Speech: Listening to First Peoples will improve lives

Jul 7, 2023

This is an edited extract of a speech delivered by proud Nira illim bulluk man of the Taungurung nation and outgoing co-chair of the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria, Marcus Stewart, at an event at Trades Halls in support of the YES vote for a national Voice to Parliament.

For too long Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have had policies made about us or for us, but never by us. 

Every aspect of our lives has been controlled at different times since invasion: where we could live, who we could marry, where we could shop, what we could buy. We were forced off our ancestral lands, where we had gathered natural wealth for countless generations. Our children were stolen, our families torn apart.

Everyone knows the stories, our hard truths. But this isn’t ancient history, this is living memory. The scars run deep and the flow-on effects of dispossession are still holding our people back. 

These were policies made by politicians who didn’t understand us and certainly didn’t respect us. 

Establishing a First Nations voice is about changing that dynamic. It’s the first step to having a meaningful say about the decisions that affect our lives. 

That’s why I, and the vast majority of mob, want a voice. 

The referendum is an invitation to put the wisdom and resilience of the oldest living culture in the world into the heart of our modern democracy. 

A YES vote is confirmation that you want First Nations communities to thrive, and for our unique connection to this place to be recognised, respected and celebrated. 

I also want to see the Yes vote succeed because I know what’s on offer to everyone who now calls this beautiful place home. 

Who here has ever stood on the banks of the Birrarung or among the tall Eucalypts of our ancient forests, or breathed in the salt air from the ocean, and felt a profound sense of gratitude for being here on this land? 

First Nations people have a unique connection to this country and our care and knowledge of it run deep. The voice is about having a taste of that inserted into the heart of Australia’s democratic system.  

With a YES vote, you lose nothing, but you gain 60,000 years of history and a better appreciation of this great country. 

This will be a big year for our people, but it’s also a big year for Australia as a country. Are we mature enough as a nation to take that next step forward? 

Everyone wants to get on with creating a better future together as equals, but to do that we need to: 

  • reckon with the injustices of the past,
  • improve how things are done today, 
  • and work out better systems for creating a better future together.   

That’s what Voice, Treaty and Truth are all about. 

Step one is Voice. 

We’ve shown in Victoria what can be achieved when our mob have a Voice.  

We have a voice in the First Peoples Assembly of Victoria – a strong collective and democratic voice. With it we’ve got a Truth-telling process up and running already and now Treaty is well and truly within our reach. 

So make no mistake, the Voice to Parliament will help improve the lives of our people. 

I want to thank you all for being here and helping to make it a reality. We can win, and I think we will win. 

When you’re out there having the conversations, getting people over the line, I think it’s ultimately a simple proposition being put to people – that is: 

We all know that when governments make laws and policies about certain groups of people, the results are always going to deliver better results when those people have had a say in shaping those laws and policies.

It’s just common sense. 

So thanks again for all that I know you will do during this campaign. 

It’s allies like you, who are putting the ethos of ‘paying the rent?’ into action. And this referendum presents a big opportunity to chip in.  

I know the Union movement is doing what it does best – solidarity.

Some great organising and mobilisation is underway.  

We’re going to need to win the majority of votes in the majority of states. We need some serious people power to make it happen. So we’re really calling on our allies to share the load here. We can’t do it alone. 

Thanks to Trades Hall and all of you. 

We’re all lucky to be here. We came to this place we call home through different paths, but this is where we all find ourselves together, so let’s get on with creating a better future as equals. 

History is calling. And I’m so glad so many deadly people like you are picking up the phone and saying YES! 

Learn more about about why the Assembly is backing the YES vote.