The Voice - a path to self determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
Published: 17 May 2023
It’s not often Australians are asked to participate in a national referendum. Since federation, there have been 44 referendums, only eight of which were successfully carried. Referendums can be divisive. They can (and should) trigger a national debate. But they can also mark a unifying moment in our country’s history.
Later this year, Australians will be asked a simple question: Do you support an alteration to the constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice?
It is a simple, if not uncomplicated principle. The idea of constitutional recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples has, in fact, been around for decades and supported by most governments and shadow governments since the early 2000s.
However, as QNMU First Nations Strategy, Policy and Research Officer Sye Hodgman explains, there is an important difference between ‘constitutional recognition’ and the Voice.
“The Voice embeds a mechanism for self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, whereas constitutional recognition is simply an acknowledgement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ existence in the constitution,” Sye said.
So what is the Voice?
Essentially, a Voice to Parliament is a body enshrined in the constitution that would enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to provide advice to the parliament on policies and projects that impact their lives.
While such bodies have existed at various points outside the constitution in the past, they have been established and dissolved at the whim of the government in power at the time.
“This constitutional change would simply establish the necessity to continue this mechanism,” Sye said.
“This is about self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on matters that affect them.
“Obviously, Australians should care about this because at its core it’s about a fair go for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
“But at the end of the day, this referendum will not impact 97% of Australian people in any tangible way … however it will have a huge impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.”
Seeing vs hearing
One of Australia’s eight successful referendums was in 1967, in which Australians overwhelmingly voted in support of changing the constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as part of the Australian population, allowing the Commonwealth to make laws for them and include them in the census.
Over 90% of Australians voted in favour, with all states recording a ‘yes’ result.
Sye described it as the “single most unifying moment in Australian democratic history”.
“Whereas the 1967 referendum was about ‘seeing’ First Nations peoples, this referendum is all about ‘hearing’ us,” Sye said.
“It is, essentially, a culmination of the spirit of the original referendum in allowing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples the opportunity to have meaningful input into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander matters and a mechanism for self-determination.
Read more about the QNMU's position on supporting the Voice to Parliament here