On a day of national significance in the not-too-distant future, Australians may be invited to reflect on the damaging experience of the 2023 referendum. By Claire G. Coleman.

The rest of Uluru’s promise

People draw “TREATY” on a communal art board.
People draw on a communal art board during a NAIDOC event in Sydney.
Credit: AAP Image / Bianca De Marchi

Oration delivered on January 26, 2025:

It’s been more than a year since the toxic referendum. A year of reproach, reconciliation and restoration – not only of the culture of a nation but of the First Nations people harmed by the process itself. On reflection, the results have been worth the cost, but the harm has been intense and unacceptable.

The fight for the Voice to Parliament was long and unnecessarily unpleasant, a flood of vitriol from both sides. Or from all three sides, if we are being realistic, with two separate and mutually incompatible groups opposed. It felt sometimes like a three-way war, or what movie buffs would call a Mexican stand-off, the sort of scene in which three people are pointing guns at each other and nobody can make a survivable move.

The two camps for the “No” vote were irreconcilable in every other sense. One fought from a stance of white supremacy and racism – with the dumb-as-shit slogan “if you don’t know, vote no” – while the other argued for more than a Voice, or for Treaty first. They were more hostile than amicable, they hated each other more than they agreed. Nevertheless, they amplified each other. No meant no, no matter what the thinking was behind it.

It was worse than the marriage equality plebiscite, and being queer I was hurt then too, mostly because systemic racism is deeper rooted, and more prevalent than homophobia. I am sure I was not alone in thinking that there could be no winning scenario, no course of action with a clean winner. If the progressive/grassroots “No” campaigners achieved their aim, they would, regardless of intent, have sided with white nationalists and racists. If the “Yes” campaigners – which included the majority of Indigenous people – won, we would alienate members of our community and lose friends, even make enemies, in the process.

In the end, “Yes” won by a tight margin, but the harm done to Indigenous people was an unacceptable cost. The emotional damage from the white nationalist and racist propaganda, and from the fights among ourselves over the order of action, had harmed us in ways that will take years to unpack and repair. If only we had realised the important thing was not the order in which Voice, Treaty and Truth were delivered, but that they were delivered at all.

I myself did not agree, have never agreed, with the order – with Voice, Treaty and Truth in an unalterable linear progression. It had long been my argument that Truth should be first, that a Truth commission, an active intent to search for and expose the truth of colonisation on this continent and its impact, would help determine what we need and explain to the uninformed why it is needed. Truth first would have smoothed the passage of the Voice, and would perhaps have made Treaty inevitable. Truth first would also have been easier: Truth can be delivered with minimal resources, without official support. Truth can be presented by any of us at any time, we can push the truth one on one, in the media or in official channels. It would have been effortless to start there.

However I was never so invested in my stance that I would have voted against the Voice simply because I disagreed with the order. Something like the Voice, like enshrining a representation for my people into the Constitution, was too important to risk. When the colony holds all the cards it is better to take what is on offer – take what they give us and then move on to the next thing.

In the end, “Yes” prevailed, although by the end many of us wished this thing, this referendum, had never happened. We would have been better off without being put through the Voice referendum but, once it was declared, “Yes” had to win or we knew things would get worse. Some did not agree with me, but I could see too many negative outcomes, too many ways our world and lives would have become worse, if we had failed.

It has to be said we do not all always agree, the Voice is not perfect and will never be perfect, and debate within the Voice, which contains people of many opinions, can be almost vitriolic. Not every decision made by the Voice is in accord with all of, or even the majority of, the Indigenous community. This is okay, we are allowed to disagree with each other, which is one of the great things about democracy.

What is not okay is that the government does not always listen to the advice generously given, advice made democratically by the representatives of the Voice. The Voice and the government are attempting to address this. We are working on it, working on moving forward. At least now when the government doesn’t listen, they can be taken to task.

Now the “Yes” vote has passed, we have earnt a future with a Voice in our own affairs, and we can turn to what we want to fight for next. It was easy to forget in the trenches – amid the vitriol, the ugliness and the misinformation – that there were always three parts to the request and provocation in the Uluru statement: Voice, Treaty and Truth. The plan was always this: once we win the Voice we can start fighting for treaties. The Voice to Parliament, by advising the government on Indigenous affairs, is helping with the Treaty process.

We let the small details, such as the order of things, get in the way of our friendships and what we have in common, getting bogged down on what is best, not what is possible. We should have concentrated on what we could achieve rather than on what would be perfect; we could have avoided a lot of unpleasantness, we could have saved our friendships.

One battle has been won. The first representatives in the Voice have taken their seats in their chambers and we can unite behind the Voice and fight for Treaty and Truth. We know the Voice will not be perfect, we know there will be infighting and mistakes will be made by our representatives. What is important is the knowledge that they are our mistakes to make. Stopping us having a Voice because that Voice might make mistakes would have been patronising and racist.

So now we work on Treaty, or more accurately treaties, in the knowledge that no singular referendum or act of parliament can hand every mob across the continent a treaty.

But first we must rebuild, we must reunite; those of us who have fought must be friends again. We must rebuild the relationships so important to our people, so we can fight, together, for Treaty. And through the entire process I will, as I always have, with all those I stand with, fight for Truth. 

This is the final article in a three-part series on iterations of the Voice: past, present and future.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 2, 2023 as "The rest of Uluru’s promise".

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