On Monday 6 July Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten hosted a joint summit with almost 40 of the nation's most influential Indigenous representatives to discuss the path forward to a referendum on their Constitutional Recognition.
The latest poll testing support for Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people found that 85% of Australians want Indigenous Recognition. With such a high level of support for the principle of this referendum, it is now time to take a closer look at how the referendum question could be crafted. The final wording on the question is likely to have a large impact on the result of any referendum.
How will the question be crafted for this referendum?
After the joint summit, the Prime Minister announced that a series of community conferences will occur over the next year.
Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister on Indigenous Affairs, Alan Tudge also responded that there are currently four or five broad options for a referendum model/question to date. They and others that may arise will be put forward in a discussion paper created by the Parliamentary Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition to help frame the conversation at these conferences.
A Referendum Council will also be set up to report regularly to the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader about the progress of the referendum question.
Along with the community conferences, a broad education campaign is vital to bring all Australians along with the discussion as it develops over the next 12 months. For this reason CEFA has already started an Educating about Recognition campaign which will be a great opportunity for democratic engagement of the people.
We’ve seen what can happen
Only eight out of the 44 referendums held in Australia have succeeded and some commentators blame the way the question is written as the reason for their failure.
Whether there needed to be more education for Australians to understand why a particular question was proposed is still being debated. Traditionally the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 has allowed for a very short education campaign in the last weeks of the Yes and No campaigns and being so late in the process some see this as a waste of millions of dollars. It simply gets mixed up in the excitement of the campaigns.
Recently we witnessed a Greek referendum that gave a democratic voice to the people in the country’s negotiations with creditors. There has been some commentary that the question posed was complicated and wordy. The question was:
Should the deal draft that was put forward by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund in the Eurogroup of June 25, 2015, and consists of two parts, that together form a unified proposal, be accepted? The first document is titled 'Reforms for the Completion of the Current Programme and Beyond' and the second 'Preliminary Debt Sustainability Analysis.'
This referendum was called with a notice period of eight days and the question expected the Greek voters to make an informed decision about the contents of two documents that were not readily available. Without being able to fully understand what they were voting for we can’t be sure what the Greek people expect from their vote.
How can we ensure the Australians understand the question at the next referendum?
It is an urgent national imperative to provide an education campaign that will include all Australians and give them a voice in the conversation.
As we whittle down the different models for Indigenous Recognition to form one unified question, Australians from all walks of life need to be included in the deliberations. Everyone must make the decision to vote Yes or No at the ballot box. Without an education campaign people will not be able to make an informed choice.
A coordinated education campaign can be run, but it needs to start now, and must involve Australians from all walks of life. If such education is neglected, there is little hope that Constitutional Recognition can become a true national conversation.
Aristotle said “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it”. In our journey to Constitutional Recognition, education should empower ordinary Australians by giving them essential information in accessible language, and with enough time to digest the arguments and thus be empowered by their new knowledge.
Educating for an informed vote on referendum day starts today.
Photo Attributed to Mark Roy