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Talkin’ bout a referendum – Why you should talk to your family about the Voice to Parliament

Updated: Sep 5, 2023

By Aisha Collins

When we talk about progressing society towards being more equitable and inclusive, it’s easy to pinpoint bigotry and hatred as an obvious roadblock. However, when left unaddressed, the silence of indifference and stagnation can be an even bigger hinderance. With recent estimates showing support for the ‘Yes’ campaign for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament dropping, public apathy is a major concern.

I did not grow up in a politically engaged household. I am not the classic case of a child who inherits their parents’ political views, because growing up I never spoke to adults about politics. Of course, I always had my own beliefs and values, but my understanding of Australia’s political systems only really commenced when I started university and began to delve deeper into my own personal politics. It was a joy to befriend like-minded people and finally have meaningful conversations about things that matter. But coming to university also gave me front-row insight into how an echo chamber works.

Now, I talk about politics with my friends all the time. But I talk about politics with my friends because I feel comfortable doing so, because the conversations are interesting and engaging and educational, with no negative personal repercussions. I know I will not lose friends when I talk about my politics, because I know they will mostly agree with me. Yet, just as speaking about politics among the echo chamber safety-net of my friends does not come at a personal cost, neither does it do anything to generate legitimate change.

How, then, can I meaningfully support and advocate for the ‘Yes’ campaign for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament? This has been a big question, I think, for a lot of us young people as we watch the referendum draw closer. What is something I can do that doesn’t feel like mere virtue signalling, but also doesn’t attempt to speak for or over First Peoples? Perhaps the solution doesn’t have to be as big and scary as we think it is. Perhaps it can start with a simple conversation.

I do not believe that the reason my family never talked about politics when I was a kid was because it was a ‘taboo’ topic, to avoid arguments. I believe that the reason we never spoke about politics was because we were both relatively apathetic about and alienated from the world of politics. Apathetic In the way that only people who do not face daily and institutionally perpetuated discrimination because of their race, sexual orientation, religion, or gender expression can afford to be. Alienated and disengaged in the way that many rural, lower-middle class families are simply too many worlds away from the ‘Canberra Bubble’ to appreciate its relevance to us, too.

My mother and I, for example, have lived very different lives. She grew up in a military family, with conservative parents. She was the first in her family to pursue a university education and lived in a small country town for most of her adult life, raising two children as a single mum. We have lived a wealth of different experiences which have informed our respective political beliefs, but it is from my mum that I inherited the core values of respect and empathy, as well as a strong sense of justice. We do not have to share the same political views to talk about the Voice, because it is these values above all else which the Voice to parliament embodies.

I know, constitutional change cannot be said to be entirely apolitical. However, the political party you vote for in elections holds almost no relevance whatsoever when talking about the upcoming referendum. What is entirely relevant is whether you believe that all peoples in Australia should be afforded the right to weigh in on issues and policies that directly affect them. It’s that simple. Forget the fear mongering rumours of scary veto powers and a divided Australia – the Voice to parliament is not a parliamentary body.

It will not have the power to make or discard legislation, or to control government funding. It will be a committee of locally elected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who will advise government on matters affecting Indigenous Australians. The Voice to parliament is not compromising democracy. It is a step towards improving it. A step towards making Australia more democratic, which is in all our interests, regardless of who you vote for.

Indigenous rights are not political. The conversations we have with our families about the Voice to parliament do not need to be, either. The ‘No’ vote campaign pamphlet cites the slogan: “If you don’t know, vote no”, twice. This is why talking about the Voice is so important – we cannot let confusion and a lack of understanding get in the way of progress. The Guardian’s annotated pamphlets, which include independent fact checking in a digestible attempt to resolve ambiguity and misinformation, are a great place to start when talking about the referendum (find them here for the No campaign, and here for the Yes campaign). The next time you have a conversation with someone you’re not sure how to broach the topic of the Voice with, ask if they’ve read them. Compare what you think you know about the Voice to parliament and hear each other out.

These conversations are more difficult than the ones we have with our friends over a drink in a bar or prompted by a Betoota Advocate meme sent to the group chat. They are more time consuming and can be more uncomfortable. But they could, truly, make a big difference when it comes time to vote, and Australia cannot afford to let this opportunity pass. I am not asking you to have a political debate with your family. Just have a chat. I promise at least one of you will come away from it better informed.

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