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What role will lawyers play in the Voice to Parliament referendum?

Within this term of Parliament, the Albanese government will hold a referendum on whether to enshrine an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice in the Australian Constitution. Given the widespread support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart from law firms and legal associations alike in recent years, what advocacy — if any — can we expect from the legal profession in the looming debate?

user iconJess Feyder 06 October 2022 Big Law
What role will lawyers play in the Voice to Parliament referendum?
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Profession-wide support in recent years

Since the unveiling of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, institutions across Australia’s legal profession have professed support for reconciliation via such means. 

In mid-2018, independent bar associations came together to issue their support for the Uluru Statement and was shortly followed by the Australian Lawyers Alliance. Early last year, the Association of Corporate Counsel also pledged its support.


In March 2019, 18 law firms — Allens, Arnold Bloch Leibler, Ashurst, Baker McKenzie, Clayton Utz, Corrs Chambers Westgarth, Dentons, DLA Piper, Fisher Dore, Gilbert + Tobin, Herbert Smith Freehills, Holding Redlich, Jackson McDonald, King & Wood Mallesons, Lander & Rogers, MinterEllison, Norton Rose Fulbright and Russell Kennedy — signed a joint statement outlining their firms’ support for the Uluru Statement. 

Elsewhere, commitments have been made by the Law Council of Australia and Sydney Law School, among other institutions in the legal profession. 

Recently, the five-year anniversary of the issuing of the Uluru Statement was marked.

With the new federal government set to hold a referendum in the coming financial year on the proposed Indigenous Voice to Parliament, Lawyers Weekly spoke with the law firms and organisations about their advocacy efforts, or otherwise, and the important role the profession will play as that referendum approaches.

Planned advocacy moving forward

“We are eager to see a successful referendum result and the realisation of a Voice to Parliament that guarantees the participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives in national policy and decision-making processes,” said Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) national president Genevieve Henderson.

“The ALA echoes calls for a referendum process that encourages community debate about constitutional reform, and we believe that this is where the role of lawyers becomes important.

“We expect that many voters will rely on those who have expertise in the Constitution and public law reform, as well as those who can clearly explain the legislative technicalities, to assist them to understand what they will be asked to vote on,” said Ms Henderson.

The ALA plans to take an active role in campaigning towards a successful outcome for the referendum through education and clear public messaging about the legal processes involved, she said.

“This includes education on the function of the Voice itself and how it will operate to ensure the participation of First Nations peoples in the decision-making process on laws that impact their lives and communities,” said Ms Henderson.

The legal sector will also play a significant role in helping Australians address the legal aspects of misinformation, added Ian Robertson AO, national managing partner at Holding Redlich.

“We recognise the importance of listening to and acknowledging the leadership of First Nations peoples on proposed constitutional reforms,” Mr Robertson noted.

And, we stand ready to offer our expertise and support where it might be needed.”

Dr Matt Collins AM KC, president of the Australian Bar Association (ABA), said that its members have been updated on issues relating to the implementation of the Uluru Statement by Professor Megan Davis and Tony McAvoy SC.

Dr Collins noted that the ABA looks forward to contributing to the national debate in the lead-up to the proposed referendum.

A successful referendum will be a source of national unity for Australia, Gilbert + Tobin (G+T) said in a statement to Lawyers Weekly. 

G+T managing partner Danny Gilbert is a member of the From the Heart campaign; he has forcefully advocated for a referendum, along with chairing the Business Council Australia’s Indigenous Engagement Taskforce.

G+T hosts functions on an ongoing basis with guest speakers promoting Constitutional Recognition of the Voice. 

Sarah Morton-Ramwell, partner and global head of pro bono and social impact at Ashurst, said that the commitment to advance the process under the Albanese government has produced an outpouring of support across the Australian legal landscape.

It will be essential to work in collaboration across the legal landscape of Australia, she added. 

She noted that Ashurst is continually developing educational resources, in the form of webinars, podcasts, and events, and amplifying messaging from First Nations Peoples.

“We are committed to listening to and actioning the solutions provided by First Nations Peoples, in deep respect of lived experience,” she said. 

KWM continues to host large-scale events to elevate the voices of First Nations leaders, having made a submission to the Australian government’s Indigenous Voice Co-Design Process, which Lander & Rogers has also done. 

KWM is set to deliver in-person training in each of their Australian centres for partners and staff to increase awareness of the topic; they also regularly provide them with a range of materials and news articles.  

Baker McKenzie and Allens are planning similar educational programs to deepen understanding of the topic across their firms. 

Lander & Rogers actively promotes constitutional change and elevate the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, by holding firmwide seminars and external briefings by First Nations experts, updating and informing various part of the firm and the broader legal profession, said Joanna Renkin, partner in community and environment and pro bono.

The firm actively contributes to Australia’s effort to recognise, understand, and repair the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the wider Australian community, added Ms Renkin. 

The University of Sydney Law School declared they would serve as a forum for debate rather than act as a participant in the debate. They encourage academics and disciplinary communities to engage with the issue and express their views. 

The Sydney Peace Foundation (a foundation of the University of Sydney) announced the Uluru Statement from the Heart as the 2021–22 Peace Prize recipient.

Most of the firms and organisations outlined plans to educate staff and members about the value and role of the Voice. They also seek to ignite frequent and open discussions on the topic and encourage people to engage with colleagues, family, and friends to build awareness of the issue.

Trent Wallace, First Nations lead at Ashurst, noted the importance of building resilience and placing emphasis on wellbeing for First Nations Peoples during the referendum. 

“Whilst there was a strong and united front for the marriage equality vote, we also witnessed the mental health impacts that came from discrimination against the broader LGBT+ community during this time.

“It is important that advocates work together to build strong support for First Nations Peoples,” said Mr Wallace. 

​​Lawyers Weekly also contacted Clayton Utz, Corrs Chambers Westgarth, Dentons, DLA Piper, Herbert Smith Freehills, MinterEllison, Norton Rose Fulbright, the Law Society of NSW, and the Association of Corporate Counsel Australia to find out what advocacy they are planning, given their support for the Uluru Statement in recent years, but received no response by the time of filing this story.