For the first time in more than 20 years, we will be asked to vote on changing Australia’s Constitution.
It’s a very big deal, to say the least, but what is it that we will be voting on? And what is an Indigenous Voice to Parliament?
The referendum — why is it happening?
To change the Constitution, the government has to trigger a referendum. This is similar to an election in a lot of ways.
We all have to head to the ballot box and vote on the outcome we want (there will probably even be democracy sausages), though postal voting is also available to people who can’t show up on the day — which, in this case, is October 14.
Unlike an election, you don’t have a heap of parties that you have to preference, rather a question you have to answer.
The last time we had a referendum was in 1999 — voters were asked whether they approved of altering the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic and replacing the Queen with a president.
This time, it’s about the recognition of Indigenous Australians and a Voice to parliament.
Referendums are historically very hard to win because they need a “double majority”, which means that they need both the majority of the total population and a majority of people in at least four of the six states to vote in favour of the question.
What are we going to be asked at the referendum?
On October 14, you will have to write “yes” or “no” to the following question.
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?
Why is this being asked of us?
In 2017, a series of 13 meetings between hundreds of Indigenous Australians were held around the country to hash out the future of Indigenous Australians and the question of constitutional recognition. These became known as the Uluru Dialogues.
Constitutional recognition is important because, for a long time in Australia’s history, Indigenous people were not even counted as part of the population. That changed in 1967 — when a referendum was held asking Australians if First Nations people should be counted in the census.
But to truly reconcile with the colonial past, a push to recognise Indigenous Australians as the first peoples of this country has been underway for many years.
What this looks like was exactly what was discussed and agreed upon by the Uluru Dialogues, which put forward the Uluru Statement From The Heart.
This statement is where the Indigenous Voice to Parliament originated.
What is the Voice?
The Voice is an advisory body that would talk to the government about the issues of most concern to Indigenous Australians but with no power to veto any government decision or allocate funding.
Details like how many people would be on it, where they would come from, and what they’d be paid will be decided after the referendum.
It wouldn’t be the first time there was a formal Indigenous advisory body, but it would be the first time one was enshrined in the Constitution and so couldn’t be ditched during a change of government for example — which is what’s happened to past Indigenous advisory bodies not inserted into the Constitution.
Why will some details be worked out later?
There are many reasons the fine details of the Voice won’t be confirmed until after a referendum passes.
One of them, as pointed out by Constitutional experts, is that a change to the Constitution needs to be broad enough to ensure that it can accommodate tweaks and edits to what’s been proposed down the line.
For example, if you were being asked to vote on a 21-person body that would be appointed through nationwide elections, such details can never be changed, whereas if you just vote on whether there should be some kind of advisory body, the makeup of that body can change based on the needs of the day.
The other reason is that this is what has been put forward by the Uluru Dialogues and Indigenous leaders, that just the principle of the Voice is voted on.
Finally, the government doesn’t want voters to get caught in the weeds as happened in 1999. At that time, there were many people who didn’t want to be part of the Commonwealth but ultimately voted against the republic referendum because they weren’t a fan of the way we would break off from England and some of the finer details.
What happens if the referendum is successful?
If the double majority is achieved, there will be an amendment inserted into our Constitution that will look like this:
“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:
there shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice;
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;
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.”
After this takes place, the government will start drafting legislation that will go to the design of the body. This will include a lot of consultation with the public, Indigenous leaders, and other political parties.
Eventually, this legislation will be voted on, and the Voice will come into being.
What happens if the referendum is not successful?
The Constitution will not change.
Anthony Albanese has also made clear he won’t try to create a Voice through legislation, which obviously wouldn’t be permanent or include that recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Constitution. He says this is because that was not what was asked for by the Uluru Dialogues.
Peter Dutton says that if the referendum fails, the next Coalition government would trigger another referendum. But this one wouldn’t ask about a Voice. Instead, it would only ask you if Indigenous Australians should be recognised as the First Peoples in our Constitution. The Liberals would then go ahead with creating a Voice with legislation — which could be scrapped at any time.
Why is there so much disagreement?
There are several reasons Peter Dutton and opponents to the Voice don’t like it. One of the main ones is the legal implications of inserting something like this in the Constitution.
While Labor has made clear the Voice does not have veto powers — in other words, they can’t force the government not to do something — some people have raised concerns with the legal options open to a Voice if its members feel like the government is not listening to them. Could the Voice take this to the High Court? Could there be constitutional implications?
Another worry is that the Voice will slow everything down. If this body consults the government on policies — and there are no policies technically out of its scope — the normal business of government could be significantly slowed down.
Where is the nation leaning?
Polling can always be a little bit murky — take the 2019 election, when everyone thought Labor would win.
But a whole range of different polls shows the no vote ahead of the yes.
The Essential Poll — published by the Guardian — showed that of more than 1,100 respondents, 48 per cent intended to vote no, and 42 per cent intended to vote yes. The rest were unsure.
Newspoll, published by The Australian, showed support for the Voice had slipped to 38 per cent while 53 per cent intended to vote no.
The Resolve Poll, published by the Nine Papers, also shows that the no vote is ahead.
Why isn’t the yes vote stronger?
A lot of people feel like they don’t really know what the Voice is, or what it will be.
While the government is telling them they only need to vote on the principle of an Indigenous advisory body being enshrined in the Constitution, many voters don’t feel certain that the parliament will definitely get the design of the Voice right after it’s put into the Constitution.
There are some Indigenous leaders — including conservative politicians like Warren Mundine and Jacinta Price and progressive politicians like Lidia Thorpe — who say the Voice will not have any practical impact and just add “another layer of bureaucracy.”
The support of unpopular brands like Qantas has also been identified as something that might be turning people off, rather than encouraging them to support the Voice.
And finally, the no camp — which is being led by a conservative organisation called Fair Australia — is amassing a much greater social media following than the yes camp. On TikTok, Fair Australia has more than 30,000 followers, while Yes23 has just over 3,000.
For further information visit voice.gov.au.