Rachel Perkins, the celebrated Indigenous film director, shares a common battle with some unlikely allies. Among them are some of the country’s most conservative and influential businessmen and political leaders. Their fight – which began almost a century ago with the efforts of many pastors – is to get the message across the country that the constitution needs to be amended to recognize Indigenous Australians as the nation’s first peoples.
In the next six months, before a referendum is held on this issue, there will be a lot of talk about changing the Constitution at barbecues, dinner parties, sports fields, churches and workplaces.
The challenge for those on both sides of the debate – as there are yes and no campaigns – will be to cut through the noise to reach the millions of Australians who are indifferent or confused about why recognizing Indigenous Australians in the Constitution matters do.
And those conversations have already begun with some of the nation’s largest employers.
Earlier this year, Thomas Mayor, an Indigenous advocate and representative of the maritime union, who also sits on the board of the Australians for Indigenous Constitutional Recognition (AIRC) with Perkins, gave a briefing for National Australia Bank employees about his involvement in the Yes campaign.
He explained what is being asked and what it will mean for Indigenous people and Australia if the referendum succeeds or fails. About one-fifth of NAB’s 28,700 Australian employees attended or viewed the briefing.
NAB, alongside major corporations such as the Commonwealth Bank, ANZ, BHP, Rio Tinto, Wesfarmers, Woolworths and Coles, supports the Yes campaign. The federal Liberal party, usually regarded as the party of big business, and its leader Peter Dutton remain divided over the constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians. Federal Labor supports it.
However, Perkins and the powerful group she works with on the AIRC want to prevent the debate from becoming bogged down in partisan loyalty. “It’s not affiliated with any party,” says Perkins. “It will only happen if the Australian people say it has to.”
The composition of the AIRC board reflects that desire for constitutional recognition not to become a left or right issue.
Perkins is co-chair with Danny Gilbert, a director of the Business Council of Australia and managing partner of law firm Gilbert + Tobin. Other directors include Wesfarmers Chairman Michael Chaney (whose father and uncle were Liberal federal ministers), BHP Director Catherine Tanna, Indigenous advocate Noel Pearson, former Liberal Party adviser and power broker Mark Textor and Tony Nutt, Chancellor of Griffith University and former Queensland Labor Treasurer Andrew Fraser, former Rudd Government Adviser Lachlan Harris, Karen Mundine, CEO of Reconciliation Australia, Tanya Hosch, AFL Managing Director for Inclusion and Social Policy, and Mayor.
In the referendum, expected to be held sometime between October and December, the Australian could be asked a simple question like: “Do you want to recognize Indigenous peoples in the constitution?”
If Australians vote yes, an advisory body of Indigenous Australians, known as a Vote for Parliament, would be established, advising the Federal Government and Parliament on policies and decisions affecting First Nations people. The advisory group would not have the power to veto legislation.
“The inclusion of Indigenous peoples in that very important document (the Constitution), not only in a symbolic way, but also in a very practical way, is a great recognition of the deep history of the nation,” said Perkins, the daughter of civil rights. activist Charlie Perkins.
The AIRC was founded in 2019 to Yes campaign and to act as a fundraising and governance body for the various groups advocating for a yes vote. There are also groups behind a No campaign, the most prominent of which is Deposit.
Some proponents of the yes and no campaigns want more details on how the Voice advisory body would work and have suggested that it should only advise parliament, not the executive government (cabinet and public service).
“There’s been a lot of distracting buzz over the last few months about things like ‘show us the details’ and so on,” says Michael Chaney. “It will become clear to the people at large that the details are a question for parliament, as always under the Constitution, parliament is the organization that makes the laws and regulations, and that the question (which is) will be asked in the referendum is very simple on whether there should be a vote.
Perkins says the recent alcohol-related violence in Alice Springs and poor decision-making by state and federal governments is just one example of a vote in parliament that she says could have produced a different outcome.
Millionaire Marcus Blackmore, the founder of the vitamin company, who no longer plays a role in it, is an outspoken opponent of The Voice: “Neither the prime minister nor anyone else has convinced me to vote yes at this stage.”
He supports the views of Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, a conservative senator for the Northern Territory, who opposes the Voice and has argued that it adds another layer of bureaucracy.
The AIRC, which has tax-deductible status, is said to have raised “tens of millions” for its Yes campaign, including receiving donations from NAB and the Paul Ramsay Foundation.
Danny Gilbert has called on Australia’s largest companies, which employ hundreds of thousands of Australians, to get behind the campaign. “This is a time to build a nation. Companies are corporate citizens and part of the social, economic and political infrastructure of this country. They employ many people and have an interest in building a strong, healthy, inclusive democracy. It is not in their interest that a group of people is relegated to poverty and deprivation.”
Mike Henry, chief executive of BHP, which employs 2,437 Indigenous workers out of Australia’s 49,420, says the miner supports constitutional recognition. “BHP has long been a proponent of the establishment of an Indigenous voice in parliament in Australia, in line with our support for wider reconciliation efforts between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.”
Fellow miner Rio Tinto, who employs nearly 1,600 Indigenous employees and saw his relations with First Nations stakeholders and the Australian public collapse after the devastation of the Juukan Gorge, also supports the Voice.
Rio Tinto has long supported constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians, from supporting the ‘Recognize’ campaign in 2015, through the Uluru Declaration of the Heart in 2019, to where we are today, calling for a indigenous voice in parliament,” said Kellie Parker, CEO of Rio Tinto Australia. “As a company, there have been times in our history where we have failed Indigenous Australians, and defining moments that have forced us to evolve our approach.”
Wesfarmers, which owns a wide variety of businesses from Bunnings, Priceline, Kmart to Target, has more than 100,000 employees, 4,000 of whom are indigenous. Wesfarmers Chairman Michael Chaney became involved with the AIRC because he believes more needs to be done to close the gap between non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians, with the latter having poorer health, education and employment outcomes.
“What is currently being done is not working, and putting that provision in the constitution gives a very important recognition, which is primarily symbolic, but more than symbolic, it gives a voice, which makes a lot of sense, where indigenous people can have a voice in matters that concern them.”
Commonwealth Bank CEO Matt Comyn says the bank will engage its employees in the referendum and its own commitment to reconciliation. “We support an indigenous voice in parliament that is enshrined in the constitution.”
Ross McEwan, NAB’s CEO, has already taken steps to inform his employees about the upcoming referendum with meetings such as the one with Thomas Mayor. “NAB plays a key role in ensuring that our Indigenous colleagues, customers and community succeed.”
Brad Banducci, chief executive of Woolworths, says it is involved with its 185,000 employees, 4,500 of whom are indigenous. “Having established our own Indigenous voice through our First Nations Advisory Board, we have firsthand experience of the positive impact First Nations voice and advice can have on our own decision-making.”
In 2021, Woolworths abandoned plans to open a Dan Murphy megastore near booze-free Indigenous communities in Darwin following a backlash from Aboriginal people and health groups.
The country’s major sporting codes, the AFL, NRL, Rugby Australia, Netball Australia, Football Australia, Cricket Australia and Tennis Australia are also working on a coordinated campaign to support the Voice.
While such support and surveys conducted by Resolve and Newspoll indicate that Australians will vote for constitutional amendment, a risk remains. “I try not to think about that much,” says Perkins. “But I think we will win because Australians have a very deep social conscience.”
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