When COVID struck our shores, a group of experts came out and reassured the nation daily on what numbers meant, what the issues were.

While the measures used to attempt to reduce the spread of COVID 19 were varied and the subject of great controversy, academic experts provided clear leadership in guiding public debate and calling out misinformation.

As public attention has moved, those temporarily famous experts are hopefully getting a much deserved rest and there is some anecdotal evidence suggesting their employers have benefitted, building esteem for their universities as valued repositories of knowledge.

As the nation’s universities gather in the figurative shadow of a new Parliament at the Universities Australia conference this week, the news cycle has moved on to two major issues – the economy and the Voice.

Academic experts are engaged in news stories most days, providing insights about interest rates, inflationary outlooks and the limitations of modern monetary policy, but appear far less frequently in articles and broadcast discussions about the Voice.

The sector has accepted for decades that it must do more to increase educational opportunities and research outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

However, the sight of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous politicians publicly disagreeing on the future of the Voice before the specifics of the role and function of the Voice have even been determined appears to have silenced our sector.

Like COVID and the economy, we see an avalanche of news and opinions about the Voice, but few expert voices.

Why don’t we have the same on the next big national issue, the Voice? Is it that we lack expertise, or resolve? Like COVID-19 responses and theories about fighting inflation, there is no shortage of interest or misinformation about the Voice. There is no shortage of coverage. But academic voices are too infrequently heard so far. Perhaps the persistent under-representation of Aboriginal academic staff, making up just one per cent of the nation’s workforce, is part of the issue. But more expertise is required in a debate that is currently mired in partisan hyperbole.

At an institutional level, universities also need to consider their responsibility – and the sector must determine if silence is an acceptable approach, or whether the sector will take a collective position towards the principle of the Voice. Is it enough to be repositories of knowledge, or do we need to also demonstrate the existence of a moral compass?

This is not a call for a blinkered Yes campaign. But the issues of Indigenous recognition, long-term impacts of colonisation and the need for progressive change are not subject to a black and white divide. Since 1967 mainstream Australia commenced on a journey to publicly stand up for equity. The famous handful of sand that was poured from Gough Whitlam’s hand into Vincent Lingiari’s has become totemic in national culture marking progress in land rights. Mabo Day, Sorry Day, NAIDOC week and gathering momentum to revise Australia Day all point towards a nation maturing in its relationships with First Nations people and – despite the noise of the dog whistlers – committed to moving towards equity of opportunity, life expectancy and voice.

I personally support the Voice, I think it’s a step towards recognition that is long over due and a practical step that will be a valued nod to First Nations people.

But the fact that others do not favour the Voice is not a sign of weakness or concern – in fact that’s the strength of the concept. The few shouty voices who currently dominate the debate with their prefabricated and frequently vapid critiques should not be allowed to drown out the multitude of other voices, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who are keen to have a say.

This is not an issue that should be the sole responsibility of Indigenous academics and students – but rather every University community member, regardless of race, who cares about fairness, equity and representation.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are not homogeneous, but we have long-held traditions of listening and talking – a commitment to dialogue to build consensus and share wisdom. The university sector shares and can benefit from aspects of this approach to positively impact community. Standing back and pretending it’s an Indigenous issue is not an option.

The nomenclature of the Voice is potentially one of our biggest challenges – we are more than half a million people, each with nuanced views, rather than a cartoonish stereotype with a predetermined position on any one issue. This once in a generation opportunity is not to exert disproportionate influence on every issue, but to have a say, and be heard on issues that really matter to the future of First Nations Australians.

Be brave colleagues. You can’t always be popular, but this week you need to stand up and identify how you are going to start to be heard.

Maree Meredith is Pro Vice Chancellor, Indigenous Leadership, University of Canberra



to get daily updates on what's happening in the world of Australian Higher Education