Institutions are considering their position ahead of referendum to give Indigenous Australians better representation
Some Australian research bodies and universities are lining up behind the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, but others are yet to take a side.
The Voice is a proposal to establish a statutory body that will have the power to advise both parliament and the executive arm of government on matters affecting Indigenous Australians. It is a response to the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, in which Indigenous people called for “Voice, Treaty, Truth” to resolve longstanding issues around Australian history.
A referendum on the issue was an election promise of the current Labor government and is expected to take place later this year. Parliament is currently debating the bill that would establish the Voice.
Voice advocate Megan Davis, pro vice-chancellor for Indigenous issues at the University of New South Wales, called on universities to actively support the proposal in a speech at the Universities Australia conference in February. She told the conference that “silence is political”.
At the time, only the University of New South Wales had committed to supporting the ‘yes’ vote. It has since been joined by the Australian National University, the University of Melbourne and Charles Darwin University, which is based in the Northern Territory and has a strong history of Indigenous engagement.
No major institutions have said they support a ‘no’ vote, but several appear unlikely to take a position either way.
Some universities and bodies are still consulting. A University of Sydney spokesperson said that it was “carefully following the Voice referendum debate and considering our institutional position in consultation with our community”.
“Throughout our history, we’ve served as a forum for debate on wider political issues rather than acted as a participant in those debates. At the same time, we always encourage individual academics, students and members of our wider community to engage with broader issues and express their views, in line with our strong commitment to freedom of speech and academic freedom,” they said, while noting that senior university figures including vice-chancellor Mark Scott had personally expressed support for a ‘yes’ vote.
Charles Sturt University in New South Wales told Research Professional News that its “formal position on the Voice to Parliament has not been finalised as the consultation work with our First Nations staff, students and footprint communities is exhaustive and ongoing”. Some staff at the university have written editorials on the Voice, mainly in support.
The vice-chancellors’ group Universities Australia said in February that it welcomed the referendum. It referred to its Indigenous Strategy and the need for partnerships between universities and Indigenous people to give those people “a voice…in decision-making that affects them”. But Universities Australia has not taken a position on the national vote, only saying that it would “work with members to promote and facilitate sector-wide discussion”.
The Australian Academy of Science told Research Professional News that it was on record as supporting the Uluru Statement from the Heart and would have a position on the Voice “shortly”.
Among the supporters, Charles Darwin University vice-chancellor Scott Bowman said in a statement that “supporting the ‘yes’ vote aligns directly with the university’s goal of being recognised as the university for First Nations training, education and research”. The institution has created a physical statement of support, which it invited university stakeholders to sign.
The Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes, the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences, the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia have all expressed their support for a ‘yes’ vote.
The AAMRI issued a statement in March urging its members to vote ‘yes’, noting that “across the AAMRI’s 58 medical research institutes, more than half have researchers striving to improve health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities through access to healthcare services, better health infrastructure and education and training”.