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Posters promote the Yes and No votes ahead of the October 14, 2023, referendum (ABC News/Danielle Monica)

It’s four months since the referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. The result was a disaster for the country and a tragedy for First Australians, writes Fr Frank Brennan SJ. Source: Eureka Street.

There has been little appetite for public discussion about lessons to be learnt from this abject failure. 

Some of the key proponents saw nothing wrong with the process and nothing wrong with the wording of the proposed change. They think that racism played a key part in the result. If they’re right, there will be no point in attempting again constitutional recognition of First Australians. But they may be wrong – and I hope they are. 

There may be a prospect of future constitutional change but not with the process that was adopted and not with the wording that was proposed in 2023. It’s time to begin the conversation about past mistakes before we all start forgetting what went on.

The major challenge for the country in the future will be according First Australians agency and self-determination while remaining true to the undoubted rules for constitutional change. Indigenous leaders will not accept minimal symbolic change to the Constitution. It will be necessary to find that sweet spot of substantive change acceptable to most members of the Commonwealth Parliament. There may be one, but there may not. Finding it will take great trust and collaboration.

The proposed constitutional change was too loosely worded and the process for seeking bipartisanship non-existent.

The proposed wording announced by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at Garma was not the product of a constitutional convention. It was not even the result of a parliamentary process winning support of most members of parliament.

It was always crazy to think that you could amend the Australian Constitution without a bipartisan process in place, without a fleshed out model of a Voice for voters to understand what they were being asked to vote for, and with a confidential process conducted with a government handpicked group of advisers.


Lessons from the referendum (By Fr Frank Brennan SJ, Eureka Street)