The Case For the Voice to Parliament: Linda Burney, Marion Scrymgour and Jana Stewart

Content Warning: Institutional betrayal, racism, mentions of the Stolen Generation

The Voice to Parliament referendum will be held on the 14th of October 2023 and as part of Woroni’s coverage of the referendum, we have chosen to release articles covering both arguments in support of and in opposition to the Voice to Parliament, contributed to by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Woroni as an organisation acknowledges the lack of representation of First Nations people within our organisation, and more broadly on ANU campus, and seeks to elevate the perspectives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this debate. As such, we put questions to the Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney, to the federal member for Lingiari Marion Scrymgour and to Senator Jana Stewart. 

Linda Burney MP is a member of the Wiradjuri nation and has served as the Minister for Indigenous Australians in the Albanese government since June 2022. She represents the Labor Party in the New South Wales electorate of Barton. She was the first Aboriginal woman to serve in the Australian House of Representatives. 

Marion Scrymgour MP has cultural links to the Tiwi Islands and Central Australia and is the federal member for Lingiari. She has spent much of her life working in the Northern Territory healthcare system and has served as Deputy Chief Minister of the Northern Territory. She was the first Indigenous woman to be elected to the Northern Territory legislature.

Senator Jana Stewart is a Mutthi Mutthi and Wamba Wamba woman from North-West Victoria and represents Victoria in the Senate. Jana is the youngest First Nations woman to be elected to Federal Parliament and she took her seat after the 2022 Federal Election.

The below responses to Woroni’s questions represent the interviewees’ views on the Voice to Parliament. Where asterisks are used, Woroni has provided additional context or resources below the responses.

1. Why do you support the Voice to Parliament?


Linda Burney MP

Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution will be a simple but powerful act. Essentially, it’s about two things: recognition and listening. Recognition of the 65,000 years of shared history and continuous connection to this land by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. Consultation through Voice, because listening to communities leads to better policies and better outcomes. It’s also what the Uluru Statement called for, following the largest consultation of First Nations people Australia had ever seen. The referendum will be the culmination of years of discussion, consultation and hard work by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People. It’s our gracious and patient ask of Australia.


Marion Scrymgour MP

If you look at the Uluru Statement from the Heart you will see my signature on it. I was involved in the regional dialogues which led to the historic 2017 First Nations Constitutional Convention and the Uluru Statement from the Heart. We sat in community together and spoke about the change we wanted to see. It’s important to remember the Uluru Statement was born in community –and from a powerful gathering of Indigenous people – the largest this country has ever seen. If you believe in self-determination – you will support this call from First Nations people. This is a once in a generation opportunity to create much needed change that will improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.


2. Why do you think non-Indigenous Australians should support the Voice?


Linda Burney MP

This is the best chance we have had to address the injustices of the past and create change that will deliver a better future. The referendum will be a unifying moment – it’s about taking Australia forward, for everyone. 

At the Parliamentary Inquiry* into the Voice Referendum, the Mayor of Torres Strait Regional Council put it like this: “I think it’s a very important and significant celebration, not only for First Nations people, but for Australians. A strong voice representing First Nations people of Australia … to the Commonwealth Parliament enshrined in the Constitution should be a cause for celebration, not just for First Nations people, but for all Australians.”


Marion Scrymgour MP

The Voice represents an opportunity for this country to come to terms with its past and to recognise the trauma and hurt caused to First Nations people. My father was the product of this – he was taken from his mother at 18 months old because of a policy implemented by the Federal Parliament I now sit in. If we are to right these historical wrongs, our non-Indigenous Australians need to come together and unite behind meaningful change. Only then can this country move forward on a footing of justice and unity. The referendum provides an opportunity for our whole country to come together, be stronger, and mature as a nation.


3. What do you see as the main issues with the Voice to Parliament model?


Linda Burney MP

The Voice will make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. By listening to communities about what works, the Voice will help deliver practical change on the ground – in areas like health, education and housing. Indigenous Australians are living on average nine years less than non-Indigenous Australians*. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boys born in the Northern Territory have a shorter life expectancy than boys born in Iraq and Libya.* In so many measures, despite our best efforts, outcomes for First Nations Australians lag behind other Australians. We need to do things differently in order to turn this around.


Marion Scrymgour MP

I said in a recent speech that the foundations for any sort of change is respect. We can’t create change First Nation’s communities without first respecting the unique role they play in our country, and their deep history and connection to this land. We cannot Close the Gap on health, life expectancy, living conditions, and access to education, without first giving Indigenous Australians a voice and a platform to advise on Government policy. A Voice will give our people a say in the matters that affect us, so governments can make better policies. For too long governments have made decisions for Indigenous Australians and not with Indigenous Australians. A Voice will give our people a say in the matters that affect us, so governments can make better policies.


