The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, says the Australian people should be asked a “simple and clear” yes or no referendum question regarding whether an Indigenous voice to parliament should be enshrined in the constitution.
“We should consider asking our fellow Australians something as simple as ‘Do you support an alteration to the constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice?’” Albanese will say in a landmark speech at the Garma festival in Arnhem Land on Saturday.
This year’s Garma festival follows a two-year break due to the Covid pandemic. Albanese is the first prime minister to visit the festival since 2017.
Outlining a draft referendum question as well as a suggested three-sentence change to the constitution is a leap forward on the long-stalled campaign to implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
Albanese says he is putting forward the question as a “basis for dialogue”. It was not a final form of words but rather “something to give the conversation shape and direction”.
The Labor leader also outlines three sentences the government could propose to be added to the constitution as a “starting point” for dialogue alongside the yes/no question:
The parliament shall, subject to this constitution, have power to make laws with respect to the composition, functions, powers and procedures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
“These draft provisions can be seen as the next step in the discussion about constitutional change,” Albanese will say, according to a draft of Saturday’s speech. “This may not be the final form of words – but I think it’s how we can get to a final form of words.”
Albanese acknowledges there will be “misinformation and fear” that the yes campaign will need to counter. But he rejects criticism from some in the Coalition – including new Northern Territory senator Jacinta Price – that the voice would be “a nice piece of symbolism” when practical reform was needed.
He says it is possible for Australia to do both.
“Let us all understand: Australia does not have to choose between improving peoples’ lives and amending the constitution,” he will say on Saturday. “We recognise the risks of failure but we choose not to dwell on them – because we see this referendum as a magnificent opportunity.”
The theme of the 2022 Garma festival is Nhanga Ngathiilyura, which in Yolngu-matha means to look to the future. Albanese says the nation should approach the opportunity for momentous change with “humility and hope”.
“Humility because over 200 years of broken promises and betrayals, failures and false starts demand nothing less.
“Humility because – so many times – the gap between the words of balanda [whitefella] speeches and the deeds of governments has been as wide as this continent. And hope because I believe the tide is running our way, I believe the momentum is with us, as never before.”
The Garma festival always brings together an eclectic group of people. On Friday, in the red earth among a city of tents, the new US ambassador to Australia, Caroline Kennedy, and her security detail wandered past the coffee station busy with punters.
Albanese was accompanied by a bipartisan delegation from Canberra, including the attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, the Indigenous Australians minister, Linda Burney, and Labor’s two NT senators, Malarndirri McCarthy and Marion Scrymgour.
The Coalition’s spokesman on Indigenous Affairs, Julian Leeser, is also in attendance. The show of bipartisanship is being interpreted by some as a sign there may be support across the aisle for the referendum.
The Uluru statement has been discussed at Garma for a long time but never with such high hopes. The last prime minister to visit was Malcolm Turnbull in 2017, the same year he declared he could not support the voice as a “third chamber to parliament”.
About 2,000 Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have gathered at Gulkula, a site of great significance to Yolngu as the place where the ancestor Ganbulabula brought to life the yidaki (didgeridu).
Late on Friday afternoon, a large crowd assembled on the dance ground to hear Yolngu leadership officially open the ceremonies, in a powerful expression of manikay (music), bunggul (dance) and rom (law).
On Friday evening, senior Gumatji clan leaders including Galarrwuy Yunupingu presented Albanese with a yidaki as a gift.
Albanese stood and addressed the crowd, thanking them for this “important and personal” gift. “This will take pride of place in my new home,” he said. “I’ve moved back into public housing.”
The festival runs until Monday.