Shortcuts / 31 August 2023

The Voice referendum

The date is finally locked in – we now know Australians will be voting on 14 October to decide if there should be amendments to the constitution to enshrine an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we’ll get across the basics of the referendum, the key arguments of the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ cases, and what happens next depending on the result…

Why did the PM Anthony Albanese announce the referendum date in Adelaide?
The move was quite symbolic because it was where the successful 1967 referendum was launched. That vote allowed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to be officially counted in the national census and have laws made for them.

What makes a referendum successful?
It needs 2 things: a national majority of voters – so a ‘Yes’ vote from more than 50% of all voting-age Aussies – plus a majority of states. So at least 4 of the 6 states need to have a ‘Yes’ vote of more than 50%. The ACT and the Northern Territory don’t count on this front.

So the government can only afford to lose the vote in 2 states?
That’s right, and a few polls have indicated over the past few months that the ‘Yes’ campaign is particularly struggling in Queensland and Western Oz.

What happens now the referendum date has been announced?
The real work starts for ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigners… We know from our own survey that many people are still undecided about how they will vote, so both sides will start to focus on the messages that will grab those people, as well as securing the states where they think they can win their arguments.

I just got my official referendum booklet in the mail…
Those are currently being mailed out to all Aussies, and it happens every time a referendum is held. In this case, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) allowed the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ cases 2,000 words in the pamphlet to sum up their best arguments – those were laid out on alternate pages in the interests of fairness.

Aren’t pamphlets a bit old-fashioned?
It’s a feature of the referendum that’s stuck around since federation, and while a huge proportion of Aussies probably won’t read it cover-to-cover, it does give an overview of both sides of the argument, which can really only be a very good thing for democracy.

What does the ‘Yes’ campaign say?
It summarises its case by saying it’s about recognising Indigenous people in our Constitution, listening to the advice of Indigenous Australians, and getting better results in longstanding issues including health, education and housing.

And the ‘No’ case?
The headline is that constitutional change is risky and would invite legal challenge, that we don’t have enough detail on the Voice, and that it is divisive.

So those are the summaries – what are the actual arguments that have been highlighted in the pamphlet?
Both cases have refined some of their arguments based on previous criticisms, or questions from the other side. So the ‘Yes’ campaign is focusing on persuading people that a Voice will achieve concrete results for Indigenous Australians.

How would it do that?
Campaigners say governments have spent billions trying to improve life expectancy and housing and education in the past and it hasn’t worked, and that the Voice is the best chance of actually listening to Indigenous Aussies and improving outcomes.

And what does the ‘No’ campaign say?
It argues the Voice won’t help Indigenous Aussies and that it would just create more bureaucracy. It says there is already a National Indigenous Australians Agency which has 1,400 staff and the Voice would be an unnecessary layer.

Anything else?
It claims the Voice will also “open the door for activists” and it’s also picked out comments from some prominent Voice supporters who are open about the fact they see this referendum as a first step to reparations and compensation.

Is that true?
Well, the PM has been insisting in recent weeks that this referendum is purely about establishing a Voice to Parliament, and doesn’t open the door to anything else.

What happens if the referendum returns a ‘No’ vote?
PM Albanese says there’s no Plan B on the table. He says he’s not contemplating another form of constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians, and that “if the referendum fails, it will be a clear sign that it doesn’t have the support of the Australian people”.

Don’t some ‘No’ campaigners support the recognition of Indigenous Aussies in the Constitution?
Exactly, and so does the official ‘No’ case – it just opposes the Voice. Opposition leader Peter Dutton agrees – he argues there is still a way forward if the ‘No’ vote gets up, just not in the form the Government is proposing.

And isn’t it hard to change the Constitution?
Given the last successful referendum was nearly 50 years ago in 1977, that’s a pretty fair observation… It’s also important to note that Noel Pearson – one of the architects of the Voice – says if this referendum fails there would be “endless protest” by Indigenous Australians and reconciliation would be effectively “dead”.

What about if Australia votes ‘Yes’?
Pearson says there would be a “tectonic” positive change and the nation will be able to put a lot of bad blood behind us.

What would be the next steps?
If the referendum passes it will go to the Governor-General for assent – which is a formality – and the Constitution will be formally changed. But then the grunt work starts because Parliament then has to design and pass legislation to set up the Voice, with consultation from Indigenous communities as well as the broader public.

So it could take some time?
It’s unlikely the Voice would be up and running by the end of the year… Even when uncomplicated legislation goes through Parliament it must go through a committee process to make sure it’s robust. But the referendum working group has already done a lot of the heavy lifting.

Like what?
They’ve proposed a model of how a Voice to Parliament would operate – it wants 24 members selected by Indigenous Australians from around the country. It wants to be able to formally table advice to Parliament on issues that affect them – but of course, all of that will need detailed legislation to happen.

So there’s a busy 6 weeks ahead of us…
Yep, and we’ll be publishing some extra content to keep you on top of it all. More on that below…

Squiz recommends:

Our homebase for all our Voice content on our website. You can dive in to find our previous Shortcuts and a quick snapshot on the voice and the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ cases.

And keep an eye out for our Ask the Squiz podcast series over the coming weeks… We’ll be releasing an episode every Thursday instead of our usual Shortcut.

Squiz Shortcuts - A weekly explainer on a big news topic.

Get the Squiz Today newsletter

It's a quick read and doesn't take itself too seriously. Get on it.