4. What kind of issues do you think the Voice will be unable to solve?


Linda Burney MP

The Voice will prioritise the most pressing issues directly affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. It won’t be focused on things like submarines, foreign policy or the Reserve Bank, so I can’t see it solving specific problems there.


5. What challenges do you think a functioning Voice would face?


Linda Burney MP

The 1967 referendum made us equal before the law.* But generations of discrimination, systemic racism and entrenched disadvantage means we are starting from a long way behind. The urgent challenges in Alice Springs have brought into sharp focus how complex and multi-layered the disadvantage experienced by Indigenous Australians in remote and regional communities is. Finding the best ways to address the problems that have driven this disadvantage will be the Voices biggest challenge. 


6. How would a ‘no’ vote impact Indigenous peoples?


Linda Burney MP

We have the support of State and Territory leaders across Australia. The business community, unions, sporting organisations, and faith groups – are backing “Yes”. But ultimately, this is a decision for the Australian people, not politicians. I have great faith in the Australian people to get this right.


Marion Scrymgour MP

I am not contemplating failure.  A no result would set this country back a long way. Can you imagine the message it would send to Indigenous Australians? It would say we do not value your voice and your role in our country. But also, it will have a deep impact on how the rest of the world looks at us. If we cannot come to terms with our own past, how can we move forward into the future? But in saying this – I trust the Australian people. We have shown time and time again we are a just, caring, and fair people and we are optimistic that the majority of Australians will vote Yes at the referendum later this year.


7. What do you say to Indigenous peoples opposing the Voice?


Linda Burney MP

Research undertaken this year found that 80% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people support the Voice.* But we are in a period of national debate and everyone is entitled to their views. This referendum is the best chance we have ever had to address what the Uluru Statement calls ‘the torment of our powerlessness’ and build a better, more unified, mature nation that understands its history and honours its First People.


Marion Scrymgour MP

Everyone can have a view. That’s the great thing about Australia. I would encourage people to be part of the national conversation and to be informed. This is about the long history of the Aboriginal rights movement. So many of our old people have fought and died to make change – we cannot miss this opportunity to better things for our people. 


8. Some students at ANU have criticised the Voice for suggesting meaningful change can happen within a system built off colonialism. What do you say to this argument?


Linda Burney MP

I would ask them whether they want to address the injustices of the past and create meaningful change for First Nations people or not. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for every single one of us to make a difference.


Senator Jana Stewart did not directly respond to Woroni’s questions, but rather provided a comment on the Voice more generally:

A Voice to Parliament is an opportunity to walk together as a nation and create a better future for all Australians. As a First Nations woman, I know firsthand that a First Nations Voice will create practical and lasting change on the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. I was one of the only Aboriginal students in my high school class. As the teacher read aloud all the bad news on the health and life expectations of First Nations people, it felt like they were reading out my future as a First Nations woman: I was less likely to finish high school; I was less likely to go to university; I was more likely to be unemployed; I was very likely to get a chronic health condition; and I was more likely to die 15 years younger than my peers sitting in the classroom with me. And today the statistics tell us that a young Aboriginal person is more likely to go to jail than university*. A shameful truth about where we are now in our nation’s journey. 

A constitutionally enshrined Voice will give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians an opportunity to rewrite these harrowing statistics. It will give us a say in the matters that affect our communities. I am confident a Voice will create practical and lasting change for First Nations people in areas such as health, employment, education, and justice. It’s the path forward to finally recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in the Constitution. 

While I feel optimistic that Australian people support reconciliation, they support giving First Nations people a fair go, I know the next few months will be hard. Some will use this time to try and divide us as a nation. Some will use this as an opportunity to further hate and bigotry. It is so important that each and every Australian takes the time to get out and educate themselves on the Voice. Read, listen and engage with the many Elders and leaders who have been talking about the recognition and having our voices heard for decades. Educate yourself on how a Voice will provide real and practical change for our communities, in areas such as health, education and social justice. 

This is not just about First Nations peoples; it is about all Australians. That is why we must stand together – this is above politics. Together we can ensure every Australian can be proud of the society we have built together. 


Notes from the Editor:

Information on the Parliamentary Inquiry into the Voice Referendum can be accessed here

Statistics for average life expectancy for Indigenous Australians can be found here. Further and aggregate information can be accessed here

Information on the 1967 referendum can be accessed here and here.  

Two polls, conducted by Ipsos (in January) and YouGov (in March), found support for the Voice among First Nations Australians was 80 per cent (margin of error +/- 7.3 per cent) and 83 per cent (+/- 2.3 per cent) respectively. Polling over 2023 has been tracked here. Current numbers vary over different polling sites. 

Although there is no single dataset that allows for a precise comparison, the available data broadly suggests that young Indigenous men are more likely to go to prison than university. The latest census found that 4.9 per cent of Indigenous men aged 18-34 were enrolled at university in 2021, while 6.3 per cent were in prison on census night. This information can be found here.

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.