Australian geographer reflects upon the referendum

19th September 2023
By Nicole Miller - Communications Officer, IAG
As Australia’s 2023 referendum nears, IAG Councillor Dr Michele Lobo has reflected upon the conversations happening within the media and society.


As Australia’s 2023 referendum nears, IAG Councillor Dr Michele Lobo has reflected upon the conversations happening within the media and society.

Australians head to the polls on 14 October 2023. The community will be asked if they think the constitution should be altered. The proposed change is to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Read more about the question.

The ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns are in full flight and many geographers are watching the public debates and discussions closely.

The conversations reflect tensions within modern Australia. There are conflicting ideas about whether the Voice and constitutional amendment will deliver the meaningful change that Indigenous communities require.

Dr Michele Lobo is an honorary Deakin University researcher and Councillor of the Institute of Australian Geographers (IAG) Councillor. She is also the Chair of the IAG Equity Reference Group.

Michele was asked to reflect upon the referendum, the conversations occurring and think about how geographers can contribute. These are Michele’s personal views and do not reflect the views of the Institute of Australian Geographers.

This interview took place on 18 September 2023.


Dr Michele Lobo, enjoying time on the Murray River. Credit: Dr Michele Lobo.

What are your thoughts on the public discussions in the lead up to the referendum? What's been negative and what's been positive? 

As a first-generation migrant and Australian of Indian heritage I am excited and hopeful about the outcome of this referendum. It matters that all Australian citizens of diverse backgrounds are convinced to vote yes rather than no. We cannot afford to be ignorant, indifferent, racist, fearful and anxious.

A yes vote will ensure that First Nations people will not just be counted but listened to in ways that show that knowledge, laws, cultural heritage, languages, environmental values, ways of life and their Country is respected. This is crucial to thriving Australian and planetary futures. Having a Voice that is recognised in a colonial constitution is the beginning of a long journey for a treaty that values Indigenous sovereignty, heals people as well as Land/Sea Country and can better address Indigenous disadvantage in education, housing, employment and other areas. I’m concerned about the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss – a Voice can provide valuable insights on both.

There is much public debate about whether the referendum will get a majority vote. Statistics about the yes/no vote is widely reported. Solidarity as well as dissent within First Nations is highlighted, for example through the commentary by Senator Lidia Thorpe and Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price.

It was wonderful to read The Age on 31 August that tried to provide some balance in reporting – the persuasive Yes vote from former Liberal PM Malcolm Turnbull and historian Henry Reynolds and the No vote by former Liberal PM Tony Abbott and Liberal party senator for the Northern Territory, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price.

I was most affected by Professor Marcia Langton’s emotional address to the National Press Club on 6 September. She identifies as an anthropologist and geographer. I read the report in The Age on 6 September (Langton’s emotional plea as abuse takes a toll) and watched it on ABC iview. She talked about Indigenous disadvantage, the need for First Australians to ‘thrive not survive’ and the rebuilding of trust and confidence. Her voice broke as a ‘no vote’ seemed to be saying ‘no’ to improving the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders children and future generations.

Watch Professor Marcia Langton’s National Press Club Address via ABC News (Australia) YouTube.

Do you think there has been anything surprising or 'missing' from public discussions?

The party politics is annoying and frustrating. It seemed at the start there was bipartisan support, but suddenly the stand taken by Peter Dutton and the Coalition seeded divisiveness. I was surprised that Peter Dutton will support a second referendum.

Indigenous voices on either side of the divide highlight different views, which I suppose is important in a democratic process but is also hard to understand. Opposing views can confuse racialised ethnic-minority citizens and disadvantaged Anglo-Australian citizens who struggle to survive or are fearful and uncertain about the future.

Many non-Indigenous people have limited interactions with First Nations people. My research in Darwin showed when some non-Indigenous people interact with disadvantaged Indigenous people, there can be instantaneous judgements made that are incorrect. Stereotypes and racist ideas can be reinforced by a single encounter, but more engagement dispels these views.

Irresponsible media reporting has been disappointing. At Professor Marcia Langton’s National Press Club event she highlighted ignorance about Indigenous peoples/Indigenous matters within the broader public. However, journalists present perhaps showed responsibility when they asked ‘how would it possible to change a ‘soft no’ to yes’. There was also an address by Liberal Party Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price which created media headlines. I respect her views, but I found the arguments on colonialism surprising and unsettling given my research on everyday experiences of the most disadvantaged and racialised Indigenous peoples, including members of the Stolen Generation. I need to think more.

In the lead up to voting day, how can, or are, geographers contributing to public discussions around the referendum and potential impact of the Voice?

There are many ways geographers can get involved, participate and be heard. First, to get involved with many of the exciting e-events and public debates that will strengthen the collective voice for change e.g. speaking at public forums, engaging on social media etc. Second, through increased visibility and participation in collective events held in public spaces such as the street e.g. walks and rallies that speak for Country. Third, publish and share opinion pieces and research.

Geographers can participate in Indigenous-led creative collaborative events that share knowledge and invite the broader public to join in Indigenous struggles for sacred Land and Sea Country. For example, the RMIT project Wild Hope: Conversations for a Planetary Commons - RMIT Design Hub. One of the organisers of the 6-week event, running from 15 August to 30 September 2023, is geographer Professor Wendy Steele.

