Shortcuts / 12 January 2023

The latest on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament

There have been some big developments over the summer break in the Albanese Government’s proposal to establish a Voice to Parliament. So in this episode of Squiz Shortcuts, we take you through the basics on the Voice, who’s saying what about it, and what’s on the agenda for 2023.

Confession time… I missed what was said during the break. 
No worries, that’s what we’re here for. And let’s start with PM Anthony Albanese’s trip to the Woodford Folk Festival in Queensland late last month and told the audience that there’d be a referendum within the next year.

Oh, so it’s on?
It sure is. Until then, the Government had committed to a general timeframe of getting it done in their first term – so this has locked in a much shorter timeframe.

Remind me what this is about again…
So this idea for a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous Voice to Parliament actually came about nearly 5 years ago. More than 250 Indigenous leaders gathered at Uluru to agree on an approach to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian Constitution.

And they recommended the Voice?
Yep, it was in the overarching Uluru Statement from the Heart, and the Voice was a key part of that.

So what’s happened since then?
It’s been a bit of a slow burn – it’s only been in the last few months that it’s been given a kick-along, and that’s because it was an election promise from Labor to establish a Voice.

How has it been picked up? 
Albanese became PM in May, then he went to the Garma Festival – which is Australia’s largest Indigenous cultural gathering – in August and proposed a simple yes/no question for a referendum. His proposed question: “Do you support an alteration to the constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice?”

Is that it?
Not quite – Albanese also offered up a draft 3-sentence change to the Constitution that would go along with the referendum question.

Which is?
1) There shall be a body to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.

2) 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. 

3) The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have the power to make laws with respect to the composition, functions, powers and procedures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.

My head hurts…

And there’s opposition to that?
At the end of November, the Nationals said they would oppose the Voice. Nats leader David Littleproud basically said he thought it would add another layer of bureaucracy and wouldn’t actually help improve the lives of Indigenous Australians.

Are the Nats united on that stance?
Not quite… The day after the Nats made that announcement, one of its own backbenchers Andrew Gee said he didn’t agree with the decision. He’s now quit the party and is now an independent.

What has the Liberal Party had to say?
Last weekend, leader Peter Dutton released a letter he’d written to PM Albanese demanding more information on how this advisory body would work. In it, he accused the government of treating Australians “like mugs” for refusing to answer “reasonable questions” on the Voice.

Like what?
The letter contains 15 questions Dutton wants answering, including how much will it cost, what powers it will have, and who will oversee it.

How did the PM react?
Albanese accused Dutton of a “cheap stunt” and said he didn’t raise it with him when they were the cricket together a couple of days before.

So the Libs oppose the Voice? 
Not quite – they haven’t come to a final position.

What does that mean?
Well, some Liberal MPs, including Bridget Archer and Andrew Bragg – and former Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt – are calling on Dutton to at least allow a conscience vote as the party did on same-sex marriage. But that’s not on the cards at this point. 

Can the referendum pass without bipartisan support?
The short answer is that it adds an extra layer of difficulty. The closest comparison is the republic referendum that failed in 1999. Then-PM John Howard made it very clear he didn’t support the proposal. The difference is Albanese is in favour of the change – but it’s still a tough ask.

Why are so many people calling for more detail on the Voice?
It’s funny you mention that… There are calls for more detail, but others say there’s already enough detail.

So who’s right?
It’s a great question… And in the end, it’s one that can only be answered by voters. For some, what’s already out there will be enough to support the principle of a Voice, but others will want to see the fine detail.

What sort of details are already out there?
What’s pointed to a lot is a 2021 report by Indigenous academics Marcia Langton and Tom Calma – saying it contains “280 pages of detail.”

What was in the report?
It has a proposed model for the Voice that includes 24 members – that’s 2 from each state and territory plus 2 additional Torres Strait Islanders and an extra 5 from remote areas of Australia.

So that’s what Albanese and others want?
Well, it’s yet to be decided… And Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney said it’s likely the form of the Voice won’t be settled until after the referendum.

Is that normal?
Burney says that’s not unusual – she quotes Noel Pearson, who says the people decided they wanted the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and then the parliament decided how many lanes there should be.

Gotcha. So what’s the Yes campaign’s strategy so far?
They’re focusing on building support for the general proposition that constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians is the right thing to do.

Is that going to work? 
Well, let’s see… Because there will be ongoing calls for the fine print – not just from the Coalition but from plenty of others. 

What’s the timeline from here?
It’s going to be a big year. Linda Burney says she’ll introduce the legislation in March to allow the referendum to happen – that’s the first step. That bill will include the government’s proposed date for the vote. Then we can expect a parliamentary committee would scrutinise that bill for about 6 weeks.

So Parliament could be voting on it by May?
That would be the earliest, but it will soon be confirmed. In the meantime, expect to see it all ramping up over the next few months.

It’s going to be an interesting year in politics…
When a referendum is involved – it sure is.

Squiz recommends:

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton’s letter to PM Anthony Albanese

Uluru Statement: a quick guide – Parliament House Library

Parliament, not the devil, should control the detail on the Voice – SMH

The Uluru Statement from the Heart – Squiz Shortcuts

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