What’s an Indigenous Voice to parliament? What are the steps to make it happen?

An Indigenous Voice was the first key policy of the Uluru Statement. But what is a Voice and what would it look like?

By

When Anthony Albanesespoke at the Garma festival on July 30 and laid out both the questions and broad structure of an Indigenous Voice to parliament,he was trying to put into action policies called for in the Uluru Statement from the Heart,agreed to and signed five years ago,in 2017.

“The Uluru Statement is a hand outstretched,a moving show of faith in Australian decency and Australian fairness from people who have been given every reason to forsake their hope in both,” said the Prime Minister.

“I am determined,as a government,as a country,that we grasp that hand of healing,we repay that faith,we rise to the moment.”

An Indigenous Voice was the first key policy of the Uluru Statement. But what is a Voice and what does it look like? What does the rest of the Uluru Statement actually call for? And what is the timetable for all this to happen?

 .

.

What is the Uluru Statement from the Heart?

The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a document (above) written and endorsed by hundreds of Indigenous leaders who invite the Australian people to join them in their call for structural and constitutional reforms to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Importantly,it is not addressed to the government nor to politicians.

Its 12 paragraphs are simple and direct. It notes that the sovereignty of First Nations people is ongoing and has never been ceded,and asks for the creation of two new institutions:the Indigenous Voice to parliament followed by a Makarrata Commission to oversee treaty-making and truth-telling.

“We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country,” the statement reads. “When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.”

The three key reforms the statement calls for can be summarised as Voice,Treaty,and Truth – in that order.

The statement was the culmination of years of work. A Referendum Council,appointed in 2015 by prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and Labor leader Bill Shorten held 12 regional dialogues (town hall-style meetings) with Indigenous people across the country. The Referendum Council was tasked with seeking out the views of First Nations people from across the country and reporting back. It then gathered more than 250 Indigenous delegates for a convention at the “spiritual heart of Australia”,Uluru,a sacred place to the local Anangu Traditional Owners.

It was at this meeting that the statement was endorsed to a standing ovation. Several delegates walked out in protest while the vast majority of delegates backed it – a historic consensus,even if not unanimous.

Read the full statement here.

Mutitjulu elder Rolley Mintuma presents the Uluru Statement inside a piti to Teangi Brown and Irene Davey during the closing ceremony of the national convention in May 2017.

Mutitjulu elder Rolley Mintuma presents the Uluru Statement inside a piti to Teangi Brown and Irene Davey during the closing ceremony of the national convention in May 2017.Alex Ellinghausen

What is an Indigenous Voice?

A Voice would be an advisory body of Indigenous people to express views to MPs on policy and legislation that would affect their communities. It would allow Indigenous people to provide expert knowledge and feedback,and have a say in how government decisions affect their lives.

The Statement argues that reforms such as an Indigenous Voice would empower First Nations people to address the “torment of powerlessness” that sees them over-incarcerated and their children alienated from their families at alarming rates.

Several countries already have some kind of Indigenous Voice. Advocates for the Uluru Statement compare the idea to the First Nations parliaments inNorway,Sweden andFinland for the Sami people. In another example,the New Zealand parliament reserves seven of its seats for Maori electorates.

The Uluru Statement doesn’t outline what shape or form a Voice should take,but it does say the body must be enshrined in the Australian Constitution,which would have to happen via a referendum. This would make it difficult for a hostile government to abolish it,as the Howard government did to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) in 2005.

If enshrined in the Constitution,the Voice could be removed only through a second referendum,which would ultimately leave the decision to the Australian people.

What’s the story so far?

The Uluru Statement and the Voice proposal were dismissed by the former Coalition government in 2017 under the leadership of Malcolm Turnbull. In fact,several high-ranking members of that governmentincorrectly claimed an Indigenous Voice would be a potential “third chamber” of parliament.

Things slowly started to change after the 2019 election,when Ken Wyatt became the first Aboriginal person appointed as Minister for Indigenous Australians. The Coalition still refused to support the Uluru Statement,but the party did warm to the idea of an Indigenous Voice,albeit not one enshrined in the Constitution. Wyatt promised tolegislate it through an act of parliament.

Indigenous leaders Marcia Langton and Tom Calma were then appointed in late 2019 to investigate what this Voice might look like. After consultation,theyrecommended the creation of local and regional Voices that would work with all levels of government,followed by a national Voice that could advise on federal policy and laws. The local and regional Voice bodies would be relatively flexible so they could adapt to the needs of communities,who would be able to determine how many people were involved with their local Voice and how they were appointed (whether by an election or through structures drawn from traditional law and custom,for example).

Langton and Calma’s report said the national Voice should have a more formal structure with two members from each state and territory plus another from the Torres Strait Islands. It also suggested that NSW,Queensland,Western Australia,the Northern Territory and South Australia have an extra member for remote residents,and that there be an extra member for Torres Strait Islander people living on the mainland.

The Coalitionpromised to legislate 35 local and regional Voice bodies and assigned $31.8 million towards their creation in its final budget. (Nothing was included in the forward estimates for a national Voice.) However,this process never happened – the Coalition lost the election before it could begin.

Labor,on the other hand,hasbacked a constitutionally enshrined Voice to parliament since 2017,along with other aspects of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

K’gari Fraser Island in Queensland,with the Uluru Statement in 2017.

K’gari Fraser Island in Queensland,with the Uluru Statement in 2017.Supplied

What is a Makarrata Commission? And truth-telling?

Makarrata is a Yolngu word meaning “a coming together after a struggle”. That captures the idea of what this commission would seek to do:assist in creating a fair and truthful relationship between Indigenous people and other Australians. It would be in charge of agreement-making between First Nations people and governments. Labor has made it clear it also sees this as a body to oversee treaty-making processes.

