Australia is a nation that is at once ancient and adolescent. A nation made unique by age-old cultures and yet a nation still growing into itself, still maturing. A nation well represented in Malta’s history as well as in its imagination.

The upcoming referendum for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice is our next great rite of passage. It will mark an important stage in the life of the nation, the transition from exclusion to inclusion, but also a respectful co-existence and celebration of the coming together of Australian peoples old and new. It will mark a formal recognition of the First Peoples of Australia.

Embedding a Voice in the Constitution would recognise the special place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia’s history, but importantly would also mean that it can’t be shut down or set aside by successive governments.

The referendum (to go before Parliament in June) heralds the long overdue formal recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian story to date. Every Australian has a role in this rare and precious moment, to vote for the future we see for ourselves, our families, and our nation. So too all those internationally who wish our nation and all its people well.

At the outset, it must be acknowledged that when the Australian Constitution was drafted between 1891 and 1898, Indigenous Australians had no role and no place in that Constitution except by way of exclusion. To constitutionally enshrine The Voice now would address this enduring wrong and provide proper and respectful recognition of the place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in our nation.

Starting from Broome in north-western Australia, where I live, I have walked the long and winding road of reconciliation for 50 years. I have come to understand the Voice as perhaps our greatest chance at true reconciliation.

We must not forget that the proposal for a constitutionally enshrined Voice was called for in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. That Statement, agreed in 2017 was a petition by Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders to change the constitution of Australia to formalise and improve the representation of Indigenous Australians. It did not begin with politicians or officials in Canberra as some suggest, it emerged from the lived experiences of Indigenous Australians and their dreams for the future of our nation.

The legitimacy of this process is supported by the latest polls which show that 80% of the general Australian community agree such a Voice is needed and that it should be protected under the constitution. 86% of Indigenous Australians agree. This overwhelming support illustrates that our Indigenous communities are crying out for change. They want not only to be more involved in the public life of the nation, but also to celebrate more of their unique culture, values, and beliefs.

Then-Australian Prime Minister John Howard talks to Dodson in 1997. Dodson chaired the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation at the time. Photo: AFPThen-Australian Prime Minister John Howard talks to Dodson in 1997. Dodson chaired the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation at the time. Photo: AFP

There are some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who remain unsure or undecided. That’s understandable and acknowledged. Our communities and families have long been subject to policy failure, institutional maltreatment, and racism. There is value in political scepticism, but it is clear to me that this opportunity to enshrine the Voice is the next logical step in the history of our struggle for justice.

The referendum to enshrine a Voice recognises the enduring uniqueness of our communities and cultures. It will enhance our Constitution by virtue of its recognition of First Peoples. More than that, the referendum is about mutual respect and acknowledgement of our need to be fully heard by officials who have been deciding what is good, or not good, for our people.

I appeal to all Australians to take a constructive approach and respond positively to the question to be put at the referendum. A Yes vote will pick up the torch of our great leaders from the past who have led the fight against governments and bureaucracies.

There has been much negotiation, questioning and compromise in getting to where we are. Having participated in much of that process, I am confident that this has been done with the best interests of the nation at the forefront of our deliberations.

Australians including our rich multicultural citizens who have made such outstanding contributions to our nation-building exercise (including all of Maltese heritage), are challenged to rise to this unique occasion, to apply our critical judgement and step bravely into the next chapter of our history.

Patrick Dodson is a Yawuru man, a recognised leader and spokesperson for Indigenous Australians. He is known as the Father of Reconciliation in Australia and is a Labour Senator for Western Australia. He has been a regular visitor and public speaker in Malta.

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