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Explainer: The Voice to Parliament

Updated: Sep 29, 2023


On October 14, all eligible Australians will be asked to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to alter the Constitution and establish an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament. For those of us younger than 42, this will be the first time we vote in a referendum - and it’s a big one.


Melbourne March for Yes, September 17 (Photo by Sofia Jayne)

Whether this referendum passes or not, the outcome of our decision will have a significant impact on Indigenous communities and our national identity. That’s why it’s important to make sure that whichever way we choose to vote, our decisions are well-informed.


Understanding the referendum process and conflicting debates amidst the influx of misinformation that have been circulating in the media can be hard to navigate. So, The Swanston Gazette has broken down the main points you need to know, and later in this article, we’ve asked two Indigenous leaders to explain the differing sides of the debate.


But first, let’s understand the basics.

What is a referendum?

A referendum is a national vote by the Australian people to alter the Constitution. The Australian Constitution is Australia’s rulebook that came into place in 1901, establishing us as a self-governing nation and not just a British colony. Besides some Indigenous people in South Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were not involved in the discussions that led to the formation of the Constitution, nor its drafting.

The only way to change the Constitution is to hold and pass a referendum, and that can only be done by achieving a double majority. That means that the question needs the support of both a majority of people, and a majority of states.





The Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory are, however, not included in the second counting. The reason for this is that they were purposefully excluded from the process, as populations in the states were given higher regard. In 1977, a referendum was passed to give territories half the voting rights and allow them to be counted in the National Majority, which is what they have now.

This is particularly important to draw attention to in this referendum, as more than 30 per cent of the NT population identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.

Australia has had 44 referendums since 1901 and only eight have passed. One of the most successful in Australia’s history, passing with 90.77 per cent support, was the 1967 referendum which allowed Indigenous people, like all other Australians, to be counted in the population and for the Federal Government to make laws on their behalf.

The last time Australians were asked to vote in a referendum was in 1999 to become a republic, which failed. For those of us too young to have experienced a referendum, we might remember the 2017 plebiscite, where Australians were asked to send in a postal vote to decide whether or not same-sex marriage should be legalised. Unlike with a referendum, a plebiscite cannot alter the constitution.


So what are we being asked in this referendum?


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?

What does that mean? It means that if a majority of Australians and a majority of states vote in support of it, the Constitution will be amended to enshrine an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament. It will also constitutionally recognise First Nations peoples as the traditional owners of this land for the first time.


What is the Voice to Parliament?

If passed, the Voice to Parliament would serve as an advisory body made up of Indigenous elders and representatives from communities around Australia, who would be able to make recommendations to the Federal Parliament on First Nations issues.

How would it work?

As the referendum question is simply asking whether the Voice should exist, details about its processes would be established, if it passes, through a regular parliamentary process. However, the First Nations Referendum Working Group, co-chaired by Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney and Senator Patrick Dodson are advising the government on the referendum and have produced a series of design principles that the Voice should follow.


These principles are as follows:

  • The Voice will give independent advice to the Parliament and Government

  • The Voice will be chosen by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people based on the wishes of local communities

  • The Voice will be representative of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, gender balanced and include youth

  • The Voice will be empowering, community-led, inclusive, respectful and culturally informed

  • The Voice will be accountable and transparent

  • The Voice will work alongside existing organisations and traditional structures

  • The Voice will not have a program delivery function

  • The Voice will not have a veto power


Why aren’t we deciding on these details in the referendum?

As the Constitution can only be altered via referendum, these details cannot be included in the referendum question. If they were, it would mean that any time Australians would like to change a legislative detail, a referendum would have to be held.

However, some Australians argue that these details should be established before the Voice is introduced and the Constitution altered.



Why does it need to be in the Constitution?

Whilst there has been conflicting debate regarding the change, Indigenous activists have long pushed for constitutional recognition. The Constitution does not currently acknowledge First Nations peoples as the traditional owners of this land, because when the British invaded Australia, they declared it under the law of Terra Nullius – the land belonging to no-one. As First Nations long-established customs and lore were mainly unwritten, the British did not recognise them as valid laws, so they claimed the land was free for the taking.


Numerous advisory bodies like the Voice have existed before, but without being enshrined in the Constitution they were easily dismissed by the next government. The longest lasting body was the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), which operated from 1990 until it was abolished by the Howard government in 2005. Enshrining the Voice in the Constitution provides more stability and protects the body from changing governments.


Where did this idea come from?

Whilst the October 14 referendum is being introduced by the current Albanese Labor Government, the concept of the Voice was proposed by the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

What is the Uluru Statement from the Heart?

