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Explainer: Understanding the Voice to Parliament and the forthcoming referendum

On 14 October this year, Australians will be asked to vote on proposed changes to the Australian Constitution that would establish an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament. This referendum is critically important for First Nations communities and the Australian population as a whole. Here’s some detail on the key issues.

30 August 2023

There’s a national conversation underway currently about proposed changes to the Australian Constitution – the foundational legal document that defines the powers of Australia’s parliament, executive government, and courts and tribunals.

The proposed changes would update the Constitution to include recognition of First Nations peoples and create a formal channel for First Nations people to have a say on issues that affect their communities.

Many organisations and individuals have shared their perspectives on these issues. Earlier this year, the Victorian Government joined with the heads of each state and territory and the Australian Government to sign the National Cabinet Statement of Intent, supporting a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament and a free and fair referendum process for all Australians.

The decision on the Voice will be determined by a referendum, which is the only way to make changes to the Constitution – it’s a bit like a national vote where every Australian adult gets a say. Referendums don’t happen often, but they are an important part of our democratic processes. So, what are the proposed changes to the Constitution? What is the significance of the Voice? And what happens next?

The proposed changes to the Constitution

There are two key elements in the proposed changes to the Australian Constitution – formal recognition of First Nations peoples and the establishment of a representative body, the Voice to Parliament.

Recognising the First Peoples of Australia

The first proposed change to the Constitution is to formally recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia. While First Nations cultures have endured for more 60,000 years, for much of the Australia’s modern history, First Nations peoples have not been formally recognised.

There has been significant community advocacy to better recognise First Nations peoples over a number of decades. A successful 1967 referendum was an important milestone – almost 91 per cent of Australians voted for First Nations people to be counted as part of the population and for the Australian Government to have power to make laws for First Nations people.

Despite progress towards equality and fairer treatment for First Nations people, the legacy of colonisation and dispossession continues to have far-reaching and deep-seated impacts on First Nations communities today. The colonial period resulted in laws that specifically excluded First Nations communities and devalued their generations-old customs, culture and traditions.

Governments around Australia are working to address entrenched systemic and structural racism, and the marginalisation of First Nations people. Formal recognition of First Nations peoples is seen as an important step in this process.

Establishing the Voice to Parliament

The second proposed change to the Constitution is the establishment of a representative body – the Voice to Parliament – which would create a formal channel for First Nations communities to have a say on policies and decisions that affect them.

Establishing the Voice through the Constitution is intended to ensure the body’s longevity. Including the Voice in the Constitution means that successive governments cannot change the Voice’s structure or role by passing their own legislation.

While some details about the operation of the Voice are still being determined, it is expected that the scope of its influence would be confined to issues that directly affect the lives of First Nations people. The model would allow the Voice to Parliament to offer advice or make an official statement to the Australian Parliament and executive government (which comprises ministers and the public service). The Voice to Parliament would not have the power to compel parliament or the government to do anything, and it would not have responsibility for delivering services or programs.

Find out more about the proposed Voice to Parliament

The significance of the Voice

The proposal for the Voice is the result of advocacy from First Nations communities and leaders over many decades. One of the key milestones in this process was the development of the Uluru Statement from the Heart in 2017.

More than 250 First Nations leaders gathered at Mutitjulu, alongside Uluru, and drafted a statement calling for critical reforms to improve the future of First Nations people. Underpinning the Uluru Statement are the ideas of Voice, Treaty, Truth – identified as key mechanisms for empowering First Nations people and recognising their place in this country.

Find out more about the Uluru Statement from the Heart

The Voice model and self-determination

Central to the Voice model is the principle of self-determination – empowering First Nations people to make decisions on economic, social and cultural issues that affect them. Self-determination also includes the ability for First Nations peoples to determine their own political status and to pursue their own culture, values and identity. Self-determination is a human right enshrined in international law, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and is paramount to much of the important work undertaken by the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria and Yoorrook Justice Commission.

What happens next

The referendum on the Voice to Parliament will take place on 14 October 2023. A referendum is similar to an election – on a specified day, every Australian over 18 years of age is required to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the proposed changes to the Constitution. On the day of the referendum, schools, community centres and other venues will be open as polling places where you can cast your vote. When you cast your vote, your name will be marked off the electoral role.

Find out more about the referendum process

Ensuring respectful debate

In the lead up to the referendum, there will be lots of public commentary on this important subject. It is clear that First Nations people have diverse views about the Voice. There is an important role for allies of First Nations people to listen and learn through this process – we hope that everyone in our community will remember that racism and discrimination cause real harm to First Nations people and will engage respectfully in this national conversation.

Taking care of yourself and your mob

Our friends at Anti-Discrimination NSW have shared six ways for First Nations people to keep safe and look out for their communities:

  1. Create safe boundaries – You don’t need to be an expert on The Voice. Encourage people to visit to get the facts.
  2. Use your voice – You can report race discrimination or racial vilification to us.
  3. Look out for others – Have a yarn with someone who might be struggling.
  4. Get outdoors – Get some fresh air. Go for a walk. Go on Country.
  5. Mute the noise – You don’t have to watch every ad or read every news story. Remember you can mute, unfollow or hide social media posts.
  6. Reach out – If you are feeling worried or no good, connect with family and community. Or phone 13YARN and talk with a First Nations Crisis Supporter.

Download the Anti-Discrimination NSW resource ‘Referendum resilience’

We acknowledge the sovereignty of First Nations people and recognise the vital contribution of First Nations communities in progressing human rights in Victoria. The strength, resilience and pride of First Nations people, their cultures, communities and identities continue to thrive today despite the impact of colonisation and ongoing human rights challenges. We are committed to being a strong ally to First Nations communities in Victoria, supporting them to uphold their rights and celebrating their enduring culture, heritage and identity.

First Nations people have a right to live their lives without racism, discrimination and other unfair treatment. If you have experienced discrimination or vilification because you are a First Nations person, contact our Enquiry Line on 1300 292 153 for more information about your rights and how you can make a complaint. You can also find out more about our tailored services for First Nations people.

Media contact

Peter Davies
Mobile: 0447 526 642

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