Australians are set to have their say on the proposed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament. To inform voters, the ANU First Nations Portfolio has answered some key questions.

In 2023, Australians will head to the polls for a historic referendum on whether we should recognise First Nations Australians in the Constitution through an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament.

At its heart the Voice will act as a body of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that can make representations to parliament and government on matters affecting Indigenous Australians. The parliament will still have the power to make laws related to the Voice.

But what does a Voice look like and how will it empower Indigenous Australians? Experts from the ANU First Nations Portfolio unpack these questions and other common concerns about the Voice, how it will work and what it means for our democracy.

Indigenous Australians are already in our parliament. So, why do we need a Voice?

A record 11 Indigenous Australians are serving in the current 47th Parliament. This means that 4.8 per cent of the parliament is Indigenous (11 of 227), exceeding the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander proportion of the population (3.2 per cent). This is a positive development that could help with Indigenous Australians’ unique interests and concerns being heard in parliament, but it does not mean there is no need for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.

Electing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to the Australian Parliament is important. However, Indigenous Members of Parliament cannot solely represent Indigenous interests: they need to prioritise the interests of their party and electorate if they are to remain in parliament.

Regional Delegates at the Uluru Dialogues lamented this challenge, noting that “there are Aboriginal people who have been elected to parliament, but they do not represent us. They represent the Liberal or the Labor Party, not Aboriginal people”. An Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, therefore, serves a distinct and complementary function.

Will a body like the Voice divide Australia on race?

Some commentators have argued that an advisory body open only to Indigenous Australians will divide the country on the basis of race or that it breaches important principles of equality, because it will give one group of people more rights than other groups. Are they correct? The answer is no.

The Voice does not confer ‘special’ rights on anyone. The Voice recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians. The parliament can make laws that only affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Most importantly, there is no such thing as ‘race’. Scientists that have mapped the human genome have found there is no basis in the genetic code for race. Race is a social construct. This emphasises again that the Voice reflects the inherent rights Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples hold as the original inhabitants of the Australian continent. It is not based on race.

Will the Voice make governing more difficult?

The Voice will simply be able to make representations to parliament and the government. Parliament retains full control over its own procedures. This also means that parliament can amend legislation and adjust processes if it believes the relationship between the Voice and other institutions of government is not working appropriately.

For example, parliament could enact legislation to require public officials to take the advice of the Voice into account when making decisions. However, parliament could always amend or remove such a requirement. The Voice is subservient to parliament.

Is the Voice a radical change that goes against the Constitution?

No, the Voice is not a radical change. It is a modest addition to our Constitution and to our nation. The proposal has been thoroughly tested with senior constitutional lawyers over the past five years, including via the government’s Constitutional Expert Group.

The Voice also does not cut against the nature of our Constitution. It simply provides Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with the opportunity to speak to the parliament and government when they are debating laws and policy that will affect Indigenous Australians.

As former Chief Justice Robert French has noted, the Voice is “high return against low risk” because it will “provide a practical opportunity for First Peoples to give informed and coherent and reliable advice to the parliament and the executive to assist them in law and policy making in one of the most difficult areas of contemporary government”.

Will the Voice improve the lives of First Nations Australians?

The Voice is intended to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples can have a significant say in the development of law and policy that affects them.

There is compelling evidence that the direct involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the design and implementation of laws and policies produces much better outcomes. This is agreed across political parties in the parliament and it is the core premise of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap.

The Voice will not only be a forum for national leaders. It will be a mechanism through which Indigenous communities across Australia, who have lived experiences and practical knowledge, can influence decision-making that affects them.

In this way, the Voice will lead to more informed and responsive public policy that can improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. As Marcia Langton, a member of the referendum working group, said in relation to the Voice: “We know from the evidence that what improves people’s lives is when they get a say. And that’s what this is about.”

Find out more about the proposed Voice to Parliament and answers to common concerns from the ANU First Nations Portfolio.

Top image: Michael Nelson Jagamara (c. 1945-2020) (artist), Warlpiri people, with William McIntosh (stone consultant), Aldo Rossi (1919-1991) (stonemason), Franco Colussi (born 1938) (stonemason), Forecourt mosaic pavement, 1986-1987, Art/Craft Program, Parliament House Art Collection. Copyright estate of the artist licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency Ltd.

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