What is the First Nation’s Voice to Parliament and why do we need a referendum on it?

Gen Marcocci


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Scientific evidence shows Indigenous peoples have lived in Australia for more than 65,000 years. Yet, Australia’s colonial history, which began around 200 years ago, has set quite a negative tone for First people’s relationship with settler-coloniser peoples and non-indigenous peoples.


Despite significant pressure on the Australian government throughout history to sign a treaty with First Nation people’s, there has not been one. Australia is the only Commonwealth country to have not signed a treaty, whilst other treaties were established early on by New Zealand, Canada and the United States.

The Australian government’s previous attempts at unity with First Nation’s People’s

There have been some symbolic gestures, beginning with Former Prime Minister Paul Keating. He delivered the famous Redfern speech in 1992 addressing the violent dispossession of the country’s traditional owners. Following this, Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered an apology in 2008 for policies that inflicted incomprehensible suffering on Indigenous peoples. While well-meaning, these acknowledgements and attempts of offering an olive branch have not transpired into action or treaty.


Since coming to government after the 9 years of Liberal Coalition, the Labor party has started serious discussions about an Indigenous Voice to parliament. This has renewed hopes for a stronger relationship yet it has also created a point of tension for groups of interest.

What is a Voice to parliament?

A Voice to parliament is a body that will become recognised and enshrined in the constitution. It will enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to provide advice to the parliament on policies that impact their lives.


There would be a Local and Regional Voice, designed to be led by communities at a state level providing advice to all levels of government. There would also be a National Voice, where advice would be provided to the Australian Parliament and Government. This Voice would be engaged early on in the policy process. There would be a structural link between the Local and Regional Voice with the National Voice. Elections would be held at the national level for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to elect National Voice members directly. Both levels have a broad scope as the Voice can give informal and formal advice. There is a slight difference between the Local Voice and National Voice as the Australian Government is obliged to consult the National Voice on narrow proposed laws which exclusively relate to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.


The Voice would not advise on every national issue – it would prioritise, focusing on matters that are important to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The proposal for the National Voice has not tried to prescribe these matters. The priorities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people change over time and are diverse. The Voice would work in conjunction with current laws, as it would not be able to deliver or administer government programs and their advice would not affect the validity of any law.

How is the Voice beneficial?

The purpose of this is to give the Australian Government the opportunity to make policies with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, rather than for them. This is different to standing committees such as the one on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. Standing committees inquire into, and create reports on certain issues to be tabled for policy discussions such as the Report on Indigenous Youth and the Criminal Justice System. Whereas, the Voice will give specific advice on proposed policies and that advice will help develop policies.

How did the Voice come about?

The Voice was a key recommendation from the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The statement from the Heart was first brought to life in 1937. It has been a long journey since its conception.


In 2007 Prime Minister John Howard promised he would hold a referendum to recognise the special status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as first nations people. In 2010 Prime Minister Julia Gillard established the Expert Panel on the Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution. In 2015 the Referendum Council was established under Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull; it built on previous works by other committees and engaged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on their views on real and meaningful recognition in the constitution. Now the Voice aims to solidify the shifts in the relationship between non-indigenous and indigenous people. It is working to answer, how can settler-colonial government benefit First Nations peoples?

What opinions on the Voice have arisen?

This political undertaking has been fervently opposed by Victorian Greens senator Lidia Thorpe. Thorpe said a referendum on an Indigenous Voice to parliament is a ‘complete waste’ of money. The Voice is seen by opponents as symbolism rather than practical action. NT Coalition senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price said she would not support the proposal as it is very vague. She stated that it was just “another federal-funded bureaucracy” that will not deliver. Price said housing, violence against women and children, and alcohol-related social harm were the biggest issues in the territory. She asserts there needs to be immediate action on these ‘real’ issues rather than having a referendum on the Voice.

Victoria’s First Peoples Assembly co-chair Marcus Stewart leads the complex treaty negotiations in Victoria. Stewart believes the Voice is above politics. The Uluru Statement from the Heart and a Voice of First Nations People is a once-in-a-generation change, bringing the country together for reform. Treaty and truth-telling are essential for reconciliation even though they take a long time to negotiate and implement.


Anthony Albanese has also recently travelled to remote islands and communities discussing and hearing from Aboriginal Elders and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. The collective narrative theme was the experience of denial in having a voice and being heard. Albanese stressed that it is not about compensating for past wrongs, but it is about creating a common understanding of Indigenous issues to ensure a better future.


How are opinions being balanced?

The reasoning for opposition to the referendum raises interesting questions about balancing interests through policy. On one hand, the referendum is an opportunity to enhance the Australian government and non-indigenous person relationship with Indigenous communities. A Voice signals a genuine commitment to truth-telling and treaty. Whilst on the other hand, the Voice is argued to provide insubstantial decision-making power which ultimately does not justify the means and cost of creating it.


How will the Voice be created?

Enshrining a Voice in parliament requires a referendum. This is the only way the constitution can be changed. The constitution organises the principles and procedures public institutes follow. It enables social, judicial and political functionality. Yet a referendum is one of the most expensive procedures to exist. It requires every eligible voter to poll their opinion on the change to the constitution. The last referendum was held in 1999 costing the government $66.8 million. Thus, in a time of extreme budget deficit coupled with the insubstantial power the Voice gives, it will be a hard bargain to drive.

Unanimous approval of the Voice is unlikely, a successful referendum will require the proper wording. Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney has set up a working group of 22 Indigenous leaders helping to share the referendum plan and to refine the question that will be put to voters.


Ultimately, having a transparent and meaningful body in parliament signals Australia’s first tangible, genuine and thought-out steps toward a treaty with First Nations People. The level of consultation and connection that is occurring in this space due to the proposed referendum shows we are on a path, as a country, to better understanding, listening and respect.

 

Gen Marcocci is in her second year of the Juris Doctor. She is passionate about fairness, accessibility and transparency in the legal system. She works as a paralegal and volunteers as the Post Graduate Director of the Social Justice and Equity portfolio at the Monash Law Student Society. As the former Podcast Director at YDS, she is eager to learn the nuances of global and local political issues and understanding how these issues intersect with the law.


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