It is a statement produced from the coming together of First Nations people in a series of twelve Regional Dialogues with over 1200 people and a First Nations National Constitutional Convention of 250 people. These Dialogues were held from December 2016 to May 2017 by the Referendum Council, appointed by the Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Former Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten.

The Statement called for constitutional recognition through the establishment of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament and with the implementation of a Makarrata Commission.

“We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution,” the Statement says.

“Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.”


‘Makarrata’ is a Yolngu word resembling treaty and the purpose of the Makarrata Commission would be to supervise agreements made between First Nations Peoples and the Government to establish treaty and truth-telling.


The statement calls for a three-step process:

  1. Voice – the establishment of an Indigenous Voice to Parliament enshrined in the Constitution.

  2. Treaty – formal agreements made between First Nations communities and Government that acknowledge First Nations self-determination and sovereignty.

  3. Truth – a process of retelling the truth of Australia’s history and the injustice inflicted upon First Nations Peoples.


Whilst the Uluru Statement from the Heart may be viewed as a union of First Nations communities, it is important to note that some Indigenous voices have claimed that it does not provide a fair representation of all communities and are sceptical of its processes.



What have other countries done?


Whilst Indigenous representation in parliament might be a new idea to many, different models exist in a variety of countries. New Zealand reserves seven seats in their parliament just for Māori ministers, as well as having the option to be elected on the general roll. Their founding document the Treaty of Waitangi, with its many controversies, was made as an agreement between Indigenous communities and the Crown.


Since 1989, Norway has had the Sámi Parliament, a democratically elected indigenous parliament that deals with issues concerning the Sámi people. It operates quite similarly to Australia’s proposed Voice to Parliament, as a consultative body designed to represent indigenous people and provide advice to the Norwegian Government. Sámi parliaments now also exist in Finland and Sweden.



So what are the different opinions in this referendum, and who is campaigning for and against it?

What do the parties think?

As the current party in office and the government responsible for the referendum, the Labor Party supports the Voice. The Greens also support it, however, Former Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe quit to become an independent back in February, calling for treaty before Voice.

The Liberals, Nationals and Country Liberal Party are all opposed to the Voice, but some Ministers have expressed their support for it and have crossed the bench to become independents.


The Official Referendum Booklet?

All Australians should have received the Official Referendum Booklet in the mail from the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC). The arguments for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ written in this pamphlet were produced by the ministers of parliament who support and oppose the referendum question. However, there are more campaigns and organisations with a variety of views.


Who are the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigners?

Campaigns were launched earlier in the year for both sides of the debate. Whilst the ‘yes’ campaign have been largely united over the Uluru Statement from the Heart and a call for a constitutionally recognised Voice to Parliament, the ‘no’ side has both a conservative and progressive perspective.


Yes

Yes23 is the national ‘yes’ campaign, a coalition of organisations led by Danny Gilbert and Rachel Perkins who co-chair Australians for Indigenous Constitutional Recognition. The board is also directed by Indigenous and non-Indigenous lawyers, journalists, activists, unionists, economists, and former politicians, including Tanya Hosch, Thomas Mayo and Noel Pearson.


There are also numerous Indigenous organisations supporting and campaigning for the Voice, notably The Uluru Statement from the Heart, Indigenous Desert Alliance, The First Peoples Assembly of Victoria, and Reconciliation Australia. As well as an alliance of not-for-profits, trade unions, banks, education institutions and some of the country’s biggest corporations, as members of the Reconciliation Action Plans.


More than 50 national health organisations have also signed a statement pledging their support for the Voice, such as Cancer Council Victoria, the Australian Nursing Midwifery Federation, Diabetes Victoria and First Peoples' Health and Wellbeing.

Musicians and prominent figures have also come out in support of the Voice, with rapper Briggs rallying support by initiating the ‘Now and Forever’ music festival, which will feature Paul Kelly, Baker Boy and Barkaa.



No

When it comes to the ‘no’ side, there are numerous debates and reasonings that people are opposing the Voice. Fair Australia is the major ‘no’ campaign, led by Liberal Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Businessman and Former Politician Warren Mundine. Their views align with those written on the official pamphlet and they believe the Voice to be divisive by race and dangerous, as they claim it has not been thought through and will “open the door for activists”. However conflicting interests have recently broken out, as Mundine said that he supports the push for treaties and changing Australia Day, which is largely opposed by Senator Price and the ‘no’ camp.

Another prominent figure in the media for her hesitance against the Voice is Senator Lidia Thorpe who has advocated for the Blak Sovereign Movement. Senator Thorpe has argued for a treaty before a Voice and called for more action in response to the Bringing Them Home Report, an inquiry into the hardships of Indigenous children who were forcibly removed from their families.

Senator Thorpe recently said that she may pull back from her hesitant stance on the Voice if Prime Minister Anthony Albanese agrees to take action on the report before referendum day.



