population of 800,000, over 60% of which are under 25, “face a very uncertain future” unless the vote is passed, she added.
“Children are at risk because of poverty, because of exclusion from the economy, because of overcrowding in housing… Our issues have been pushed of a cliff time and time again… life is so much worse for Aboriginal people now than when I was young.
“We are proposing a remedy for historical racism and explicit racism in the constitution… a Yes vote is absolutely necessary to achieve equity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”
“We have one opportunity to fix it. Let’s fix it.”
Businesses can find practical ways to support the Yes Campaign at Yes 23 and Together Yes.
Final Report of the Indigenous Voice co-design groups states that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice will be an independent advisory body made up of Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people, chosen by local communities.
It will make representations to the Australian Parliament and Executive Government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The Voice referendum will be held between October and December 2023.