The course of our nation’s history is changing. On 14 October 2023, all Australians who are eligible must vote, but what for?
The proposed Voice to Parliament has resulted in a complex debate with many First Nations people and non-Indigenous Australians having strong opinions about it. For some, the Voice is an opportunity to provide culturally appropriate advice to the government of the day about how to navigate the strengths and challenges faced by First Nations communities around the country. There are many First Nations people and non-Indigenous Australians who believe that a ‘yes’ vote will provide a platform for the development of the Treaty and Truth recommendations of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
Yet for others, the fact that a Voice to Parliament is being actioned before the initiation of treaty-making across all states and territories, or even a more structured truth-telling process, is an issue. Some First Nations people and non-Indigenous Australians struggle to believe a Voice will make any difference to the lived experiences of First Nations people in their communities, especially given that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people only make up 3.8 per cent of the population, and non-Indigenous Australians of voting age are being asked to vote on something that may not have a direct impact on them.
"We have always had a voice, but we have never been listened to." – Vanessa Turnbull-Roberts (2023)
This is a crucial time for our country, and rather than being dismayed at the various positions on the Voice, we should celebrate the fact that in a democracy, contested ideas demonstrate freedom and opportunities to do our own learning to inform what decision we’ll make. Put simply, the Voice is complicated, and given the diversity of First Nations people and communities, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Currently, many people hold a strong ‘yes’ position, some find themselves neutral or unsure of where to stand, and others are against the Voice for various reasons. Many First Nations people differentiate their ‘no’ position as the ‘progressive no’ side with many seeing the importance of seeking treaty first. The fact that we see various camps forming and presenting their views tells us there’s no straightforward approach to a Voice to Parliament. But listening to the perspectives of many First Nations people, including the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in your local community, is necessary to make an educated and informed decision at the voting booth.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart
The Voice to Parliament campaign says “History is calling” all Australians, and it’s important to know your response to this statement.
In 2017, the Referendum Council released the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The Referendum Council is an official body that advises the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition on how best to work towards a successful referendum to see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people recognised in the Australian Constitution. The Uluru Statement is a working document that calls for three reforms: Voice, Treaty, Truth. Each of these reforms is underpinned by a desire to see more advocacy for First Nations people in all levels of government, including a Voice to the Australian Parliament. The reforms were selected by those who inform the Uluru Dialogue group – First Nations people and non-Indigenous Australians who work to educate the general public about the initiatives to advance the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The aim of the Uluru Dialogue group is to ensure all Australians not only hear the voices of First Nations people, but also understand why many people believe Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices have been silenced on issues that matter to them for too long. If we want to see the outcomes of real change in this country, it’s important that we, as a nation, understand the ways First Nations people have and continue to experience disadvantage and discrimination, and work towards listening and learning to enact meaningful change.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart calls for practical change by way of constitutional recognition of First Nations people, a Voice to Parliament and the establishment of a Makarrata Commission to facilitate treaty and agreement-making, and truth-telling about our nation’s history. Makarrata is a Yolngu word that roughly translates to “a coming together after a struggle” (Yulluna n.d.).
The Uluru Statement is guided by 10 principles in this document, which seek to maintain the momentum that came from the grassroots activism of the 20th century – particularly the changes achieved by Australia’s most successful referendum: the 1967 Referendum. On 27 May 1967, history was made when 90.77 per cent of Australians voted ‘yes’ to change Section 51 of the Constitution. This change allowed Federal Parliament to “make laws for peace, order and good government” (The Constitution 1900) for people of any race, and include all First Nations people in the national census. The Referendum Council (2017) noted that “In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard”. Through the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the Uluru Dialogue group propose that First Nations people have a voice in those laws and policies that are created by the power of Section 51. The call for structural reform through Voice, Treaty, Truth aims to increase the authority and self-determination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in matters that directly relate to First Nations people and their communities.
What's constitutional recognition?
Constitutional recognition of First Nations people has been a topic debated by various governments for many years. When Anthony Albanese was elected the 31st Prime Minister of Australia in May 2022, he announced his full support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and the Labor Government’s commitment to work with First Nations communities to deliver a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament.
Many Australians are unsure what a constitutionally enshrined Voice means for them, our country and for First Nations people. A Voice to Parliament is part of the first reform of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. A constitutionally enshrined Voice would mean Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have the opportunity to provide a Voice, to both the Parliament and Executive Government, about existing or proposed laws, policies and decisions that impact First Nations people. So, rather than politicians deciding what’s best for First Nations people, a Voice to Parliament would mean the government would do things with First Nations people rather than to or for First Nations people. When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can wholeheartedly be part of any decision making that affects their communities, we may see some real improvements to the lived experiences of First Nations people – including more meaningful and harmonious relationships between First Nations people and non-Indigenous Australians.
