Australia could be on the cusp of historic change, with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese outlining plans for constitutional amendments and a referendum for an Indigenous Voice to parliament.
His speech delivered at the Garma Festival in the Northern Territory drew cautious approval from Indigenous leaders but failed to impress a skeptical federal opposition.
Mr Albanese recommended adding three sentences to the constitution to establish the voice as a starting point for discussion.
“I am determined, as a government, as a country, that we grasp that hand of healing, we repay that faith, we rise to the moment,” he told the crowd of about 1000 people in northeast Arnhem Land on Saturday.
“I believe the country is ready for this reform. I believe there is room in Australian hearts for the Statement from the Heart.”
He said the suggested phrasing might not be the final words, but it was a good place to start.
“We are seeking a momentous change – but it is also a very simple one,” he said to cheers in a crowded tin shed at Gulka, a significant ceremonial site overlooking the ocean from a stringybark forest.
The prime minister also revealed a referendum question that could be put to Australians: Do you support an alteration to the constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice?
“A straightforward proposition. A question from the heart,” he said.
After the speech, Mr Albanese walked off stage and shook hands with Indigenous leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu, who pulled the prime minister in close and briefly spoke with him.
According to Yolngu woman Mayatili Marika, who was sitting next to Mr Yunupingu, the former Australian of the Year asked the prime minister if he could be held to his word, to which Mr Albanese replied: “Absolutely.”
But the opposition raised immediate questions about how the proposed Voice would work.
“I want to see something that unites Australians and doesn’t divide them,” deputy leader Sussan Ley said.
The sentiment was echoed by the Liberal Party’s new Indigenous Australians spokesman, Julian Leeser, who said it was important people understood what was being proposed by a Voice.
“Who will serve on it? How they will be chosen? What it will do and how will how will it affect people?” he said.
“You will need to see that detail from the government before you will make a decision about whether you’ll support this.”
But Mr Albanese’s commitment was welcomed by the Uluru Dialogue, a group of Indigenous leaders behind the development of the Uluru Statement, which called for the Voice to be established.
“It’s great to have these words released for the next stage of public debate,” co-chair Megan Davis said.
“The draft question and amendment are the culmination of more than five years of drafting.”
Yothu Yindi Foundation board member Djawa Yunupingu, the brother of Galarrwuy Yunupingu, reminded the festival that former prime ministers had made commitments to Indigenous people in previous generations and not kept them.
“It has hurt us a lot to hear these promises made to our faces only to see the promises betrayed,” he said.
“Now we’re into 2022. We are hearing words from a prime minister … understanding the seriousness of the business and, I’ll be honest, these words are lifting our spirits.”
Mr Albanese is undoubtedly aware of the long and troubling history of Indigenous reconciliation, repeating calls for bipartisan support and urging Australians to engage on the issue.
“Enshrining a Voice will be a national achievement. It will be above politics,” he said.