The contrast with Thorpe should not be overdone because Cox is her own person. And she is like Thorpe in wanting to achieve a treaty for First Nations and a truth-telling process to be honest about the past. Crucially, however, she has a different way to get there.
The gulf over the referendum is dividing those who see the Voice as a barrier or a pathway to change, with Indigenous women hugely influential on this essential question. Progressives like Thorpe want to proceed directly to a treaty. Conservatives like Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, the Country Liberal Party senator for the Northern Territory, want practical help and see the Voice as a bureaucracy that would get in the way.
Is the Voice a brick wall or a staircase? Cox has an argument that could influence Australians as the referendum nears.
“If we can land this right, the Voice will be a unifying moment,” she says. “Now, in negotiating a sovereign treaty in the future, which is ultimately our aim, we have to tell the truth about what the situation looks like.”
Telling the truth about colonial history, she says, is central to this. “We require voices through a Voice model that allows us to speak, and allows us to have agency in that because for 230 years we haven’t.”
So the Voice is a step towards treaty and truth-telling. Cox does not see it as a threat to her sovereignty, which she regards as her birthright and something she has never ceded, and instead believes the Voice can be a practical way to improve conditions for Indigenous people. She cites Alice Springs as proof of the failure of the old approach.
“We have to understand that this is a byproduct of trauma from our history,” she says of the troubles in Alice Springs. “We have to grasp the concept of it being important to restore voice and agency as a minimum, and we have to get the long game of treaty. We have to make sure that we are bringing treaty closer.
“I feel like we’re at a turning point in this nation. And that’s why I say it could be a unifying moment.”
Cox still admires Keating and remembers his Redfern speech. So why isn’t she a Labor senator? She joined the ALP but only stayed for six months; she says the branch meetings made her feel invisible and did not seem like grassroots democracy. Soon she was in touch with Greens senator Rachel Siewert, who became a mentor. When Siewert chose to step down, Cox won the October 2021 preselection to replace her.
Personal stories shape politics. Cox comes to the Voice referendum with lived experience that gives her real authority in the debate.
Her first step on that path after her visit to Canberra in 1994 led her to real heartache. She chose to join the police force – a decision that shocked her grandmother, who asked: “Are you going to take children away?” She did not. Over the next eight years, however, she saw children taken from their families and realised the immense difficulty of trying to change the institution from the inside.
She says she was young and naive when she signed on as a cop. She left the force to become a Centrelink official, became more interested in public policy and set her sights on politics.
Australians are often told about another former cop in parliament, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton. He cited his decade of police experience this week as part of his explanation for boycotting the apology to the stolen generations in 2008.
Now voters have another former cop to listen to on Indigenous affairs. And she’s in favour of the Voice.
Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.