June 2023

The 2023 Referendum

There once was a time when the recognition and acknowledgement of First Nations was nowhere near the levels we currently see. We now have Indigenous themed rounds for our national sports, organisations that have Reconciliation Action Plans, and even airline staff acknowledging the country and elders as part of landing announcement procedures. So much has changed in a generation or two. 

It was only a generation or two ago that Australians voted in a Referendum that shaped the future relationships between First Nations and other Australians. It was a time when the Australian Constitution read that, “In the reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted.” (Section 127, which was removed in the 1967 Referendum) 

The national vote in 1967 is regarded as a national milestone moment that shaped the generational relationships between First Nations and the rest of the country. The 2023 Referendum will be our generation’s milestone moment to set up the generational relationships to come.  

To put it simply, we will either be entering an era of making a Voice to Parliament or we will be engaged in other active engagements because the Australian public voted ‘No’ to the proposed changes. In either case, there will be ripple effects on the generational relationships between First Nations and other multicultural Australians.

Looking through the collaboration lens

At CFI we have seen first-hand the value and productivity of effective collaborations between First Nations and other multicultural Australians. We acknowledge that the outcome of the 2023 Referendum will impact those collaborations. However, we also know that the partnerships and collaborations will continue working  on important issues, challenges and opportunities that they’re currently  facing together. It is for this reason that we are identifying a set of scenarios, based on outcomes of the Referendum, to assist collaborations to navigate leading up to and beyond the Referendum 2023. Over the coming months CFI will be working with other partners to develop and promote a set of scenarios that are designed to help us all navigate and prepare for the next chapter in Australia’s story of collaborations between First Nations and other multicultural Australian communities.

Binary debate doesn’t mean polarising conversations

The Referendum will be a binary vote: Yes or No. Campaigning on those positions necessitates being one-sided. However, the conversations in communities don’t need to be polarising and stuck. In Deep Collaboration we talk about being stuck in a trench. This is where you find yourself surrounded by others who believe in the same things that you do and agree with your positions. It can be comforting to realise you have support from like-minded people. However, it can also be seductive to think that everyone else is wrong and your side is right. In summary, trenches can be good to restore your sense of belonging among like minded people, but trenches can be bad for debasing others and getting stuck in closed perspectives.

In the context of the 2023 Referendum conversations, we can see the trenches playing out. 

Firstly, the campaigning efforts are placed in the trenches. They need to be there. They are trying to get their sides to win and convince as many people as possible to vote for their side. 

Secondly, we see the seduction to “pick-a-side” that is placed on people and organisations. While this may be a valuable tool in campaigning to demonstrate momentum, it can also place pressure on individuals who may feel exposed for their beliefs and understanding of the issues surrounding the referendum. The “pick-a-side” approach can stifle conversation, learning and understanding due to conversation scope becoming limited to understanding why you’re on one side and not the other. It can represent individual and organisational conflicts around competing loyalties. 

Thirdly, the tone of dialogue sounds and feels more like being right and winning. Again, campaigning is about winning. Therefore, it is understandable that getting more people involved and committed is a crucial component to winning the campaign. However, the conversations in communities, at schools, sporting events and weekend markets, don’t need that tone and feel. In Deep Collaboration we talk about how it is important to be curious and empathetic to the values and beliefs of others. It helps to understand and establish shared values, purpose and goals for action. While Referendum 2023 campaigning is ramping up, more community-based conversations should happen to allow community members to share, listen and understand about each other. This leads us to our final point of trenches playing out in the Referendum this year.

Finally, we know that collaborative systems change involves a number of tensions and competing loyalties working with and against each other. When collaborations have enough shared values, purpose and goals for action, they can work those tensions creatively and productively. When collaborations don’t have enough shared understanding they slip into more basic forms of competition and dominance. One essential shared understanding is about the tension of innovation and conservation. That is, there is energy to adopt new ways of knowing, being and doing, and there is energy to maintain current ways of knowing, being and doing. There is a drive to improve, change, and seize opportunities emerging. There is also a drive to sustain, conserve, and proceed cautiously. In Deep Collaboration we talk about listening for wisdom in different views, beliefs and perspectives.

In the context of the 2023 Referendum, it would mean understanding the values of taking up the changes being proposed, as well as understanding the values of conserving the current ways. It would also mean developing a shared understanding about the fears and hopes for those wanting to change and those wanting to conserve. We have seen collaborations improve because they have practised suspending judgement, lead with listening, follow with curious and courageous questioning before working on solutions together. This approach helps to understand what is sacred, important and valuable to stakeholders in collaborations. This approach will help communities understand the values and loyalties that others are holding onto when they are declaring their positions on the 2023 Referendum.

We hope this perspective on the 2023 Referendum through the lens of collaboration is helpful to loosen up our thinking and empathy for the different perspectives involved. The next few months will bring out the best and worst of us as we wrestle to lay the foundation for the next generational relationships between First Nations and other multicultural Australians. 

Additional text:

In  1967, the referendum put the following question to the Australian people:

“Do you approve the proposed law for the alteration of the Constitution entitled ‘An Act to alter the Constitution so as to omit certain words relating to the people of the Aboriginal race in any state and so that Aboriginals are to be counted in reckoning the population’?”

The question to be put to the Australian people at the 2023 referendum will be: 

“A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?”

Author Mark Yettica-Paulson

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