The Voice to Parliament
On 14 October 2023, Australia will go to the polls to vote in a referendum to decide whether to change The Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples as the First Peoples of Australia. Voting in Australia is compulsory for all citizens aged 18 and older.
As a referendum about consultation, engagement, and representative democracy, I felt compelled to write this blog. But I am not here to share my opinion or convince you to vote a particular way*.
This blog post is an easy-to-read resource for Australian citizens and people who want to be informed about the upcoming referendum in Australia. It covers the democratic process, the proposed changes to The Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and create a Voice for representation to the Australian Parliament. It compares recognition of indigenous people and ‘Voices’ to Parliament in New Zealand, Canada, Sweden, and Australia, and it’s written in question-and-answer style to make it easy to find answers to your questions.
The question is whether Australian citizens want:
“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?”
The changes being proposed
The constitutional amendment will:
- Recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia.
- Create a body called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice (The Voice), which will make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth.
- Give the Parliament the power to make laws with respect to the composition, functions, powers, and procedures of The Voice.
The exact wording of the draft constitutional change is detailed below:
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..
Aren’t Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples recognised in the Constitution already?
The only mention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Constitution is in an amendment passed in 1967 by referendum allowing the counting of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Census. Currently, this is the only recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Australian Constitution.
Don’t Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples already have a voice in Australian democracy?
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People can vote, enrol to vote, and run for election in Australia.
Aboriginal Australians have been allowed to vote in all elections in Australia since 1965, but the requirement to enrol and vote has only been in place since 1984.
Table 1: Key milestones for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples representation in the parliament of Australia.
|When||Milestones for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples representation in Australia|
|1962||Right to vote in Australian Federal elections.|
|1971||Neville Bonner AO (1922–1999) was the first Indigenous Australian appointed to the Federal Parliament.|
|2019||First Aboriginal person to sit in Cabinet (The chief decision-making body of the executive branch of the Federal Government).|
Isn’t there already a representative body that has a Voice to the Australian Parliament?
No. It has been a while since the government recognised a representative body.
Multiple organisations currently engage with Australian governments on behalf of Australian Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. However:
- None of these organisations were formed or endorsed by the Australian Government.
- These organisations are not representative of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Peoples.
- There is no legal requirement for the Parliament to consult with these organisations.
Since the 1970’s, the Australian Government has set up four bodies to increase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation to parliament:
- 1972 – 1977 National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC).
- 1977 – 1985 National Aboriginal Conference (NAC), a NACC restructure.
- 1989 – 2005 Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC).
- 2009 – 2019- National Congress of Australian First Peoples Set up by the Australian Human Rights Commission. The Australian Government withdrew funding in 2013.
Before this, in 1957, the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders was set up by Aborigines and Torres Strait Islander people to create a nationally representative group. This civil rights organisation advocated for the 1967 Australian referendum (Aboriginals), which changed the Constitution to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in population counts.
What happened? Why didn’t the former representative bodies succeed or continue?
That’s open to interpretation and too subjective and political for this blog (see disclaimer) so I will focus back to the democratic process.
The short answer is that without a constitutional requirement for these organisations, governments could set up, defund, and abolish these organisations.
What is different this time?
If the referendum passes, The Constitution will be changed so that there will always be a Voice to The Parliament. The Voice will be a constitutional requirement, ensured by all Federal Australian Governments.
How much influence will The Voice have on Parliament?
The elected members of Parliament will continue to make all decisions for Australia.
The Voice will be an advisory group to the Parliament only. The government will be required to consult The Voice, but all laws will still have to pass through Parliament, and the government will still make all decisions about government programs, services, or funds.
What kind of organisation will The Voice be and do?
How The Voice is set up and operates has not yet been decided. The set up and operations of The Voice will be the subject of a national consultation process with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and the broader public if the referendum passes. The First Nations Referendum Working Group has suggested some design principles as a starting point for these discussions (see response to ‘Where did the proposed changes come from? below).
What happens is Australia votes yes?
The Government will engage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and the broader public in a process to design The Voice and draft legislation to create it. This legislation must then pass through Parliament to establish The Voice.
How many votes are needed for the referendum to pass?
A ‘double majority’ is required for a referendum to pass in Australia. This means that both of the following majorities are needed for the referendum to pass:
- A majority of voters, across the nation must vote yes / more than 50% of Australian citizens must vote yes.
- A majority of voters in a majority of states* in Australia must vote yes / more than 50% of Australian citizens in three states must vote yes.
*There are five states and two territories in Australia. The two territories include the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory. Votes made by people in these territories are only counted in the national vote.
What happens if Australia votes no?
The Constitution will not change. The current Government may create and endorse a representative organisation like The Voice to Parliament, but this organisation could be defunded and abolished by future governments.
Where did the proposed changes come from?
In 2015, The Referendum Council on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Peoples was set up to advise the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition on options for constitutional reform. Members of the Council were jointly appointed by The Government and The Opposition. The Council published the Final Report of the Referendum Council in 2017.
In 2018, a Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Peoples was appointed. A Joint Select Committee is a group that includes elected members from various parties who report to both Houses of Parliament. It presented its final report in November 2018 which recommended a codesign process with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Peoples and that the Australian Government consider constitutional options to establish The Voice.
In 2019, a codesign process commenced led by the Minister for Indigenous Australians.
In September 2022, the First Nations Referendum Working Group was set up to advise the Government on the timing and wording of the referendum and principles of the Voice. Members of the working group include First Nations leaders from across Australia.
