Nina Fitzgerald is a proud Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman whose family hails from Kakadu, the Torres Strait Islands and the Wuthathi people of Shelbourne Bay in Far North Queensland. She is a Creative Director, with work spanning the fashion and creative sectors, and a Director of both Going North Agency and Laundry Gallery.
Holly Rankin is an Artist (Jack River) and works in the space between politics and entertainment. The two became instant mates in 2021, and are now working together on the Voice to Parliament education campaign under Uluru Statement Co Chair Megan Davis.
Later this year we have an opportunity to take a huge step as a country – to give First Nations people a say on decisions that affect them, by constituting a First Nations Voice to Parliament, and recognising First Peoples in the Constitution. As a country, we have a long and clear history of actively suppressing First Nations voices, people, law and cultures.
The Voice to Parliament will be a First Nations body that provides advice to the Federal Parliament through a consultative policy making process about laws and policies affecting/impacting First Nations people. Australia will head to a referendum later this year to decide whether to add ‘the Voice to Parliament’ into the Australian Constitution.
We are standing at a crossroads – one of the most important points in our country’s history, a point that will define how we interact with each other and how we respect each other on a governmental level – for the foreseeable future. Youth, and younger women could determine the outcome of the Referendum considering millennials and Gen Z make up about 43% of the electorate. At the 1967 Referendum (on whether to count First Peoples in the Census), Australia recorded the highest ‘Yes’ vote in history. In 2023 we have the chance to do better.
Nina and I sat down and yarned about the Voice to Parliament, its place in history and what it could mean for First Nations women in particular.
Holly: Nina, in this time and place, what does the Voice mean to you?
Nina: It means we have an opportunity to make a profound difference to the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. We are the oldest, continuous cultures on earth yet we are the most disadvantaged – we are the most incarcerated peoples worldwide, have the highest levels of illiteracy and experience higher levels of disease and illness to name some of the stats. Through the Voice, Australia can start to right those wrongs and be held to account for some of the policies and ongoing injustices that are shaping the lives of First Nations Australians every single day.
Holly: It’s taken decades to come to the offering of a Voice to Parliament from First Nations people, and there is so much debate from many different voices about whether it is the right structure to move forward with. We have spoken about how the Voice is a first step toward other huge changes we need to make as a country like treaty and truth telling, it is not a fix to inherent governmental racism or a remedy to anything that has happened in our history so far, or anything that is happening now. It’s literally the first step in a really long journey.
Nina: This moment is based on such a long history of protest and fighting for change by all who have gone before us, and those of us who continue to fight today. And it’s exhausting. Getting our voices heard is a constant fight – and it shouldn’t be. We have an opportunity now to make positive steps towards real change.
Holly: As Tom Calma has said, if this doesn’t happen, a whole new political concept will need to be made, which will take another decade or two of consultation. He explains that if this fails, a whole generation of leaders will have their work shelved. It will be up to our generation to create a completely new solution.
Nina: It’s so true. The Voice is not going to upend people’s whole way of life, it’s simply giving First Nations peoples an authentic voice directly to Parliament, to guide laws that affect us. So many decisions are made on behalf of us as First Nations Australians – it is well overdue that decisions are made with us sitting at the table.
The end goal for lots of us is not the Voice, but I believe it is a productive step to begin the process of listening, and towards truth telling and treaty making. The nuances of the Voice will be determined when it exists, but to not have it there at all seems like such a waste of our generation’s determination for change.
Holly: I can understand the will to abolish the Constitution altogether – at the very beginning of the Constitution, there’s multiple references to Australia being a ‘colony’, and references to the Queen (now King) being the head of state – which they still are. The Constitution still does not even recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples whatsoever. The grief that the structure of our country still creates is heartbreaking. In a perfect world – we would be pressing restart on a Constitution altogether, and this may happen soon, but this change is here in front of us.
Nina: From little things, big things grow right, as Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly sang. Aside from recognising and acknowledging First Nations Australians, and our custodianship of this land long before Colonisation, the Voice is equally an opportunity to champion our incredible cultures and how they still exist within this country.
Holly: How do you think First Women might play a part in the Voice, and what could they share with us as a country?
Nina: The Indigenous women who have raised me, my mother and my nana in particular, are the strongest people I know. Fierce, resilient and incredibly hard working, with the warmest love and selflessness beyond compare. Loyal to themselves and others alike, they exist in so many different spaces, often where men cannot.
Australia needs fierce voices in equal measure to loving ones. We must look to our women for that. We are invaluable. You work with a lot of Indigenous women in your work. What’s your thoughts on how the Voice can be specifically powerful for women?
Holly: In my community down on Yuin country, I got to see what happens when First Nations women create their own programs and services, bespoke to their own communities. Referring specifically to this amazing women’s health agency called Waminda, who created a Birthing on Country program specific to Yuin Country and Yuin culture. The women who run it are staunch and empowered. Nobody else can do it like they can. To have that philosophy and approach reflected in politics is essential.
Nina: What does The Voice more broadly mean to you, as a non-Indigenous woman?
Holly: I don’t feel like I can fight for climate policy or environmental policy that I’m passionate about without knowing that there’s First Nations voices firmly implemented in the political process. Without this, we’re going to keep running up against really uninformed pieces of policy that are detrimental to the whole of society. If you’re making decisions for someone, you should have someone at the table that knows the community that you’re making the policy for, and whether it’s going to work or not.
On storytelling, we are both working on the ‘Yes’ campaign, with Professor Megan Davis and Aunty Pat Anderson. The Voice walks a line between recognising injustice, but offering hope. How are you thinking about the campaign when it comes to this?
Nina: There’s so much beauty and happiness and positivity that we can embrace and champion from Indigenous cultures right across Australia. My work is grounded in storytelling. It has been born from the frustrations with injustices towards First Nations Australians on so many levels, particularly in remote communities, but rather than self implode with all the negativity, I believe in positive messaging and positive storytelling to drive education and understanding.
I am not ignoring the problems we face – I see this as a different and necessary approach to the same ends.
Holly: Yeah, we can either, as a country, fight our way to the Referendum, or we can respectfully converse our way there and use this year as an opportunity to have an exciting and positive conversation about what we want for this country together, what First Peoples want and how we can listen to them differently in a new way that’s not so conflict-based.
Nina: Yeah it’s an opportunity for nation building that rests on our ability to listen and learn. People are still thriving. People still live on their homelands. People still practice their cultures. That resilience and strength, it’s so beautiful. People can, through this process, understand all this beauty that exists. It’s such an opportunity to learn more, and to learn more about the soil we all live on. I can’t not see the positive in this. The positive opportunity for everyone in the country.
Holly: What are your thoughts on the many different opinions on the Voice, including the many strong voices pushing for ‘No’?
Nina: It is important that people know we’re not always going to agree. Why should Indigenous peoples all agree? Not every non-Indigenous person agrees on policies, or has the same opinion. We’re not all the same person. It is a misguided argument. Our diversity is a good thing. We’re not robots, or sheep. The Voice is going to enable different voices to be heard, regardless of what they are asking for.
Holly: What advice would you give someone who’s just learning about the Voice?
Nina: Why is so much policy historically made on behalf of people who can speak for themselves? Give us a voice. Put us at the table. We can speak. We do not need to be spoken for. Additionally, we are merely 3% of the population, we don’t really have means to hold parliament to account all the time constantly, without being centered like this, in something lasting.