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Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

The Upcoming Referendum in Australia: All You Need to Know

Article by: Chelsea Lee

This article was published as part of a collaboration with the School of Social Sciences of the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

This article was published as part of a collaboration with the School of Social Sciences of the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

The Voice to Parliament

On Saturday 14th October, Australians will vote to amend the Constitution on whether to formally recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The amendment would establish an independent permanent government advisory body called the Voice to Parliament. This body is proposed to enable First Nations communities to provide advice on policies that impact their communities.

It is important to note that as an advisory body The Voice cannot veto any policies, and there is no legal requirement to follow the committee’s advice. It would not have the power to deliver services, make changes to government funding, or be a mediator for First Nations organisations.

Calling for Representation

The call to institute a Voice to Parliament originated at the 2017 First Nations National Constitutional Convention, where 250 delegates from across the nation gathered near Uluru in Central Australia. After 4 days, the delegates issued the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which called for a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament, in their words: “a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.” Makarrata is a word with a complex meaning but can roughly be translated into treaty.

On 30 July 2022, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese committed to implementing the statement from the Heart in full. He stated the Labour Government’s priority would be developing a referendum to enshrine the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice in the Australian Constitution.

The Referendum Question

The Albanese government has proposed a simple referendum question with a YES or NO vote on the proposed amendment to the constitution. For the Voice referendum to pass it must reach a so-called double majority: i.e. both a national majority of voters (Australians above 18 years old) across the country and a majority of voters in a majority of states (at least 4 out of the 6 states). The exact question in the referendum is as follows:

“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 of this proposed alteration?”

Chapter IX – Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples        

129. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia:

  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 the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
  3. The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.

The Domestic Debate

The domestic debate about the Voice is between the Yes and the No campaigns. The Yes camp argues that the Voice will help realize indigenous rights. The opposing camp is divided behind two sides, with one expressing doubt that the Voice will bring meaningful changes and another that openly denounces the Yes camp, arguing that the referendum could introduce a form of racial privilege.

The Yes Campaign – Key Players

A major supporter of the Yes campaign is the Uluru Dialogue, which is a collective created in 2017, including the architects of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, researchers, and lawyers based at the UNSW Indigenous Law Centre. The Dialogue is led by Davis and Pat Anderson, members of the government’s referendum advisory group. The group runs education programs and projects to promote the work of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

From the Heart launched in 2020 on the third anniversary of the Uluru statement as an education project to keep the Indigenous voice on the agenda. The group operates under the Cape York Institute, a think tank in north Queensland led by Noel Pearson.

Uphold & Recognise is a non-government organisation that allied with Liberals for Yes to campaign for a successful Yes vote. The organisation was founded in 2015 by Damien Freeman, a lawyer at the PM Glynn Institute at the Australian Catholic University, and Julian Leeser, now the Coalition spokesperson on Indigenous Australians.

The Yes camp is calling on voters to “nunite the nation” and argues that the vote is a once-in-a-generation chance to improve the lives of Indigenous people. They have gained support and endorsements from famous indigenous figures such as former football stars Johnathan Thurston and Eddie Betts, former tennis champion Evonne Goolagong Cawley, and filmmaker Rachel Perkins to promote their campaign.

The No Campaign 

The Coalition aligns with the political right and is a leading camp of the No Campaign. Their catchphrase “If you don’t know, vote no” encourages hesitant voters to opt for No rather than find the necessary information. Figures like Liberal Party leader Peter Dutton make the argument that the Voice would give Indigenous individuals preferential treatment or special privileges.

Alongside The Coalition is Fair Australia, an offshoot of the lobbying organisation Advance Australia. Fair’s website argues that the Indigenous Voice to Parliament will “wreck our Constitution, rewire our democracy, and divide Australians by race.” At the front of the liberal No campaign is Senior Indigenous politician Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price.

Recognise a better way was the main group to emerge in the No campaign. Indigenous entrepreneur Warren Mundine led this specific camp. In May 2023, Price and Nyunggai Warren Mundine merged their respective No campaigns, ‘Fair Australia’ and ‘Recognise a Better Way.’ to form the Australians for Unity.

The Blak Sovereign campaign represents the alternative perspective within the No factions and states to support the best interests of Indigenous People.  The camp is led by independent Senator Lidia Thorpe. They justify that the Voice would merely be a “powerless advisory body” that will not meaningfully improve the lives of most Indigenous people.  Rather, Thorpe advocates for different measures such as truth-telling and treaty agreements.

The People’s Verdict

The referendum offers Australians the chance to have a say in the principle of a Voice, rather than specific legislative details. The finer details will be determined through parliamentary consultation or debate post-referendum. Current polls indicate public sentiment leans toward defeat (50 percent against). 33 percent are in favor, while 17 percent remain undecided. The fate of the Voice now lies in the hands of over 17.8 million eligible voters on October 14 and will shape the future of Indigenous representation in Australia one way or the other.

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