by Associate Professor Jenny Chesters
Explaining a referendum on constitutional law to young people can seem a tall order, but they already have a good knowledge of the world around them
Understanding Australia’s need to hold a referendum to ensure that Indigenous people are consulted about policies and laws that may affect their wellbeing can seem rather complicated – especially to young people.
However, without the referendum, any laws made by the current government can be disregarded by future governments. The only way to ensure that Indigenous people are listened to is by changing our country’s Constitution.
In order to change our Constitution, we need to vote ‘Yes’in the upcoming referendum.
Explaining the need for a Voice to Parliament
If you’re talking to your kids about the Voice to Parliament, the most straightforward way to begin a conversation could be:
“You may be wondering, why Indigenous people need a ‘Voice to Parliament’. In the past, governments enacted laws that negatively affected the lives of Indigenous people.
“We put our faith in politicians to govern in the best interests of all Australians, however, politicians are people and can be, at times, driven by ideology.
“Decisions that are made without input from the people who will be impacted by the decisions create distrust and disengagement from democratic processes.”
Examples and analogies are always an excellent way to convey past injustices Australia’s First Peoples have suffered, to both young people and adults.
For example: “Imagine that you live in a native forest but someone decides to clear it to plant cotton. If you stay, you will face danger from bulldozers so you have to leave – but where do you go?
“Maybe someone will relocate you, but will you be happy there? Would you miss your native forest? Will your new neighbours accept you?”
Understanding historical political decisions
If we look to the past, you could begin a conversation on the history of Australian politics by saying something along the lines of:
“One recent example of how Australian governments have ignored the voices of Indigenous people occurred in the Northern Territory in 2007. The Australian Government ‘intervened’ to ‘protect’ Aboriginal children from their communities. Families and lives were torn apart for political gain.
“Rather than provide the resources that families and communities desperately needed to overcome their disadvantages, Aboriginal people were blamed for their ‘choices’ in life: to live in and care for their Country.
“Of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on the ‘Intervention’, very little was spent on long-term programs to address disadvantage.
“Was the money spent on extra health care centres or educational institutions? Were jobs created to break the cycle of disadvantage? Were programs put in place to support young people in their transition into adulthood?
“Perhaps, if Indigenous people had a Voice and had been consulted, the ‘Intervention’ could have been a positive experience and rather than add to the trauma of Indigenous people. It may have been able to showcase how communities can work together to improve the lives of all Australians.”
Empathising with injustice
As most parents will have experienced, young people often rage against the injustice of rules made by adults that are (seemingly) designed to frustrate them.
For example, the policy designed to keep young people in school until they complete Year 12, the laws that deny young people under 18 the right to vote, and other laws that deny young people the right to make decisions about their bodies.
We can use these examples to help young people imagine the injustices that Indigenous people have endured for generations since European settlement.
“Their land was taken; they were moved to areas far from their Country; they were forced to work, not for cash but for simple rations; their children were taken away; their culture was ridiculed; and yet, they survive and continue to fight for recognition of these injustices every day.
“From sports stars to rock stars, from politicians to community leaders, from doctors to judges, Indigenous people work tirelessly to remind us of the unfinished business in Australia – recognition that Indigenous people are people just like us.
“They have feelings, aspirations, dreams and they want to be able to look forward to a future Australia that includes them, that respects their thoughts, their words, their songs and, most of all, their existence.”
Our analysis of Life Patterns data collected from Year 11 students shows that although many young people are disengaged with politics and its role in our democracy, they are very passionate about current issues.
The referendum may have a place in reigniting the interest of young people in our political systems.
We cannot change our history, but by voting ‘Yes’, we can work towards a future that embraces Indigenous people – their culture, their wisdom and their spirit.
This article originally appeared on the University of Melbourne’s ‘Pursuit’ site and was written by Associate Professor Jenny Chesters, a Research Fellow at the Youth Research Collective at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education (MGSE). The above version of the article has been edited for length.