In the last week of September, myself and Barkindji lawyer Gemma McKinnon travelled across the Central and Far West of NSW visiting and talking with communities about the referendum to enshrine a First Nations Voice to Parliament. As two First Nations lawyers that work in community-development and legal services, we strived to contribute something practically useful to a region with some of the most passionate and strong Aboriginal communities in Australia, which we both have long and strong connections. In Gemma’s case, as a Barkindji woman from Wilcannia, and for myself, as a long-time collaborator with the Dharriwaa Elders Group through the Yuwaya Ngarra-li partnership. Gemma was a Technical Advisor at the Referendum Council’s regional dialogues and Constitutional Convention at Uluru. Together we were able to facilitate rich discussions with Aboriginal community stakeholders about the detail of the referendum process and answer questions, while also starting the ‘what next’ conversations that so many are beginning to think about at a community-level.
We worked with our First Nations colleagues and peers from UNSW and our legal sector networks based in Walgett, Brewarrina, Bourke, Cobar, Wilcannia, Menindee and Broken Hill to offer culturally appropriate and accessible sessions to Aboriginal community stakeholders. We also arranged open sessions to assist wider community members understand the long history of calls for First Nations recognition in our country's founding document, share the detail of the dialogues process and clarify where the call for an enshrined Voice to Parliament came from, and the overall referendum process and proposed amendment to the constitution. Being able to provide accurate and clear information about the detailed and deliberate process of the regional dialogues that led to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, unprecedented in its form and the amount of First Nations people it involved, was a critically important contribution for us lawyers.
Key reflections from our 2,961kms of travels included the importance of the proposed amendment to the Constitution being representative of, and elected and accountable to, First Nations communities, particularly Aboriginal women, children and young people. As Gemma explained, “I think the clearest message has been that people are really grateful when those with the knowledge and understanding come out to small communities and give the time to help people in the process of informing themselves about what they're being asked to do, and talk a bit about how it might work on the ground and help improve things in the areas that are a priority for communities in the Central and Far-West". We would like to share our deep gratitude to our colleagues and organisations we worked closely with to undertake this work, including Tanya Griffiths, Kristy Kennedy, Barbie-Lee Kirby, Virjean Wilson, Larry Webster, Richard Weston and Maari Ma Health Aboriginal Corporation, Menindee Local Aboriginal Land Council, Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery and in Walgett the Dharriwaa Elders Group.