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Australia Will Hold a Referendum to Recognize Indigenous Peoples. Meet the Activist Behind the Vote

Australia stands out among Britain’s former settler colonies as the only country that doesn’t have a treaty with its Indigenous people. Nor does it recognize them in the constitution. But Indigenous peoples’ rights expert Megan Davis is working in overdrive to change that.

We’re not recognized in the structures of the Australian state,” Davis, a Cobble Cobble Aboriginal woman from the Barrungam nation in Queensland, tells TIME. “If we want real change, it’s going to require some redistribution of public power that allows our people to make decisions themselves and not bureaucrats. There’s no other way around it.”

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It’s a conclusion that the Australian government is finally coming around to. The recently elected center-left government led by the Labor Party’s Anthony Albanese has promised to hold a national referendum, expected this year, on enshrining an Indigenous voice in the country’s constitution—thanks in no small part to the work of Davis and others. “I believe this country is ready for this reform,” Albanese said in a speech in July. “If not now, when?”

The idea for a referendum was laid out in the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart—a document endorsed by hundreds of Indigenous Australian leaders—of which Davis was a key architect. The statement has gained support across the country from organizations as diverse as Football Australia, the Catholic Church in Australia, and a pharmacist’s union. A vote is expected in the second half of 2023, says Linda Burney, the minister for Indigenous Australians, in an email statement to TIME.

For many Indigenous Australians, the lack of constitutional recognition means a continued denial of existence that perpetuates discrimination and fuels other negative outcomes. Many say that the Voice would improve conditions for Indigenous Australians, who die earlier, earn less, and are more likely to face unemployment, incarceration, and death by suicide. “It will change lives, it will improve people’s health, because it’ll empower people to be drivers and players in their own lives rather than being passive recipients of what the bureaucrats think should or shouldn’t happen,” says Davis, who is also a constitutional law professor at the University of New South Wales. “This will radically transform how the government does business.”

What is “the Voice”?

The Voice is expected to take the form of an advisory body—like the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues that Davis was elected to in 2011—which Australia’s government would be obligated to consult with on matters that overwhelmingly relate to Indigenous Australians. “A constitutional voice will mean that when bureaucrats sit down to do their work, there’s a trigger, a tick a box, a flag that says you need to have an Indigenous Voice member sitting at the table for this,” says Davis. “You’ve got to talk to the people who live in communities because they understand communities better than bureaucrats who live in Canberra on huge salaries,” she says.

Davis has been dubbed “the voice of the Voice” by Australian media for her crucial role in developing and promoting the idea; she estimates that she’s given at least two talks a day, five days a week, on the topic since 2017.

Burney has said that the Voice is a way for Indigenous Australians to advise the government about laws and policies that impact them. “It’s about drawing a line on the poor outcomes from the long legacy of failed programs and broken policies,” she said.

Full details around the Voice have yet to be released. But the government has set up a working group, of which Davis is a member, to advise on the path to a referendum and earmarked AUD $75 million ($52 million) for it. “The Government is methodically stepping through what is required to hold the referendum, including updating the way referendums are held in Australia as well as consulting on the wording of the constitutional amendment,” Burney said.

The topic is being widely discussed in Australian media and even Shaquille O’Neal has volunteered to promote the idea in pre-recorded videos on social media.

Support for the Voice appears to be strong among the Australian public, though questions remain over the shape it would take. “The Prime Minister says the Voice will only involve itself in issues of public policy that affect Indigenous Australians. I don’t understand what that means because defense policy affects Indigenous Australians, as does health and education, law and order. Every element of public policy affects Indigenous Australians as it does every Australian,” opposition leader Peter Dutton from the conservative Liberal Party said.

Will Australia’s referendum pass?

Tim Soutphommasane, Australia’s former race discrimination commissioner and now a professor in human rights and political theory at Oxford University, says that bipartisan support will be important for the referendum to pass. But it remains unclear if that will happen; Indigenous Australian affairs have long been used as a political football in the country. The Liberal Party has not yet taken a clear stance, though some prominent Liberal Party politicians have called on lawmakers to support the idea. But the National Party, a smaller conservative party that promotes the interests of regional Australians and is allied with the Liberal Party, said on Nov. 28 that it will not support the Voice.

That, according to advocates, is exactly why an Indigenous voice needs to be enshrined in the constitution. “Aboriginal issues should be removed out of the realm of politics and ideology, and should be protected in the constitution so that we focus… on some continuity and durability and sustainability of Indigenous voices,” says Davis.

But getting referendums past Australian voters is no easy feat. Success requires a “double majority”—getting more than 50% of votes overall and in four out of six states. Only eight out of 44 past referendums have passed in Australia. The last one, a failed vote on whether Australia should become a republic, was held in 1999.

Still, a July poll by the Australia Institute found that 65% of Australians would vote “Yes.” Soutphommasane cautions that a sizable minority remains unsure or undecided, and that once a referendum question is finalized, these numbers could change. But he believes a referendum could succeed. “So much goodwill on the issue that has been built in recent years,” he says.

That would be an important step forward for Indigenous Australians. “I think the Voice,” says Davis, “will be the first time in Australia’s history where we’ve begun that process of repair and recognition.”

What comes after “the Voice”?

In Australia, there have been calls for treaty-making for decades, given the country’s outlier status as not having any with its Indigenous people. Though the legacy of treaties is mixed in places like Canada and New Zealand, in Australia, a treaty or treaties would help the country’s original inhabitants “overcome those huge injustices that still, unfortunately, persist in our society,” the Queensland treaty advancement committee co-chair Jackie Huggins said in August. “The path to treaty is about how we mend the very fabric of our society.”

The 2017 Uluru Statement—which Albanese is committed to “in full”—also calls for a commission that would oversee a process of treaty-making and truth-telling about injustices against Indigenous Australians. That would extend work already done in a few Australian states to the federal level. In Victoria, for example, truth-telling has taken the form of a justice commission that is looking into past and ongoing issues that Indigenous Australians have experienced to develop a shared understanding on the impact of colonization and to make recommendations on necessary policy changes.

But campaigners say that it’s important for the Voice to be put in place first, to help guide the remaining changes. “Let’s get this referendum done… but the reform is a sequence,” says Davis. “We feel really confident that… Australians are going to vote ‘yes’ and walk with us and work with us to make that happen,” she adds. “This is Australia’s moment.”