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Linda Burney wears a blue dress and speaks in front of microphones. Behind her stands a person who wears a t shirt supporting the Uluru Statement.
Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney with Andrew Gee during a launch of the Yes campaign for the upcoming referendum at Lake Canobolas, NSW. AAP Image/Murray Mccloskey

Regional communities were central to Uluru Statement, and they must also be for the Voice to Parliament

Today marks the sixth anniversary of the Uluru Statement From the Heart, and National Sorry Day.

The statement is a powerful document that speaks of the opportunity for true and meaningful change between First Nations peoples and the rest of the country that will benefit generations to come. The key document in the journey towards a First Nations Voice to Parliament, it invites Australia to “walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.”

The statement represents a coming together of First Nations peoples from across the country, through a process that focused on our communities, especially from the regions, and what matters on the ground at a local level. Regional and remote areas are where the decisions of government play out most acutely for our peoples, where decisions about funding, regulation, and rights have the most immediacy. Our communities know what issues we face, and often they know what solutions we need.

In creating the Uluru Statement, the Referendum Council in 2017 designed a process that sought the opinions of Indigenous peoples across the country, including regional and remote areas. However, dialogues in these areas are still needed in the lead-up to the Voice referendum.

Having regional voices heard was essential in designing and advancing the idea of a Voice to Parliament. These voices will be equally essential in this upcoming referendum.

Read more: First Nations people have made a plea for 'truth-telling'. By reckoning with its past, Australia can finally help improve our future

Listening to regional peoples was essential to the Uluru Statement

Major cities often get much of the attention in national policy, and communities outside cities get left behind. As of 2022, 61% of Indigenous people live in regional areas, with major cities having an average Indigenous population of only 1.09%, with 32% living in remote and very remote areas.

To reflect this, the Referendum Council during 2015 and 2016 held Regional Dialogues with Indigenous peoples, to find out what we wanted to see achieved through constitutional reform. The dialogues were held in 13 locations around the country, with invited members of different communities, including traditional owners and community organisations.

This process sought to include those who may not previously have had their voices represented in government processes. Our voicelessness as Indigenous peoples, and the voicelessness of our communities, was raised at these dialogues. It has continued to be raised in the years since.

Not all Indigenous peoples, including some from regional and remote areas, support the Voice to Parliament. There are those in our communities who believe it either goes too far, or, does not go far enough, and want to pursue things such as Treaty. Some communities, while supportive, have expressed concerns about remote and regional voices potentially being unheard, and are wanting more detail about how their voices will be represented. These views are understandable; a lot of First Nations peoples’ faith in government and the Australian people is not built on strong foundations.

However, an overwhelming majority of Indigenous peoples support a Voice to Parliament. A Yougov poll from April this year, one of the most representative samples to date, shows 83% of Indigenous peoples support a Voice. The 2022 Reconciliation Barometer Report shows this number as even higher, though arguably with less representative samples.

Is anyone listening to regional people?

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has stated the Voice would be incapable of representing regional and rural peoples. Jacinta Nampijinpa Price says supporting pre-existing bureaucracies would be more effective for local people.

Yet the Central Land Council, representing traditional owners in central Australia,has repeatedly rebuked comments from Price, stating she has been misrepresenting their views on the Voice, and that she doesn’t “speak for them” or their communities.

Indigenous people in NSW’s regional town of Orange have also expressed strong support for the Voice. While speaking to SBS, Orange’s Aboriginal Medical Service chief executive Jamie Newman stated,

It’d be remiss of us not to take this opportunity now to say we need a change in direction, if we’re going to get services on the ground, going to get outcomes for our people, if we’re ever going to close the gap.

The Voice to Parliament is supported by major land councils and community controlled organisations, as well as other non-Indigenous regional institutions, including universities, many local Country Women’s Association (CWA) branches, and, according to the Guardian in 2022, 66% of regional voters.

We need better engagement with regional people

Much of the discussion in the referendum campaign has been focused on the major cities and their suburbs. Less attention has been put to Indigenous peoples in the regions.

Referendums are about all Australians having a say about our constitutional democracy. Failing to seek the active participation of regional and rural peoples is doing them a disservice. It is this neglect that forms much of the problems and resentments regional peoples have towards Canberra.

In addition, the Voice to Parliament is about making sure Indigenous peoples from across the continent are heard effectively. Are we truly doing politics and media differently if we don’t actively engage 30% of Australians and 60% of Indigenous peoples? The referendum could be won or lost on these voters.

As someone who lives in a small town in country NSW of less than 2000 people, I see the problems faced out here, the lack of involvement from government, and the strong need to engage with voters from these parts of the country, not just in the cities and suburbs.

Read more: People in the Kimberley have spent decades asking for basics like water and homes. Will the Voice make their calls more compelling?

Giving regional people enough information

Many communities are taking their own initiative to be informed. Wagga Wagga City Council has held forums on the Voice, alongside state MP Dr Joe McGirr, to inform and engage people. Independent federal MP Andrew Gee has been holding events across Calare, and campaigning on the issue of the Voice with Linda Burney.

Fellow Independent Helen Haines has begun outreach campaigns with local elders, seeking to take in the views of her community. Before taking leave for illness, Labor Senator Pat Dodson had been speaking at a number of forums for regional peoples, including one in Ballarat, where he noted,

people in the regions are really wanting to do the right thing and they want information […] if they get that, they will do the right thing and they will vote positively for this referendum.

Local councils, regional MPs, organisations from our rural communities such as the CWA, all have roles to play in this referendum campaign. Even if they are undecided on the Voice, we must ensure regional and remote peoples are included in the nation’s dialogues about the Voice.

It’s what the Voice has always been about for Indigenous peoples - ensuring our people are heard, even if we’re far away.

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