A Voice to Parliament won’t mean there’ll be a third chamber of Parliament. A Voice would be a body – individual or organisation – that works with the government of the day on laws and policies directly or indirectly affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
The details of how a Voice to Parliament is implemented will be decided if the referendum is successful. What we do know is that the Voice referendum asks for Australians to agree to the principle of a Voice to Parliament, so that if successful, consultation between the Parliament and First Nations working groups advancing the aims of Uluru Statement from the Heart, can then finalise the details. The Federal Government have proposed a new section to be added into our Constitution: "Chapter IX Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples 129 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia:
- 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.” (Dreyfus et al. 2023)
The proposed constitutional amendment will see the recognition of First Nations people as the First Peoples of Australia, and a guarantee that a body of First Nations representatives may make recommendations to the government of the day on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including how policies, procedures and powers may function.
Some First Nations people and non-Indigenous Australians argue that while we may not have all the details, the Voice is about the power that can be created to implement change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Like many other issues that face parliament, if something doesn’t work, the government will have the power to change legislation.
The proposed referendum
To have a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament, Australia’s Constitution will need to be amended. This can only be achieved through a referendum, where Australians aged 18 years and over are asked to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a Voice to Parliament. Before holding a referendum, the government first needs to introduce a bill in favour of having the referendum, which then needs to pass through both Houses of Parliament. Once the bill has successfully passed through the Houses, the government can set a date for the referendum, devise the question on the ballot paper, and roll out an education program to ensure all Australians are informed about their decision at the ballot box. The question Australians will be asked to vote on will be: “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?” (NIAA 2023). Now that the question for the Voice Referendum has been set, the government and Voice working groups can work together to roll-out education programs so Australians can be informed about the decision they’re being asked to make on 14 October 2023.
The referendum is not only for First Nations people, but all Australians because no matter the outcome, it will have an impact on our national identity. If it’s successful, the referendum will ensure the Voice remains a permanent part of our democracy, which in turn would make it more difficult for a future government to abolish the Voice without consulting First Nations people. The implementation of First Nations advocacy groups such as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission have been common for many decades, but councils have been abolished just as quickly as they’ve been created. If the Voice becomes legally enshrined, the Uluru Dialogue group will continue to facilitate community consultation with First Nations people and key stakeholders such as Members of Parliament and the Executive Government on decision making, and those who’ll represent a Voice as policies, laws and issues arise.
Stop and listen
The Uluru Statement from the Heart and a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament aims for a stronger sense of unity between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous Australians. Open and honest dialogue from the current government, Uluru Dialogue group, Yes23 and Referendum Council is necessary to address the concerns and fears held by the Australian public. As conversations about the Statement continue to unfold across media outlets and within communities, it’s important to check-in and listen to a range First Nations voices from your local community, and their positions on a Voice to Parliament.
To increase your understanding of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and to learn about ways to understand the differing perspectives of First Nations people during this time, access the Uluru Statement from the Heart website, or Thomas Mayor’s Finding the Heart of the Nation (2nd edn) for adults, or Finding Our Heart for young Australians. You can keep up to date with both sides of the debate by accessing articles written by First Nations people on the NITV website. You can also check-in with your local member of parliament to find out when the next local community forum about the Voice will be held.
Voice to Parliament or no Voice to Parliament, what’s being highlighted is that First Nations people do experience disadvantage, so the need for more meaningful opportunities to increase self-determination and autonomy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia is important. It’s now the time for all Australians to listen to and understand what First Nations people in their communities are seeking in order to make an informed decision at the voting booths in a few weeks time.
Author: Courtney Rubie, Wiradjuri woman in collaboration with Australians Together
Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia Act 1900 (Imp) 63 & 64 Vict, c 12 s9, Parliament of Australia website, accessed 4 April 2023.
Dreyfus M, Burney L, McCarthy M and Dodson P (30 March 2023) Constitution alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023 [media release], Australian Government, accessed 4 April 2023.
Massola J and L Visentin (2 August 2022) ‘Wyatt finds a voice on Indigenous referendum’, The Sydney Morning Herald, accessed 4 April 2023.
National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) (2023) Referendum on an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, NIAA website, accessed 4 April 2023.
Referendum Council (26 May 2017) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Peoples from across Australia make Historic Statement [media release], Referendum Council, accessed 4 April 2023.
Turnbull-Roberts V (2023) ‘We have always had a voice, but we have never been listened to’, The Guardian, accessed 7 September 2023.
Yulluna Aboriginal Corporation RNTBC (Yulluna) (n.d.) Makarrata, Yulluna website, accessed 4 April 2023.