Navigating Life After the 2023 Australian Referendum by Joanne Tesiram

The question that was put to the Australian people at the 2023 referendum was:

“A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. 

Do you approve this proposed alteration?”

The proposed change to the Australian Constitution, October 14, 2023.

Chapter IX—Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples 129 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia: (i) there shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice; (ii) the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; (iii) the Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures. referendum-booklet.pdf (aec.gov.au)

On January 26th many Australians celebrated Australia Day, many more of us did not observe this day the same way. Many of us took to the streets to march, protest, and give support for the day that is known by many other names, The day of Mourning, Invasion Day, or Survival Day. I am still not ready to participate in any of these events. Instead, I took the day to reflect, while hauling heavy furniture through my house, sweating out the disappointments, and celebrating the accomplishments and friends I made in 2023. Just as a side note, it was 35 degrees and about 95% humidity here in Brisbane, so sweating was easy.

October 14th, 2023 is a date etched in the hearts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across Australia. The day a national vote echoed “no” to the proposed Voice to Parliament, a proposal carrying hopes for greater recognition, representation, and ultimately, a brighter future. While the dust of the referendum has settled, the question lingers: what does life look like for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in this post-Voice landscape?

The “No” vote, while anticipated by many, still stings. It stung like salt in an open wound, a reminder of the distance we still need to travel in the long walk towards reconciliation. The “no” vote was a deep disappointment for many Australians. The Uluru Statement from the Heart (View The Statement – Uluru Statement from the Heart)  a document embodying the aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, felt sidelined. Decades of advocacy, countless conversations, and a tireless campaign culminated in a rejection that felt like a closed door. The hurt is palpable, the sense of being unheard resonating across communities.

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the referendum was not just a political exercise. It was a referendum on our place in this country, on our right to be heard, and to have a say in the decisions that shape our lives. The “No” result was not just a rejection of a policy; it felt like a rejection of us, of our stories, of our struggles, and that we were a problem that just would not go away. It reconfirmed to many of us, “That we were still the most unloved people in Australia,” but at least we now knew that we had the support of 40% of the Australian voting population, that is over six million. [1]

Amidst the disappointment, there is a quiet fire burning. A fire stoked by generations of resilience, of unwavering spirit. The “No” might have slammed the door on one path, but it does not close the book on our journey. The conversations ignited by the referendum have shifted the national consciousness. More Australians are asking questions, engaging with Indigenous perspectives, and challenging the status quo. This newfound awareness is a vital seed for change, even if it has not yet blossomed into full-fledged reform.

Life, for our communities, continues. The sun still rises on ochre deserts, on turquoise reefs, and on bustling cities where our flags proudly fly. We are doctors, nurses, midwives, teachers, artists, lawyers, mothers, fathers, and children. We are elders holding onto ancient wisdom and youth blazing trails in technology, law, healthcare, and the arts. We are more than statistics, more than headlines. We are the living pulse of this land.

The “No” vote cannot erase that truth. It cannot silence our voices. It cannot stop us from fighting for the future we deserve. We will keep telling our stories, sharing our cultures, and asserting our rights. We will march in the streets, sing in corroborees, and speak truth to power.

There are signs of hope and atonement appearing on the horizon:

  • The Uluru Statement from the Heart remains a powerful roadmap for reconciliation. Its call for a Voice, Treaty, and Truth-telling Commission is a blueprint for lasting change, and the momentum generated by the referendum will undoubtedly keep it at the forefront of the national conversation.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ leadership is rising across all sectors. From politics to business, education to the arts, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices are demanding to be heard and shaping the future of Australia. This surge of representation is a potent force for change.
  • Grassroots movements are fostering community empowerment and Cultural resurgence. From land rights campaigns to language revitalisation programs, Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander communities are actively reclaiming their agency and rebuilding their Cultural heritage. We will work with allies, bridge divides, and build bridges of understanding. We will hold the government accountable, and demand policies that address the injustices we face. This self-determination is the foundation for true progress.
  • In some Australian states, the governments have legislated to support the Treaty and Truth-telling process and to take action against racism.
  • In the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) a medical doctor had his medical licence suspended for two years after being found guilty of racist conduct. Medical Board of Australia – Doctor banned for discriminatory and offensive behaviour

The 2023 referendum may not have delivered the constitutional change sought, but it has irrevocably altered the landscape of Australia. The conversation about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ rights has moved beyond the margins and into the mainstream. This is not the end, but a turning point.

For non-Indigenous Australians, the responsibility now lies in active allyship. They need to educate themselves, challenge their biases, and stand in solidarity with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. They can support Indigenous businesses, demand government accountability, and advocate for policies that address the root causes of disadvantage. Otherwise, Australia risked becoming the laughingstock of the world, the only country to have never sought a treaty with the first peoples of this land.

The road ahead might be longer, and harder, but we walk it together. We walk with the ghosts of generations past, their whispers carried on the wind, guiding our steps. We walk with the hopes of generations to come, their eyes turned to us, waiting for the dawning of a fairer Australia.

Our spirit will not be broken. We are still here, standing tall, voices unwavering. We are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and our journey is far from over.

Always was, always will be, Aboriginal Land.

Disclaimer: AI was used to aid in the writing of this article.

References:

[1] Shirodkar, S. (2019). Bias against Indigenous Australians: Implicit association test results for Australia. Journal of Australian Indigenous Issues, 22(3–4), 3–34. https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/informit.150032703197478

Author

JoJoe (Joanne) Tesiram

Photo of Joanne
Photo credit: Kasun Ubayasiri/Queensland Nurses and Midwives’ Union

 

JoJoe (Joanne) is a descendent of the Wiradjuri peoples of the 3 Rivers, English, Irish and Scottish. A mother, daughter, wife and nurse to our communities for 40 years. Clinical Nurse Consultant – Rheumatology.

Declaration of interests

I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and declare the following interests: none.

(Visited 139 times, 2 visits today)