Youth for the Voice: Inspiring Change and Unity

Words by Maeson (they/them), 22 WA


On October 14th, 18 million Australian’s will make their way to primary schools, community centres and sports halls across the country, to write a single word on a piece of paper. It may be the most important that word that many of us ever write.

I’m, of course, talking about the Voice to Parliament Referendum.

The way we vote on October 14 will determine whether or not the country chooses to enshrine a First Nations Voice to Parliament in the Australian Constitution.

One group of Australians you won’t see submitting their vote on referendum day are those not yet old enough to vote. It’s safe to say though that in this referendum, while they won’t be counted through their vote, their voices definitely deserve to be heard.

Bright and early on a Monday, only weeks out from the referendum, students from three Perth high schools made the trek into West Perth for a visit to The Constitutional Centre of WA where they would attend the Referendum Young Leaders Summit, co-hosted by UN Youth WA and Reconciliation WA.

At this workshop, four young people from UN Youth led students in breakout groups through several important topics, exploring with the students what a referendum is, why past referendums succeeded or failed, and the relationship between United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Australia, and the Voice to Parliament Referendum.

They spoke together in small groups, and as much as they learnt, I learnt also…

Did you know that for a referendum to pass in Australia, it needs what’s called a ‘double majority’?

This means that a majority of people in Australia need to support it, and a majority of voters in Australia’s six states (N.B. NT and ACT aren’t counted in the majority of states, only in the majority of people).

Why, you ask? So did the students. It’s because states like Victoria and New South Wales have much bigger populations than states like Tasmania and South Australia, so if the larger states voted majority yes, but the smaller states were majority no, the vote may still be seen as ‘successful’ because a majority of individual people voted yes. A double majority makes sure that there is support across the country – not just in the states with the larger populations.

Did you know that despite the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) being adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007 – Australia didn’t endorse it until 2009?

Yeah, Australia was one of four countries (alongside Canada, New Zealand, and the United States) who originally voted against it – which, as one young person remarked, “kind of makes sense because the UK took over all those countries and they seem to like oppressing people.”

Even though we righted our wrong by eventually endorsing UNDRIP, Australia has been criticised for its lack of policy changes or actions that would see us aligning positively with the articles in the Declaration.

The students discussed how an Indigenous Voice to Parliament might be a positive way forward for Australia to start making some progress, based on the advice it would be able to provide to Parliament.

By this point in the day, the student’s appetite for constitutional change was growing.

Like every demographic group in the country, there was still debate, and students with burning questions had the chance to have them answered when Rachel Perkins (co-chair of the Yes Campaign), Amira Nunn (WA Student for the Voice) and Jade Thompson (Reconciliation WA) joined the Q&A panel.

The first question asked by a student was hard-hitting, right off the bat – how will the Voice affect communities like our school, or a representation of Aboriginal or Indigenous people in it?

The Voice and its potential impacts can be hard to grasp on to if you haven’t had the chance to hear about them yet. Rachel was open with the fact that we might not see an immediate change when the referendum succeeds. It will take time for government to design the function of the Voice itself and to implement it into decision-making. For some Australians, who aren’t Indigenous or who aren’t connected to Indigenous issues, the Voice might not change their lives at all. In schools, you might see updates to our curriculums – where we might see a change in how and what we teach when it comes to our country’s history.

Jade brought our attention to one of the Voice’s design principles that calls for youth representation in the Voice model – suggesting it could be that someone from one of these Perth high schools could one day be the one providing advice, “Because it’s lived experience that really helps.”

The good questions kept coming: If someone were to say, ‘I’m voting no’, what would you say to convince them to vote yes?

Amira noted that when having conversations about the Voice, often you’ll come across people who will have very different reasons for how they’ll be voting. Amira suggested that talking about why you’d vote yes could be one way to handle a conversation when someone says they’re voting no. As well as the importance of listening, acknowledging what they’re saying, and sharing what you know.

A super important message came from Rachel, “It’s not your job to change everybody’s mind.” It can feel like a lot of pressure to go up against people who disagree with you, especially on such a massive topic as the Voice.

Sometimes, you just can’t change people’s minds. But, as Rachel shares, if you are having a conversation with someone, know where the resources are that you can direct them to go and have a look at.

What’s the end goal of reconciliation? When will we reach it?

To think about reconciliation, Jade shares that Australia needs to be better about building its relationships.

“Right now, we’re in a situationship. We’ve got three parts of our whole as Australia – we’ve got a colonial history, we’ve got our Indigenous history, and we’ve got our multicultural history. What we need to start doing is embracing our collective. But we need to settle our initial business first, with our first peoples. [The referendum] is one step towards healing that.”

Jade drew attention to the several gaps that still exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, in life expectancy, health outcomes, and education, as evidence that we are a long way off of reconciliation.

She also called the students minds to something they discussed earlier in the day, questioning, “To what degree does Australia honour the commitment that they made [to the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples]? … This referendum is the first step towards being able to say we are self-determining in this country.”

“The end goal is to be a collective whole, and proud of who we are.”

The Voice is not just about creating a platform in parliament for Indigenous voices to be listened to – it’s a test of Australia’s willingness to acknowledge its colonialist history, to recognise Indigenous peoples as the First People of Australia in our foundational document, to walk with First Nations people towards a better future.

When asked to what extent they agreed with the statement; ‘Even though people under 18 can’t vote, they can still play an important role in the referendum and their voices should be heard,’ more than half of the students indicated they disagreed, with one young person exasperatedly expressing, “How can we help?”

These students, who care so much for the country they live in, won’t have their voices heard through this vote.

Young people support the Voice. They are taking hours out of their school days as exams loom to learn about the Voice and the referendum process. They are posting and reposting information on the Voice on their socials, they are standing in front of media as Under-18s for the Voice calling for grown-ups to make the choice that will lead us all to a unified future. They are sitting in your living rooms and at your dining room tables, waiting for you to ask them what they know. Waiting for you to listen.

In 1967 Indigenous people were counted, now they seek to be heard. Young people are listening.

Will you?

Illustration by Aileen. You can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenngstudio
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