Australians are set to go to polls later this year to say "yes" or "no" to a proposed law recognising the First Peoples of Australia by forming an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. But what exactly are they voting for?

Australia’s constitution came into effect in 1901, and has never acknowledged the Indigenous population as the country’s original inhabitants.
Australia’s constitution came into effect in 1901, and has never acknowledged the Indigenous population as the country’s original inhabitants. (AFP Archive)

The Australian government has released the wording of a referendum question that promises the nation’s Indigenous population a greater say on policies that affect their lives.

Australians are to vote, "yes" or "no," on whether they approve of a proposed law to "alter the Constitution to recognize the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice," an emotional Anthony Albanese, the country's prime minister, told a news conference on Thursday.

If amended, the Constitution will have a new chapter titled "Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples."

This will also allow the establishment of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to advise parliament and the government on issues impacting First Nations Australians.

Albanese said the body was needed to overcome Indigenous disadvantage.

“We urgently need better outcomes because it’s not good enough where we’re at in 2023,” Albanese told reporters.

What is The Voice?

The Voice was recommended in 2017 by a group of 250 Indigenous leaders who met at Uluru, a landmark sandstone rock in central Australia that is a sacred site to traditional owners. They were delegates of the First Nations National Constitutional Convention that the then-government had asked for advice on how the Indigenous population could be acknowledged in the constitution.

Their petition for constitutional change is known as the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a play on the common description of the semi-desert red sands of the region as Australia’s Red Heart.

The conservative government immediately rejected the proposal, arguing that a Voice would be seen as a “third chamber” of Parliament, an unwelcome addition to the House of Representatives and the Senate.

When the centre-left Labor Party won elections in May last year, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese used his first speech to commit his government to creating the Voice.

Who constitutes Australia’s Indigenous population?

Australia is unusual among former British colonies in that no treaty was ever signed with the nation’s Indigenous inhabitants. The Aboriginal people of Australia’s mainland are culturally distinct from Torres Strait Islanders who come from an archipelago off the northeast coast. So Australia’s Indigenous population is known collectively as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

They accounted for 3.2 percent of Australia’s population in the 2021 census. Indigenous numbers had soared 25 percent since the previous census in 2016. Some say declining stigma encouraged more Australians to acknowledge their Indigenous heritage. Others say Indigenous roots are being faked to claim government benefits aimed at overcoming Indigenous disadvantage.

Historical background

Changing Australia’s constitution has never been easy. Of the 44 referendums held since 1901, only eight have been carried and none since 1977.

Draft laws setting out the question and the proposed constitutional change will go to Parliament next week and are expected to be voted on in June.

Even lawmakers who oppose the Voice are unlikely to anger constituents by standing in the way of the referendum going ahead.

Australia’s constitution came into effect in 1901, and has never acknowledged the Indigenous population as the country’s original inhabitants.

Many talk about a Great Australian Silence, a term coined late last century to describe an erasure of Indigenous perspectives and experiences from mainstream Australian history.

Why is the referendum important?

Indigenous Australians are the most disadvantaged ethnic group in Australia. They die younger than other Australians, are less likely to be employed, achieve lower education levels and are overrepresented in prison populations.

“On every measure, there is a gap between the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the national average,” Albanese said.

“A 10-year gap in life expectancy, a suicide rate twice as high, tragic levels of child mortality and disease, a massive overrepresentation in the prison population and deaths in custody, in children sent to out-of-home care,” he said.

“And this is not because of a shortage of goodwill or good intentions on any side of politics and it’s not because of a lack of funds. It’s because governments have spent decades trying to impose solutions from Canberra rather than consulting with communities,” he added.

The government has not said what form it proposes the Voice would take. But the Cabinet agreed on a set of principles on Thursday.

Its members would be chosen by Indigenous people, and would serve for fixed terms. Members would be chosen from every Australian state and territory as well as the Torres Strait islands and include specific representatives for remote areas.

Genders would be equally represented and Indigenous youths would be included.

The Cabinet specified that the Voice would not have a veto power, countering arguments that the constitutional change could lead to unpopular laws being challenged in the courts.

What do Australians think?

If the referendum succeeds, the constitution would state that the “Voice may make representations” to the Parliament and government “on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”

Most details of the Voice's makeup and function would be left to Parliament.

Opinion polls suggest most Australians support the Voice concept, which Albanese announced was a major priority of his centre-left Labor Party government during his election night victory speech in May last year. But deep divisions remain across Australian society.

What do critics think?

The Nationals party, the junior coalition partner in the former government, announced in November they had decided to oppose the Voice, saying it would divide the nation along racial lines.

The Nationals also argue the Voice would undermine the work of 11 Indigenous legislators among the 227 federal lawmakers in Parliament.

Opposition leader Peter Dutton said his conservative Liberal Party has yet to decide whether they would support the Voice and required more detail including the government’s own legal advice.

Dutton questioned whether the Voice would help Indigenous women and children who suffer far higher rates of domestic violence than the wider community. He suggested the Voice might even drown out the victims’ voices.

“Is it going to make it more difficult because there is another layer of bureaucracy and makes it harder for the Indigenous women in these communities to be heard?” Dutton asked.

When will the referendum be held?

The government plans to introduce legislation to Parliament next week that would set out the referendum and constitutional changes.

The government hopes the referendum will be held on a Saturday sometime between October and December.

A referendum to change the constitution requires what is known as a double majority — the support of most Australian adults nationwide plus a majority of voters in a majority of states. Five referendums have failed because while they were supported by most Australians, they fell short of gaining majorities in at least four of the six states. 

Voter turnout is high because voting is compulsory.

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Source: TRTWorld and agencies