Voice more important than ‘warm and fuzzy’ push to change Australia Day

Leading Voice to Parliament campaigner Megan Davis says changing the date of Australia Day would be a symbolic move that would have little tangible impact on the lives of Indigenous Australians as she urged people to instead support constitutional recognition.

This year, the annual Invasion Day rallies to commemorate January 26 as the beginning of colonisation will take place as momentum builds for the Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum, which will be held in the second half of this year.

UNSW Professor Megan Davis said the Voice to Parliament would deliver substantive practical change, whereas changing the date of Australia Day was a symbolic move.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Davis, a Cobble Cobble woman and co-chair of the Uluru Dialogue, said there would be no official, coordinated effort by the Yes movement to campaign alongside the Invasion rallies or tap into the mass public support for “changing the date” that accompanies Australia Day.

She said January 26 was a solemn day for many Indigenous Australians and, while some supported changing the date, “there’s a very strong view that changing the day doesn’t change the issue”.

“My greatest reservation about the ‘change the date’ movements is that, in the absence of any structural reform, you’re changing the date but you’re not changing the structural powerlessness,” Davis, a professor of law at UNSW, said.

“Supporting ‘change the date’ is fine, but really supporting the referendum and the Voice to Parliament is something that’s actually going to make a difference on the ground. It’s a tactile reform. So if changing the date comes after that, that makes a lot of sense, but to change the date without any substantive reform, it’s a symbolic move.”

She said the Voice to Parliament – which seeks to enshrine in the constitution a body to advise parliament and the executive on matters affecting First Nations people – would involve Indigenous people within Australia’s democratic system “in a way that they haven’t been up till now”, while changing the date was a “warm and fuzzy notion of reconciliation”.

While thousands attended Invasion day protests last year in Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide, marches in Melbourne and Hobart were cancelled due to concern over rising COVID infection numbers. This year there are dozens of rallies, concerts and marches across the nation calling for the national day’s date to be changed.

Along with Indigenous elders Pat Anderson and Noel Pearson, Davis was one of the joint architects of the 2017 Uluru Statement From the Heart, which called for the establishment of a constitutionally enshrined Voice followed by a Makarrata Commission to oversee a treaty-making and truth-telling process.

“Each year since we’ve got back from Uluru, there’s been a lot of mob wanting to do stuff on that day (January 26), but it’s not something that we want to prescribe,” she said.

“Different groups from around Australia will contact us (Uluru Dialogue) and some people will run activations and wear the shirts on marches…and that’s just organic, it’s not organised. There’s no formal agenda.”

Indigenous Australians minister Linda Burney confirmed to this masthead the enabling legislation for the referendum will be introduced to parliament “sometime in March” before it goes to a parliamentary committee to scrutinise for six weeks.

The government would then aim to pass the legislation through parliament in May, allowing the public vote to be held as early as August – although it could be held as late as November.

Davis said the Yes campaign would be ramped up after the bill is introduced and would involve an alliance of organisations, including Uluru Dialogue, From the Heart, progressive group GetUp, and conservative group Uphold and Recognise.

“There will be strategic coordination of messaging once the campaign is on, so you’ll have the single messaging and slogans. But we’re not there yet, the referendum bill hasn’t been passed. But once that happens, that really tight strategic oversight will come into play,” she said.

By late last year, conservative group Advance Australia claimed to have raised at least $1 million for the No campaign. However, the decision by the federal Nationals to formally oppose the Voice, with Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price emerging as a leading No campaigner, prompted frontbencher Andrew Gee to quit the party and move to crossbench where he can campaign in support of the referendum.

Opposition leader Peter Dutton has said the Liberal Party will decide on its stance early this year.

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