An Indigenous Voice to Parliament

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Monday 3 April 2023

An opportunity to help our students develop their capacity to discuss issues in the public sphere will shortly present itself with the upcoming Australian referendum on including an Indigenous Voice to Parliament in the Australian constitution. Later this year the Australian people will be asked to clarify whether the constitution ought to formally recognise the First Nations people and whether, in principle, they believe that people being governed should be consulted about the potential impact of Government policy decisions. Given the intense media focus on this question it is likely these discussions will soon enter our classrooms and campuses. Before the claims and counter-claims get lost in the 24 hour news cycle it is worth considering the advantages of using this referendum as an opportunity to develop our students attributes in civic discourse, consultation, and working with Indigenous people.

Like most matters relating to Australia’s First Nations people, both these questions will be answered by nonIndigenous Australians. The proposition was presented to non-Indigenous Australians as the result of a national consultation on the recognition of Indigenous Australians that is called ‘the Uluru Statement from the Heart’ (2017). It was largely agreed that the clarification of this principle of listening to those impacted by legislation will do two things for Australian First Nations people. Firstly, insert the missing recognition of First Nations people into the constitution, and secondly, lay the groundwork for self-determination by speaking truth to power on matters that impact First Nations peoples.

The national constitution outlines the rules for governing a country. That may seem far removed from university classrooms but the principles that will apply at the national level have a direct link to how we believe we should be governed.

The call for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament echoes calls to include Indigenous graduate attributes in universities. Universities Australia, the peak body of all Australian universities, has been a strong advocate for universities including the knowledge and skills needed to work with Australian Indigenous communities. In 2017 Universities Australia set a target for all universities to increase cultural capabilities of graduates by 2020. Andrews, Page, & Trudgett (2022) in their paper Shaming the silences: Indigenous Graduate Attributes and the privileging of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices, argue that though some progress toward that target has been made, a great deal more is needed before this aspiration can be said to have been met.

While a majority of Australian and New Zealand universities may have a statement about Indigenous graduate attributes, Asmar and Page in their 2018 paper Pigeonholed, peripheral or pioneering? Findings from a national study of Indigenous Australian academics in the disciplines, found that Indigenous academics are already heavily overloaded in work related to embedding Indigenous graduate attributes. Additionally, non-indigenous academics may not feel equipped to introduce Indigenous perspectives into the university curriculum as explained by Anderson, Yip, and Diamond in their 2022 paper, Universities Australia 2017–2020 Indigenous Strategy: a metasynthesis of the issues and challenges. The Uluru Statement from the Heart answers the question as to whether nonIndigenous people can discuss issues that impact on Indigenous people. It calls on non-Indigenous people to walk with them in a movement to a better future. In suggesting an approach to the Indigenous Voice to Parliament it demonstrates how to design a discussion on Indigenous matters that is respectful of Indigenous ways of knowing and being.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart provides a model for the kind of attributes needed to work with Indigenous communities. The three components of that process—a voice to parliament, truth telling and agreementmaking—highlight that non-Indigenous students need to demonstrate a capacity to learn from others by listening to other perspectives and developing the ability to collaborate on the best way to proceed for the effected peoples. The Indigenous Voice to Parliament provides non-Indigenous academics with the ideal case study for working with students to develop the capabilities that are embodied in the idea of an Indigenous graduate attribute.

The debate about the teaching of core skills versus disciplinary knowledge is ongoing and no doubt there will be many academics who argue that it is not their job to teach any generic skills let along something as unfamiliar to them as an Indigenous graduate attribute. Equally there are many academics committed to social justice who will jump at the opportunity to introduce concepts like voice, truth telling and agreement making into their classroom. What is certain is the debate on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament will raise awareness of how all institutions are governed, providing an opportunity for university teachers to discuss the way they run their classrooms, how they recognise diversity among their students, and their process of consultation with students.

The principle that those who are impacted by laws and policies should have a say in their effects will be obvious to our students. The referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament will be a time for reflecting on the governance of the nation. The lesson we can learn from the process of arriving at the proposal for constitutional recognition is that we all need to assume responsibility for the things that matter, that we should treat people with respect, and that we need to model personal integrity.

Very few issues in the wider community confront university staff and students with a question that so directly relates to the core values of a university education. The principles of the proposed referendum centre around who has the right to speak and who has to sit and listen. There is no doubt that is an uncomfortable proposition for our politicians who may be unlikely to demonstrate the characteristics of informed debate or the respectful listening and collaboration in decision making that universities champion.

The media thrives on confrontation, and it is unlikely that scaremongering and misinformation in the media will represent the kind of informed discussions that we would want our students to be able to lead in our classrooms. Despite what the conservative media pundits would like us to believe, the referendum is an opportunity to learn from our Indigenous communities rather than a token gesture that divides the country. It is therefore incumbent on us all to take the lead and demonstrate how discussions on governance can be held in a respectful way.

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Asmar, C., & Page, S. (2018). Pigeonholed, peripheral or pioneering? Findings from a national study of Indigenous Australian academics in the disciplines. Studies in Higher Education, 43 (9), 1679–1691.
Anderson, P. Yip, S.Y. & Diamond, Z. (2022). Universities Australia 2017–2020 Indigenous Strategy: a meta-synthesis of the issues and challenges, Higher Education Research & Development  DOI: 1-16. 10.1080/07294360.2022.2123899.
Bodkin-Andrews, G., Page, S., & Trudgett, M. (2022). Shaming the silences: Indigenous Graduate Attributes and the privileging of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices. Critical Studies in Education, 63(1), 96–113.
First Nations National Constitutional Convention, (2017), Uluru : statement from the heart. Alice Springs, Northern Territory: Central Land Council. https:// Universities Australia (2017). Indigenous Strategy 2017–2020. Universities Australia.

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