Following the referendum’s defeat, Kyam Maher is determined to make South Australia’s Voice a success

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jun6,2024
In the wake of last year’s bruising referendum campaign, which saw the proposal of a First Nations Voice to Parliament rejected, Kyam Maher heard a repeated refrain.
“‘What do we do now Kyam?'” he says he was asked.
“‘Where do we go to from here?'”
For a proponent of the Voice, it was a difficult question.
But Maher, South Australia’s attorney general, and the first Indigenous person to hold such a post anywhere in the country, had an offer of hope.
“To be able to say, ‘Well Aunt, Uncle: we’ve got the South Australian First Nations Voice to Parliament.’

“It’s almost taken on a greater importance, because this is what we’ve got to hold onto.”

The family business

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A young Maher in Mount Gambier with his mother, stalwart Aboriginal activist Aunty Viv Maher.

Climbing to the highest echelons of South Australian politics might seem a far cry from Maher’s regional origins.

Growing up in Mount Gambier, an interest in sport offered a way in to the area’s rich community spirit.
But it was his parents’ activism that provided the greatest influence on the young Maher, as he told Living Black’s Karla Grant.
“Certainly my mum (Aunty Viv Maher) would’ve been the biggest influence.
“She was the chair of the local Aboriginal health service in Mount Gambier for a while; a NAIDOC Award winner in Mount Gambier and a life-member of the Labor Party.”
“That passion she had for social justice and for her community … was instilled in me. She did it on a one-on-one basis, changing people’s lives directly by working with them.

“The field I’m in, it’s more adjusting the settings to allow better things to happen.”

Enforcing the colony’s law?

After studying law and economics at the University of Adelaide, Maher worked his way through the Crown Solicitor’s office.
Elected to office in 2012, he served in the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio twice (with a change of government between), before rising to the post of attorney general in 2022.
Though feted for his historic appointment, the milestone was not without its detractors.
“I had some Aunties and Uncles say ‘Do you think attorney general’s the right fit Kyam? The laws of the state and the colony before have done so much harm to Aboriginal people.’
“But I think that’s part of the reason why it’s so important. It is those laws of, yes, the state of South Australia, the colony that preceded it, that have done so much to disadvantage and dispossess Aboriginal people.
“It’s those laws that we need to use to make those substantial changes.”

It’s why Maher says he is now so focussed on delivering the state’s Voice to Parliament.

Leading the country

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Maher is determined to deliver a treaty in consultation with the state’s Voice to Parliament.

Just months before last year’s referendum, the Malinauskas Labor government legislated the nation’s first Indigenous parliamentary advisory body, as called for by the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Following the referendum’s decisive defeat, including in South Australia, there were concerns that commitment to the state body might waver.
“I think many Aboriginal people were extraordinarily disappointed. But we made that commitment, and we are keen to get on with South Australia.”

The state held its first elections for the Voice in March, and the body will be formally appointed later this year.

Maher is upbeat about its prospects.
“I think it’ll have a quite a significant impact,” he said.
“After a couple of decades working in Aboriginal affairs, one thing I am absolutely certain of, and one thing that there is an abundance of evidence around the world for is: you get better decisions when those who whose your decisions affect, are involved in making those decisions.”
For Maher, there is a clear priority for the Voice’s first order of business.
“We will consult with the Voice about what the processes might be to restart the treaty process,” he said.

The state’s treaty process, started by Maher while Aboriginal Affairs minister, was abandoned by Stephen Marshall’s Liberal government in 2018.

As the Voice is only a legislated act of government, rather than a permanent change to the constitution as was sought by the national Voice, Maher says it is a reality that the state body could suffer a similar fate should there be a change of government.
“It’s always a worry that something … that could fundamentally make such a difference; by listening to people who your decision making effects, could be scrapped.
“But that is the nature of the process that we have. I’m keen to see the South Australian Voice up and running.”
Watch Living Black weekly from Monday 22 April at 8.30pm on NITV and on SBS from Tuesday 23 April at 10.30pm.

Living Black will also be available to stream for free on SBS On Demand and will be subtitled in Arabic, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese.

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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