Ever since May 2022, when Anthony Albanese was elected our 31st Prime Minister and promised a referendum in his first term, Australians have been chatting over dinner tables, water coolers and in school-pick-up lines about The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament.
And since the campaign for the Voice began in earnest, Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, and others have travelled the length and breadth of the continent explaining what this referendum will mean to all Australians.
Even so, some confusion remains. So what is the Voice, where did the proposal come from and why has it become so controversial?
Read on for the answers to all your questions – including where and when to vote.
What is the Voice to Parliament?
The Voice would be an advisory body made up of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from all over Australia. Its role would be to give advice to the government and the parliament about issues that affect First Nations people.
How would members of the Voice be chosen?
Members would not be appointed by government. They would be chosen by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people based on the wishes of local communities. Young and old, women and men, people from cities and from remote communities would all be represented.
How would the Voice help First Nations people?
Historically, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people haven’t been properly listened to or represented in Australian government. As a result, there are serious gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in health, education, life expectancy, infant mortality, and other outcomes. The Voice proposal has been designed to change that. Research has shown that when governments listen to people about the decisions that affect them, they get better results.
Where did the idea for the Voice come from?
The idea for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advisory body was first discussed almost 100 years ago. But more recently, in 2015, then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten set up the Referendum Council to ask First Nations people if, and how, they would like to be recognised in the constitution. It was a bipartisan idea to show recognition and respect for First Nations people’s 65,000-year history here.
Meetings, called the Uluru Dialogues, were held all over the country and 1,200 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were consulted. It was the most significant consultation that has ever been undertaken with First Nations people. The result was the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
What is the Uluru Statement?
The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a one-page message to the Australian people from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It asks for a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament, as well as a process for Makarrata (or “coming together after a struggle”) and truth telling. Its final words are: “We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.”
Do Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people support the Voice?
The group who signed the Uluru Statement were representatives of First Nations people from all over Australia. And all the polling indicates that more than 80 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to support the Voice.
What is the Yes campaign for a Voice to Parliament?
Some of the key arguments of the Yes campaign are that:
- It is important to recognise Indigenous people in the constitution as the first inhabitants of Australia, paying respect to 65,000 years of unique culture and history.
- Listening to advice from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people about matters that affect their lives will help governments to make better decisions.
- The Voice could help governments more effectively target funding to create practical change, including improvements in life expectancy, infant mortality, health, education and employment for First Nations people.
- Voting Yes is a way to reconcile with our past and move toward a fairer Australia.
What is the No campaign for a Voice to Parliament?
Some of the key arguments of the different No campaigns are that:
- The Voice won’t have the power to adequately address all the issues that face First Nations people.
- Adding a Voice to the constitution for just one group of Australians could create division in the community.
- It could open the floodgates to more radical changes.
- It could be expensive, delay legislation and add another layer of bureaucracy.
- Enshrining the Voice in the constitution could adversely impact First Nations ‘sovereignty’ and a treaty should come first.
Could the Voice seize private or Crown land?
No, the voice is simply an advisory body. It has no power to affect property rights or change laws.
Is the Voice a third chamber of parliament?
No, the Voice is an advisory body. It cannot introduce, pass or veto legislation. It can offer advice on issues that affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and our elected representatives can listen to that advice, but they are under no obligation to act on it.
Why a Voice first? Why not treaty or truth-telling?
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who attended the Uluru Dialogues made the Voice their first priority, and the government has accepted their wishes.
Why not just legislate the Voice?
The Voice was conceived to provide consistent advice that will not chop and change with governments, which is why it needs to be enshrined in the constitution. Governments will not be able to abolish the Voice without calling a referendum, but they will be able to alter its composition and its role.
What is the question that I will be asked to vote on?
The question you will be asked on referendum day is:
“A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?”
And you must write your answer: either ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
What is the Constitution?
The constitution is a document which sets out the fundamental rules by which Australia is governed. It cannot be changed by the government of the day and can only be changed by a vote of the Australian people.
When is the Voice referendum?
The referendum will take place on Saturday October 14, 2023. This will be the first referendum held in Australia in more than two decades.
Do I have to vote in the referendum?
It’s compulsory for Australian citizens to vote in the referendum and the Australian Electoral Commission is expecting a record turnout as enrolment rates have skyrocketed, especially amongst First Nations people.
How do I vote?
You can vote in person at your nearest polling booth on Saturday October 14. If you’d like to vote early, pre-polling centres are open now. Early voting centre locations, opening days and hours are available on the Australian Electoral Commission website. If you can’t make it to a polling place, you can apply for a postal vote on the AEC website. But applications must be in before 6pm local time on the Wednesday before polling day. And you must complete your postal vote on or before voting day and make sure it’s received by the AEC before October 27.
What if I’m overseas?
You can cast a vote at most Australian embassies. You can also apply for a postal vote if you’re overseas, though you must apply for and return your vote as quickly as possible. All votes must be received by the AEC by October 27.
The Voice referendum is not just about the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It’s also about about the kind of Australia we want to live in. Now all you have to do is make your decision and cast your vote.