4 Positive Outcomes from the 2023 Australian Indigenous Voice Referendum

4 Positive Outcomes from the 2023 Australian Indigenous Voice Referendum

It’s over three months since we learned that the majority of Australians do not want Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to have a constitutionally protected representative to Government. To say it’s been a sad time, a hard time, for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and our non-Indigenous supporters, would seem to be stating the obvious. While it might be easy, even justifiable, to see this as a negative result, there are positives that we can take away from the result, and use for the future advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Here are four that I would suggest we can use:

1. We Now Know What We’re Dealing With

While the outcome itself might be disheartening, one positive takeaway is this: if there was any question as to whether Australia, as a nation – for all its boasts of being multicultural, antiracist, and a place where everyone is equal; for all its rhetoric about Reconciliation and Closing the Gap; for all its willingness to put Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture on display when it might make itself look good, particularly on the international stage – values, supports, and wants equitable partnerships with its Indigenous peoples, the outcome of the Referendum has made it clear: it does not. At least, not at this point in time.

We needed this. While many might say this isn’t surprising, it’s not until you see the concrete evidence of it that you really know what you’re dealing with. And once you know what you’re dealing with, you can plan for how you’re going to deal with it.

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to achieve true equity across all aspects of Australian society, for the Gap to Close, and for true Reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians, Australia, as a nation, needs to change. This is where we need to direct our future efforts as a matter of priority. We need Australia to want to change, to want to raise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples up to the levels that non-Indigenous Australia enjoys. Otherwise, any progress we make in specific fields – health, education, housing, social justice, and so forth – will still be limited by a system and society that works against us.

2. We Cannot Rely on the Government to Change Things

There was, and likely will be for sometime, much debate about whether the Government’s campaign for the Referendum, and in particular gaining the ‘yes’ vote from Australians, was handled in a way that ever could have led to success. While there might be some benefit from continued analysis in the hope of directing future approaches, another lesson we can take away from this event is: the Government cannot just change things for us.

Again, that might seem like an obvious statement, however there’s an important thing to understand about it. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, activitists, and organizations spend a lot of time and resources working with Government to try and bring about the changes we want to see. This is still necessary, however despite the efforts of many over many years, we still do not have the outcomes we’re looking for.

Maybe we need to shift our attention to a group that can affect change: the voting public.

The Referendum gives us a clear demonstration that the Government will only create major change where it is supported by the voting public. This only makes sense: if you are in power, and you want to retain power, you do what those who put you in power want you to do. Therefore, for the Government to make significant changes in its laws, its policies, and the way it governs and directs society, it must feel confident that the majority of people want those changes.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples make up about 3.2% of the Australian population. Even if every single Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person was able to vote in Federal elections, no Government would enact major changes with such minority support. However, if the Government knew that 92% of its population (the percentage of the voting population who actually vote in elections) demanded these changes be made, the Government would give the highest priority to making those changes.

When it comes to creating change, it’s not the Government we should be relying on, but those who put the Government into power. In knowing this, we know where we should be directing our future efforts to create change in this society.

3. We Have non-Indigenous Allies – We Need More

The Referendum demonstrated that almost 40% of Australia’s voting public supported constitutionally mandated Indigenous representation to parliament. This clearly shows that there is a significant amount of non-Indigenous support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian community. This is great news. We know that there are non-Indigenous peoples who not only support us, but will walk the talk when the time comes.

Unfortunately, for the present time at least, it’s not enough. That doesn’t mean we should undervalue it, nor should we miss the opportunity to continue to grow it. The saying, “strength in numbers” was coined because in most aspects it is true. On average, if just 12 people out of every 100 that voted “no” had decided to vote “yes” instead, the Referendum would’ve had a different result.

We need to recognise and embrace the non-Indigenous support that is offered to us. More than that, we need to determine how best we can draw on this support to increase it to a point where it can be utilised to affect change.

4. We are Still Here

If the last 236 years have demonstrated anything it’s that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are survivors. For many of us, the result of the Referendum has cause grief, and feels like a major setback. However, we’re still here, we’re still strong, and we still have a voice. We also have support, perhaps more than we realised we have. As the pain eases and we regroup, we need to consider not just the negative aspects of this result, but what positive things we can take away from it and use to our advantage as we look to the future. If we can do this, we will ensure that we not only survive, but thrive.


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