How are they funded?


Although the government is funding the referendum process and neutral education programs, it cannot by law fund campaigns on either side of the debate, meaning they must rely on donations.


Yes23 have received funding from philanthropists, major companies and the general public. Fair Australia has also received such donations, whilst primarily being funded by conservative lobby group Advance.


These campaigns and dominant voices are those mostly represented in the media, but there are many more organisations and people talking. We spoke to two local Victorian Indigenous leaders about their perspectives on the referendum.



What do local Victorian Indigenous leaders think about the Voice?

Djaran Murray-Jackson is a Dja Dja Wurrung man and Member of the First People’s Assembly of Victoria (the Assembly), the independent and democratically elected body to represent Indigenous communities in the state.

Operating since 2019, the Assembly helped establish the Yoorook Justice Commission, which has begun the process of truth-telling. The Assembly have also agreed on a negotiation framework with the Victorian Government, allowing treaty discussions to commence by the end of 2023 – making Victoria the first state to have actioned the Voice, Treaty and Truth elements of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Murray-Jackson said he is supporting the Voice to Parliament because although we are lucky in Victoria, other states aren’t as lucky as us.

“I think the national Voice will be good for other states to strengthen their voice and get their processes along the way,” Murray-Jackson told The Swanston Gazette.

He agreed with the general consensus of the ‘yes’ campaign in regard to constitutional recognition, as he said this would provide the Voice with more stability and protect it from abolition, as the Howard Government did with ATSIC.


“And it’s about coming together as well as a nation. I feel like we haven't been properly recognised at all across the whole country. So, this is the first step in the right direction,” he said.


Keiran Stewart-Assheton is a Yuin man and President of the Black Peoples Union (BPU), an organisation affiliated with the Blak Sovereign Movement (BSM), which aims to empower Indigenous people through the pursuit of full self-determination and sovereignty.


Stewart-Assheton does not support the Voice and his major concern is with the element of constitutional recognition, but he said the media often portrays the progressive ‘no’ as simply thinking the Voice isn’t enough.


“We [BPU] don't want to be a part of the Constitution, because we see the Constitution and the Australian colony itself as an illegal occupation of our land,” Stewart-Assheton told The Swanston Gazette.


“We reject the legitimacy of the Australian occupation. We reject the legitimacy of the Constitution. But not only that, the Constitution itself is a very racist, backwards document.”


Murray-Jackson said he understood concerns about constitutional recognition.


“It's actually quite a strong argument and I sort of half agree with it, but we're in the Victorian constitution here and the sky didn't fall in,” he said.


“We're [the Assembly] looking at how we can coexist or co-design something with the state and that way we can live together.”


He said that although the Voice would be just an advisory body with limited power, it is a step towards making change.


“We are the rightful owners of this land and we do deserve a lot more than that, but you know, sometimes you can't take everything all at once. You’ve got to do little steps and one at a time, and this is the first brave little step that we’ve got to take in the right direction,” he said.


When asked if progress can be made by amending the Constitution, BPU President Stewart-Assheton said that there’s only so much you can achieve by reforming a system that was built on the oppression of First Nations peoples.


“Its entire existence is completely dependent on our exploitation and oppression. So we don't see any way that we could reform a system which needs to exploit and oppress us in order to exist,” he said.


It’s also that the BPU doesn't want to reform the Constitution, as the Australian Constitution is only 122 years old and Indigenous cultures and governance structures date back more than 60,000 years.


“Why would we give up 60,000 years of governance for what is essentially a juvenile and immature colony?”


Instead, Stewart-Assheton said the BPU are working towards building a Pan-Aboriginal movement across the continent that seeks to unite Indigenous people and achieve a stronger bargaining position to be able to demand more from the government, including self-determination and land rights.


“Full self-determination for us means the complete control over all of our political, social, economic and cultural affairs. It would mean that Black affairs are put back into Black hands,” he said.


Assembly Member Murray-Jackson has also spent a lot of time building connections amongst Indigenous communities. As an Assembly Member, he visited all of the correctional facilities in the state to encourage First Nations peoples to enrol and vote during elections. He said he saw what some of the most vulnerable people were going through and he hopes that the Voice can help improve issues such as justice.


“It'll be a body at the national level that can come together…Hopefully we'll see the closing of the gap and an improvement of lives and you'll start seeing Aboriginal people thrive a bit more, and when we thrive the rest of Australia thrives,” he said.



If the content in this article has been distressing in any way, the following helplines can be good places to start in finding support:


13YARN (13 92 76) - 24/7 Indigenous helpline




More resources:


For yes:


For no:


More:



Lots more Voice coverage by Indigenous-led media:







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