'To follow the Old Ways' (Tyama Wata Pootnooyt Tharn) on 6 September, was part of Wild Hope. It was led by Gunditjmara Senior Knowledge Custodian Vicki Couzens, RMIT Vice Chancellor’s Indigenous Research Fellow. It included an art installation and performance by Yuin Bidjera singer, song-writer and musician Robert Bundle and a panel discussion. Indigenous knowledge holders including artists, activists and scientists focused on whale ancestors (koontapool – southern right whale), sacred whale Songlines, whale migratory routes and the impacts from seismic blasting and anthropogenic climate in Southern Sea Country.

Wild Hope has been an opportunity for me to listen and interact with First Nations people and feel their love for and from Sea Country. Feeling this love affects how I vote. The highlight for me was the performance by Yuin Bidjera singer and song-writer Robert Bundle, conversations with Gunditjmara knowledge holder/custodian Yaraan Bundle and Mardudhunera traditional custodian Raelene Cooper. Yaraan is the Creative Director of the Southern Ocean Protection Embassy Collective. Raelene is the spokesperson for Save our Songlines, Burrup Peninsula, Western Australia. Read about their struggle to protect Country and a statement.

The panellists responded to offerings (rather than questions), but there were none on the referendum. Perhaps this topic has become a sensitive political issue and the panellists/public want to refrain from this discussion – not sure. The referendum was not the focus of the panel. Maybe the ‘referendum talk’ creates fatigue and it’s far more important to engage in practices that enable participants to be touched by Country. When one is touched by Country voting behaviours can change. I know this as I’ve been touched deeply by Larrakia Sea Country (Garramilla/Darwin), Gunditjmara Sea Country (Victoria) and Yawuru Country (Rubibi/Broome).

Geographers can also participate in Indigenous-led activist rallies, sign petitions and call up elected leaders. For example, I’m passionate about the community advocacy to stop seismic testing. There is research showing the harmful impacts of seismic testing on whales and other marine life. I attended a rally on 15 September 2023 called ‘Rally for whale song not gas’.


Flyer advertising a rally. Credit: Dr Michele Lobo.


Image from the anti-seismic testing rally attended by Michele on 15 September 203. Credit: Dr Michele Lobo.

Geographers can write or talk about the pull of place/Country that privileges the voice of Indigenous geographers who work in solidarity with others. Researchers can send stories or do interviews with the media, submit articles in The Conversation and post to their social media.

A recent story in ABC Online discussed an interview with Senator Lidia Thorpe on Kitchen Cabinet. The story notes, 'cultural fatigue' (feeling like 'the default cultural consultant'. Another recent story highlighted the impact that referendum discussions were having on some Aboriginal people's mental health. What are your thoughts when reading these stories?

It made me think about this article in The Conversation by Dr Penny Taylor and co-authors. There are themes of fatigue, overload, burnout – of constantly educating the ‘white population’ – of white racism, guilt, white innocence and white ignorance.

I encountered these feelings in my research with Indigenous peoples in Garramilla/Darwin. Indigenous communities belong to many different Nations, but they must always be a spokesperson for all Indigenous peoples – impossible!

There are also tensions with ethnic minorities who may fear or misunderstand First Nations Peoples. Identity politics and racial heritage are important as Jacinta Nampijinpa Price says in The Age/comments article I cited earlier. The Age report (7 September 2023) by David Crowes says: “death threats and abuse are being aimed at the key advocates for a Yes Vote”.

I can understand the psychological distress given my encounters with Indigenous peoples most affected by the Northern Territory Intervention, many of whom lived in Aboriginal town camps in Garramilla/Darwin. It seems that the public does not care about their Country, their lives and their futures.

But perhaps there is also the desire to take collective responsibility as I’ve seen this through my research with NGOs/humanitarian-aid organisations in Garramilla/Darwin. But people also ask, ‘what can I do?’ They should work it out themselves rather than ask Indigenous peoples.

I also note that media articles in The Conversation are read and written by academics – the broader public might not read these articles. Young people get information from social media and online stories e.g. Instagram, TikTok and others. There are opportunities to reach out to youth and broader public through other platforms.

What do you see as the main policy-making, legislative and social impacts of the Voice?

The creation of an Indigenous advisory body who can participate in a decisions, policies and laws will have positive social and economic impacts on the lives of First Nations people and so-called Australian Country. It can address racial abuse, prevent interventionist policies (e.g. Northern Territory Intervention, 2007) and ‘close the gap’ between Indigenous/non-Indigenous peoples in areas of health.

It will also have the capacity to protect sacred Indigenous Songlines, ancestral Laws of Country and strengthen Indigenous-led initiatives such as ranger programs that care for Land/Sea Country.

There is the potential to positively impact environmental legislation including legislation on extractive industries on Country (such as mining, offshore energy/gas extraction by global companies) and legislation that protects Indigenous cultural heritage.

What is the Voice Referendum and what are we voting for? ‘The Voice Explained’ via ABC News. Carly Williams and Fran Kelly discuss the referendum, Voice and campaign.

About Dr Michele Lobo

Read more about Dr Michele Lobo at her Deakin University profile.

Recently, Michele has co-authored an article with Dr Meg Parsons, on Sea Country called ‘Decolonizing ocean spaces: Saltwater co-belonging and responsibilities’.

You can follow and connect with Michele on LinkedIn and X (formerly known as Twitter).

Enrol to vote or update your details

Head the Australian Electoral Commission website to update your electoral details, enrol to vote and to find out more about the referendum.

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