Shortcuts / 04 August 2022

A referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament

The Albanese government said it would deliver the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full, and we’ve now heard of plans to hold a referendum to establish a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous Voice to Parliament within the next couple of years. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we take a look at how a referendum works, what a Voice to Parliament is, and the hurdles it’s likely to come across in the process.

Where did this Voice to Parliament idea come from?
A constitutionally enshrined Indigenous Voice to Parliament was a key part of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. We’ve touched on the Statement in a previous Shortcut, but basically, it covers 3 things – Voice, Treaty, and Truth – but it’s the Voice that has come into focus in recent days.

Why’s that?
Because last weekend at the Garma Festival – Australia’s largest Indigenous cultural gathering that’s held annually in the Northern Territory – PM Anthony Albanese announced there will be a referendum to create an Indigenous Voice in the Australian Constitution, which was one of Labor’s key election promises.

Hang on, Australia has a Constitution?
It sure does – it’s the set of rules by which Australia is governed. The Constitution establishes the composition of the Australian Parliament and describes how Parliament works and what powers it has. Any changes to the Constitution must be voted on by Aussies in a series of referendums.

Is that a common occurrence?
No, it’s pretty rare a change to the constitution is made, because of that referendum requirement. The last referendum was in 1999 – that was about whether Australia should become a republic, which wasn’t successful.

What’s the general success rate of referendums?
Not great… The last successful referendum was in 1977 – that was when 4 questions were put to the Australian people on the retirement age of judges, how to fill a Senate seat if a member goes, and allowing people from the territories to participate in referendums – so basically a lot of important housekeeping. And on that day, Aussies also voted in a plebiscite that made Advance Australia Fair our national anthem.

What’s the difference between a referendum and a plebiscite?
So unlike a referendum, a plebiscite is a vote to essentially gauge public sentiment that the federal parliament can then use to make new laws. For example, the same-sex marriage plebiscite was held instead of a referendum, as constitutional change wasn’t required to give same-sex couples the right to marry.

Gotcha. So back to referendums – what’s the recipe for success?
In order for a referendum to be successful, there needs to be a majority of voters in a majority of states and territories voting ‘yes’. For context, there have been 19 times that Aussies have gone to the polls to vote on 44 questions and only 8 of those questions have been carried.

What will this referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament be asking?
Nothing is set in stone yet, but PM Albanese said at the Garma Festival he reckons it should be a ­simple yes-or-no question like, “Do you support an alteration to the Constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice?”

What would the ‘alteration’ be?
So the government has also released the draft wording of what change would be made – and there are 3 parts to it…

Hit me.
Part 1 is that “there shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice”, part 2 is that “the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to Parliament and the executive government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. And part 3 is that “the Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to the composition, functions, powers and procedures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice”.

Okay, you’re going to have to explain that…
So the first part is simple enough – it’s just that there will be a thing called the “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice”. The 2nd part talks about that body being able to provide advice to our politicans on Indigenous matters. And the 3rd part is that the Parliament will ultimately have the final say on how the Voice will work, including those on the body and what it does.

So basically, the Voice would be an advisory body to the federal government on issues that impact ­Indigenous people?
You got it. It’s worth noting that none of this has been finalised yet and a date hasn’t been set for a referendum, but Albanese says he’s thrown the government’s suggestion out there “to give the conversation shape and direction”.

Why does the matter need to go to a referendum – can’t the government just crack on with establishing a Voice?
It’s a good question – and it can do that. But constitutional change is what many Indigenous leaders have called for in the Uluru Statement from the Heart – and well before that.

Why is that?
Because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are not recognised as the first Australians in the Constitution, and as it’s our nation’s key document, recognition is something campaigners say is fair and right. They also say that it would guarantee the existence of the body – something that was not given to the Indigenous bodies that have come before.

Such as?
The first was under PM Gough Whitlam in the mid-1970s – it was abolished by the Hawke Government in the 80s. In the 90s, the Hawke Government set up the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). It was abolished by the Howard Government in 2005 due to allegations of corruption at the time.

What’s happened since then?
Campaigners, experts, and some within the bureaucracy have renewed calls for a new elected representative body, and it was a key part of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

What have Indigenous leaders had to say about it?
They’re not exactly on the same page, and a lot of that comes down to a difference of opinion on how much detail on the Voice should be worked through before asking Aussies to vote on it. A couple of big names who think it’s fine to go to a referendum without the details worked out are Noel Pearson and Megan Davis.

And who’s against it?
Pat Turner is one who thinks there should be more of the details worked through. She’s the lead convener of the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations and is also a big name in these things.

What does the Coalition say?
They agree with Turner, saying that they’re open to the idea of a constitutionally enshrined Voice, but they need more details on what the Voice would look like. But that’s frustrating to supporters who say there are already plenty of details, with inquiries, working groups and parliamentary committees looking at the matter.

Are there any other issues that have bubbled up?
Another that comes up is that all efforts should go into practical measures to improve Indigenous peoples’ lives, rather than a Voice, which some have called a purely symbolic gesture. Albanese rejects that notion, saying “if governments simply continue to insist they know better then things will get worse” for Indigenous Aussies.

It sounds like there’s a bit of work to do ahead of a referendum…
That’s fair to say. What Labor wants is bipartisan support from the Coalition for the ‘yes’ case. And that’s going to be important for the referendum to be successful.

When might the vote be held?
Albanese says he wants to hold the referendum during this term of government – so between 2023 and early 2025.

What needs to happen before that?
So the proposed change to the Constitution needs to be put before the Parliament, and if it’s passed it must be presented to voters in a referendum between 2 and 6 months later.

Are cases made for both a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ vote?
Yep, and there’s a formal process for that. MPs prepare arguments for or against the proposed change – those are then sent to the Australian Electoral Commission which arranges for both cases, along with a statement of the proposed change, to be mailed to every Australian on the electoral roll. The 2 sides also receive government funding.

Do they get equal funding?
Not necessarily… If the government successfully argues that one side has stronger public support, it can give significantly more financial support to that campaign. And it’s expected that could happen here if the Coalition and Labor get on the same page.

So it’s a bit of a wait and see…
It sure is, and you can guarantee we’ll be hearing more about it all this year, and possibly the next few…

Squiz recommends:

The Uluru Statement from the Heart full text

PM Anthony Albanese’s annotated Garma Festival speechThe Sydney Morning Herald

The Uluru Statement from the Heart – Squiz Shortcuts

Took the Children Away – Archie Roach

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