The First Nations Referendum Working Group developed the following design principles as a starting point for these discussions. The Voice will:
- Give independent advice to the Parliament and Government.
- Be composed of members chosen by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities.
- Be representative of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, have gender balance and include youth.
- Consult grassroots communities and regional entities and ensure their representation is informed by experiences, including people who have historically been excluded from participation.
- Be accountable and transparent, subject to governance and reporting requirements and be within the scope of the National Anti-Corruption Commission.
- Work alongside existing organisations and traditional structures.
- Not have a program delivery function (like a government agency).
In March 2023, a Constitution Alteration Bill was introduced into Parliament and referred to a Joint Select Committee on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice Referendum. The committee report is available here, along with information about its members.
In June 2023, the Australian Parliament held a debate and passed the Constitution Alteration Bill.
How are Indigenous people recognised and consulted in other countries?
Table two summarises when and how the Governments of New Zealand, Canada and Sweden recognise indigenous people and how their ‘voice’ is represented in the parliaments of these countries.
Table 2: Constitutional recognition of indigenous people and their ‘Voice’ to parliament in New Zealand, Canada, and Sweden.
|Country||Constitutional recognition as indigenous people||How Indigenous People have a ‘Voice’ to parliament|
|New Zealand||1840 – Recognition as Māori People in Waitangi Treaty. |
1986 – Waitangi Treaty was first referred to in legislation.
|1867 – There are four Māori electorates, each with their own seat within The New Zealand Parliament.|
|Canada||Variety of treaties. |
1982 – Constitutional recognition of three groups of Indigenous (Aboriginal) peoples: Indians (referred to as First Nations), Métis and Inuit.
|1982 – Assembly of First Nations was established. The organisation is funded and consulted by The Government of Canada. |
2017 – The Government of Canada signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Assembly of First Nations on shared priorities.
|Sweden||1977 – Constitutional recognition of the Sami recognised as Indigenous people.||1993 – Sami Parliament was established. The Sami Parliament is a publicly elected State Authority that reports regularly to The Swedish Parliament.|
|Australia||Not recognised in the Constitution.||None, at present. See response to “Isn’t there already a representative body that has a Voice to the Australian Parliament?” in this post.|
What if The Voice is created and it does not work out?
How The Voice is set up and operates is not part of the change to The Constitution, so these aspects of the organisation can change without a referendum.
More specifically, if the referendum passes, The Australian Government will create a law that determines the composition, functions, powers, and procedures of The Voice. As a law, not a constitutional change, the Australian Government can change these aspects of The Voice without a referendum.
However, the Government will always need to ensure that a body called The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice (The Voice) exists and that The Voice can “make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”
Make your vote count
Thank you for reading my blog and for taking the time to make an informed choice at the polling booth later this year.
Whichever way you decide to vote, please be sure to write the word YES or NO in the boxes on ballot paper. Putting a cross in the box on your ballot paper will invalidate your vote, and if you use a tick it may not be recognised. Here is the official advice about completing your ballot from the Australian Electoral Commission.
Want more information?
If you would like more information before making your decision, I recommend reading the following:
- The Official Referendum Booklet published by the Australian Electoral Commission if you are interested in understanding the arguments for the Yes and No votes. This booklet has been prepared by the Senators who voted for and against the referendum in Parliament.
- The Australian Government Information Booklet provides further detail about the process, proposed design principles for The Voice, and how Australians will be consulted during its formation.
Both booklets are available in multiple languages at the links provided.
If you still have questions about the proposed changes, please get in touch with the Australian Electoral Commission on 13 23 26 or visit the official government website for The Voice for more information.
If you would like more information about Australian democracy and how you can participate, check out this post.
*Disclaimer: Engage2 advocates for democratic process, not policy positions. I actively try to practise objectivity in my work. It’s not that I don’t have opinions about social and political issues – I just consciously set them aside, to facilitate equitable, democratic processes.
Any vote in this referendum is a vote for democratic process, representation, and consultation, so this post has been challenging for me to write. I have done my best to remain objective throughout. Please let me know if you think that I am showing a bias.
- Electoral Milestones for Indigenous Australian’s Electoral Commission- https://aec.gov.au/indigenous/milestones.htm
- Official Referendum Booklet (available in multiple languages), Australian Electoral Commission: https://www.aec.gov.au/referendums/learn/the-yes-no-pamphlet.html
- Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples through a Voice, Australian Government Information Booklet – https://voice.gov.au/sites/default/files/2023-06/voice-information-booklet-english.pdf
- Referendum question and constitutional amendment, Australian Government Fact Sheet – https://voice.gov.au/resources/fact-sheet-referendum-question-and-constitutional-amendment
- How representative is representative democracy? Engage2 blog post – https://engage2.com.au/how-representative-is-representative-democracy/
- Final Report of the Referendum Council – https://www.referendumcouncil.org.au/final-report.html
- Advisory Report on the Constitutional Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023, Joint Select Committee –https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Former_Committees/Aboriginal_and_Torres_Strait_Islander_Voice_Referendum/VoiceReferendum/Report
- Constitutional Alteration Bill (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023, Australian Government Legislation: https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/C2023B00060
- The Duty to Consult Indigenous Peoples by Isabella Brideau, Parliament of Canada Library, Research Publication https://lop.parl.ca/sites/PublicWebsite/default/en_CA/ResearchPublications/201917E