‘I’m here to change the country’: Albanese launches an uncompromising Indigenous voice plan

It’s on. On Thursday, the Albanese government leapt a major hurdle in the long run to a successful referendum on an Indigenous voice to parliament at the end of the year.

After a flurry of late night meetings with his referendum working group – including a robust exchange of views about the amendment and the question, and furious and inaccurate public speculation about concessions and compromises – the final form of words announced on Thursday has not shifted significantly from the one Albanese announced at the Garma festival in July last year.

This is a win for the working group, who have steadfastly opposed any major changes to the wording that would reduce the authority of the voice’s advice to government.

Related: Yes launch shifts voice conversation back to ‘where it belongs’ – away from politicians

Members were privately worried that any big concessions to constitutional conservatives would make the resulting proposition impossible to support or defend to their own communities, and risk failure. Appeasement, they said, was pointless. Critics of the voice would always find another thing to rail against. It seems their message was received.

“I’m here to change the country,” Albanese told the press conference. “We’ll feel better about ourselves if we just get this done.”

Albanese was visibly moved in making the announcement, at times choking back tears and pausing to gather himself. The Indigenous affairs minister, Linda Burney, who was 10 years old before Australians voted in a referendum to include her as a citizen of the country, cried too.

The PM was surrounded by some of the “giants” of Indigenous Australia, many of them having spent decades of their lives fighting for the rights of their people.

Prof Marcia Langton said: “Each one of us here has been involved in a major initiative. The royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody. The inquiry into the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families. The Don Dale royal commission.

“I could go on and on. And in each case we have doggedly recommended changes to stop the deaths, the incarceration, the early deaths, and the miserable lives and it is so infrequently that our recommendations are adopted,” she told journalists.

“And each year, people like you come along to listen to that misery-fest. And each year, people go away wringing their hands.

“We’re here to draw a line in the sand and say this has to change.”

What has happened already?

The Albanese government has put forward the referendum question: "A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?"

The PM also suggested three sentences be added to the constitution:

  • There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.

  • The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;

  • The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.

How would it work?

The voice would be able to make recommendations to the Australian parliament and government on matters relating to the social, spiritual and economic wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The voice would be able to table formal advice in parliament and a parliamentary committee would consider that advice. But all elements would be non-justiciable, meaning that there could not be a court challenge and no law could be invalidated based on this consultation.

How would it be structured?

The Indigenous voice co-design report recommended the national voice have 24 members, encompassing two from each state, the Northern Territory, ACT and Torres Strait. A further five members would represent remote areas and an additional member would represent Torres Strait Islanders living on the mainland.

Members would serve four-year terms, with half the membership determined every two years.

For more detail, read our explainer here.

There was one absolute giant of the movement who could not be there, but who was clearly firmly in their minds. Yolngu leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu, who as a young man helped create the first bark petition presented to the Australian parliament in 1963, is receiving end-of-life care at his home in north-east Arnhem Land.

Tearfully, Langton said that Yunupingu taught her many years ago that “you know when you’re being told the truth, because the truth burns”.

She encouraged people to seek the truth ahead of the national vote on a voice to parliament.

Yunupingu has seen off no less than 10 prime ministers in his lifelong struggle for recognition and rights, and countless disappointments and broken promises.

In the Gumatj dialect of the Yolngu Matha language Yunupingu means “the rock that stands against time”. Among his totems are fire and baru, the saltwater crocodile.

Related: Coalition considers backflip to support Labor referendum changes after last-minute negotiations

“I am fire,” he has said in the past, “and that fire must burn until there is nothing left.”

His fire was in evidence on Thursday, as the nation began what many on the stage sincerely believe is a new relationship with First Nations people.

When Albanese travelled to the Garma festival to kick off this momentous process, Yunupingu was in a wheelchair at the side of the stage, listening to his 11th prime minister, and a speech full of promises. At the end, Albanese stepped down and went directly to Yunupingu and took his hand.

Those close by heard Yunupingu ask Albanese if he really meant it. Albanese reportedly said yes.

So far, he has kept his word.

Anthony Albanese shakes hands with Yothu Yindi Foundation chair Galarrwuy Yunupingu his speech to Indigenous leaders, campaigners and advocates at the Garma festival in July last year.
Anthony Albanese shakes hands with Yothu Yindi Foundation chair Galarrwuy Yunupingu after his speech at the Garma festival in July last year. Photograph: Aaron Bunch/EPA