Finding hope in unity
this NAIDOC Week:
Prof Megan Davis reflects on last year's Voice Referendum  and the path forward

by Professor Megan Davis
NAIDOC Week 2024: Sun 7 - Sun 14 July 

As one of two female Co-Chairs of the Uluru Dialogue, Professor Megan Davis was instrumental in the design and delivery of the historic consultation process that led to the issuing of the Uluru Statement of the Heart, and ultimately to the 2023 referendum on the Voice. This NAIDOC week Professor Davis reflects on change, hope, the importance of Constitutional Recognition for Australia’s First Peoples and the 6.2 million friends she didn’t know she had. 


NAIDOC week feels sombre this year as First Nations people are hurting. The result of the 2023 Referendum on the Voice was devastating for mob. Most feel hurt and rejected. On the other hand, two things helped us get out of bed in the darkest days following the referendum: 6.2 million fellow Aussies said YES! and First Nations people voted YES! in overwhelming numbers. That's a powerful movement of the Australian people. 


12 years ago the Australian government asked our people how we want to be "recognised". And following a decade of work with Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians the answer to that question was no more tokens and symbolism, but proper recognition of our Voice. And in 2023 the exclusion of our people from the Constitution that began in 1901 was further ratified by the Australian people. 


Our starting point is YES! Particularly in remote and regional areas, the Yes vote was over 80% in most ballot boxes. In some of Australia's most remote areas, the vote was extremely high. Wadeye records 92.1% Yes. In Maningrida it was 88% Yes. And in Tiwi Islands the vote was 84%. 


These results are not insignificant as these towns are the most remote, have had many challenges and experience the most disadvantage. For them, a Voice was a way to cut thru the ministerial anecdotes, the self-appointed spokespeople, and the bureaucrats, to have a seat at the table. Of the twenty remote polling booths in the Northern Territory only one recorded a "No". 


This is important information for all Australians. We knew from our own research going into the Referendum that despite what some politicians and the news media would have you believe, the majority of mob supported the establishment of a Voice to Parliament. Think for a moment about those identities who insisted First Nations people didn't want a Voice. The prominence they were afforded in the campaign, and how wrong they were: this is what Aboriginal Affairs is like every day. 


Voice is a powerful thing for human beings. It empowers. It dignifies. 

"…The conversation about meaningful constitutional recognition has been going for decades. Our path is now a little longer. But it will continue. We will continue."

- Megan Davis, Pro Vice-Chancellor Society UNSW, Balnaves Chair in Constitutional Law and Whitlam Fraser Chair in Australian Studies, Harvard University.

The Voice was an idea that came from everyday First Nations people. It wasn’t elite, or political, it was their idea. And it was a simple and modest request. To be recognised in our own country and heard on issues that affect us. For First Nations people to be included in the document that provides the conditions for a dignified human life to almost all Australians. Far from creating division, the intention of the Uluru Statement from the Heart is to unify and to create an Australia where we all truly belong. 


The conversation about meaningful constitutional recognition has been going for decades and decades. Our path is now a little longer. But it will continue. We will continue. 

We’re back at work. Yarning with First Nations people and with our 6.2 million allies, doing the research, the hard work, the proper analysis to understand why this proposal wasn’t understood and accepted. 


There’s more to the story than a single factor, bipartisanship or racism and there’s more for us to learn before we all move forward together.   

As our Elders said when we met at Uluru, we are all of this country. We are born here, live here, raise our children here and we die here. That means that all Australians are a part of our culture, we share this unique connection to country, to our home. 


I have been working in this space for over 12 years and I choose to believe in a future that has a meaningful place for First Nations people in the Australian Constitution. I know the Constitution is built to change because that is what the Founding Fathers intended. The story doesn’t end here. 


I've heard some say since Uluṟu "focus on the micro. Focus on the local. Focus on the economic and social indicators". But that focus is what the status quo is. And always has been. And it isn't working. The pursuit of recognition is knowing that Constitutions can create the material conditions of a dignified life. They are about state structures and understanding how power works in our Federation.


Every step of the way since Uluṟu we have regarded every "No" as a stepping stone to "Yes". Turn every No into a Yes. 


We draw hope and motivation from the discovery of friends we didn’t know we had. This group is absolutely a game changer for Indigenous Affairs. To the 6.2 million Australians who accepted the invitation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and voted Yes, thank you. We are One. We are forever bonded. 


No matter how you voted back in October, we’d love to keep yarning with you about why this work matters and how we walk together in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.