Senior Australian of the Year Tom Calma says he's educating not campaigning on the Voice

Natalie Vikhrov
July 24 2023 - 5:30am
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From his announcement in January as our Senior Australian of the Year to the referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament expected in October, 2023 has been a momentous year for Professor Tom Calma.

As a member of the Council of Elders, the Indigenous academic and human rights campaigner has also been working to assist the federal government in implementing the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aged Care.

He was recently appointed to the newly formed Aged Care Taskforce, which will explore how to fund the system into the future.

Co-author of the Voice co-design process report with fellow Indigenous leader and academic Marcia Langton, Professor Calma's work on the structure of the proposed advisory body helped secure him the Australian of the Year award.

But the Kungarakan Elder said he said was not able to campaign for the Voice under the Senior Australian of the Year banner.


Instead, he focuses on educating Australians about the Voice to help them make "an informed decision". He has passionately spoken out against misinformation and disinformation surrounding the proposal, something that he believes is getting worse.

"That's the frustration for me," he said.

Senior Australian of the Year for 2023 Professor Tom Calma. Picture by Karleen Minney
Senior Australian of the Year for 2023 Professor Tom Calma. Picture by Karleen Minney

"Some of the speeches made by politicians, it's very concerning, that they're promoting information that is hypothetical and totally misleading to people."

The constitutional alteration bill passed the Senate in June, many hailing it as the moment the debate moved out of Parliament and into the community.

Professor Calma said he was confident that informing communities was the key to getting them behind the proposal.

"There's nothing to fear, this is only a positive move," he said. "It's going to be better for Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people, which will have a flow on effect for all people who are minority groups, because if it works for us, it'll work for others and, over time, it will be cost-saving."

He said the Voice was about people with personal experience offering support to the government.

"It is not about dictating what the government can do," he said.


"This is not a veto right or anything else. This is just advice to help government to implement their programs to get better policies so they can have a tangible and positive impact for Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people."

Professor Calma's work to improve the lives of First Nations Australians spans decades.

He was Race Discrimination Commissioner from 2004 to 2009 and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner from 2004 to 2010. His Social Justice Report led to the establishment of the Closing the Gap campaign.

He says he steers his energies into speaking and committee work, something that isn't always visible in the public domain but "it's all to advance those causes".

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Natalie Vikhrov

Natalie Vikhrov

Federal politics and public service reporter

Natalie Vikhrov reports on federal politics and public service for The Canberra Times. Prior to this, she spent several years covering human rights in Eastern Europe, including Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Get in touch via