There are already treaty processes under way in some jurisdictions to try and fix the unjust relationships that have been created due to colonisation. The Northern Territory and Victoria are two such jurisdictions. The NT Treaty Commissioner has published adiscussion paper that details some of the more complex parts of the process. For example,it notes that treaties between First Nations people and colonisers (which would include today’s governments) tend to be different from regular treaties,say,between warring countries. These treaties often contain clauses to provide reparations to make up for historical losses that cannot be fixed,allow limited self-government,and provide financial resources so that communities can become more economically empowered.

The Makarrata Commission would also oversee “truth-telling” activities. Truth-telling refers to a process of sharing historical truths,warts and all,after periods of conflict or severe human rights violations. The idea is that by revealing the full extent of injustices committed against Indigenous people,wider society can fully come to terms with history and move towards true reconciliation.

A truth-telling a process has started in Victoriacalled the Yoorrook Justice Commission,yoorrook meaning “truth” in the Wemba Wemba/ Wamba Wamba language. The commission is also based on similar projects in Canada,New Zealand and Scandinavia,and is partially modelled on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up by Nelson Mandela in post-apartheid South Africa.

Anthony Albanese at the Garma festival in East Arnhem Land.

Anthony Albanese at the Garma festival in East Arnhem Land.AAP

What are the next steps?

Albanese revealed the first significant details about his government’s proposal at the Garma festival in north-east Arnhem land in late July. They were for a simple question to be put in a referendum,and for a limited change to the constitution.

“We should consider asking our fellow Australians something as simple as:Do you support an alteration to the Constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice? A straightforward proposition. A simple principle. A question from the heart,” Albanese said.

He also proposed three clauses to be added to the constitution. This was his first draft:

⦁ 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 Parliament and the Executive Government 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 the composition,functions,powers and procedures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.

But before Australians cast their vote in what would be the nation’s first referendum in two decades,there is first an issue of timing.

Burney has said a referendumto enshrine the Voice in the Constitution could happen as soon as next May. The leaders of the Uluru Dialogue,a group of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders involved in the statement,haveput forward two potential dates they would like to see a referendum held:May 27,2023 or January 27,2024.Albanese has previously avoided committing to a firm timeline,saying he needs to consult with Indigenous communities first. His government will also need to consider the work done by the previous government to decide whether it was going to proceed with the model that had already been designed.

Members of Albanese’s frontbench have also said they want to secure bipartisan support from the Coalition for constitutional change. This is a tricky proposition given how divisive the issue has been for the Coalition (see below). However,Labor will push ahead with a referendum regardless of whether it has opposition support or not – it would just make a campaign to convince Australians to vote in favour of the changes significantly easier. For any referendum to successfully pass,it has to achieve a double majority:more than half of Australians must vote in favour of the change as well as more than half of the voters in four of the six states (the territories aren’t counted).

A ceremonial dance marks the start of the Garma Festival in northeast Arnhem Land in late July.

A ceremonial dance marks the start of the Garma Festival in northeast Arnhem Land in late July.AAP

What are some other challenges?

Support for the Uluru Statement is not universal in the Indigenous community. Seven delegates walked out of the national convention in 2017 where the statement was first endorsed because they believed treaties were required immediately,not a referendum.

A conservative Aboriginal senator from the Northern Territory,Jacinta Nampijinpa Price,is a vocal opponent of an enshrined Indigenous Voice. She says there are more urgent matters,specifically family violence in Aboriginal communities,that should be addressed ahead of implementing a Voice. At least three conservative MPs have echoed Price’s position,and expressed their concerns about a proposal to hold a referendum on the Voice – Tony Pasin from South Australia,Claire Chandler from Tasmania and Phillip Thompson from Queensland. Influential conservative think tanks such as the Centre for Independent Studies and the Institute of Public Affairs have also stated their opposition to a referendum on an Indigenous Voice and the implementation of a Makaratta Commission.

One Nation leader Senator Pauline Hanson says a Voice would effectively create apartheid in Australia,giving a minority of Australians more political franchise than the majority,based on race. The Voice,she said is “divisive,unfair and unjust” because “one adult,one vote is the only democratic system that is free and fair.”

Meanwhile,the Greens party grabbed headlines during the election campaign because of its preference for prioritising the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a Treaty before an Indigenous Voice. This would reverse the order of events set out in the Uluru Statement,which urges the creation of a Voice first because it would politically empower First Nations people. However,Greens leader Adam Bandt later clarified that his party would not stand in the way of Labor’s move to hold a referendum in this term of parliament. Bandt has said he wants to progress all elements of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Greens senator Lidia Thorpe has said she would work with the government,but also that a truth-telling commission,a treaty,and action on Aboriginal deaths in custody and the Stolen Generations were crucial reforms.

Other prominent Aboriginal activist groups have also expressed opposition to the Uluru Statement. Michael Mansell from the Tasmanian Land Council has described an enshrined Voice as “assimilationist” and instead argues for dedicated seats for First Nations representatives in the Senate. Veteran activist Aunty Jenny Munro says she will run a “no” campaign based on concerns the Uluru Statement proposals undermine the unceded sovereignty of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander communities.

Another argument is that,with 26 MPs across all Australian parliaments now identifying as Indigenous – about 3.1 per cent – including 11 Indigenous MPs in Canberra,Aboriginal Australians are already appropriately represented. Proponents of the Voice say this is a red herring:those MPs and senators represent their electorates,as they should,not the interests and special rights of First Nations,which never ceded their sovereign rights to Country.

Constitutional expert professor George Williams says the Referendum Machinery Act prevents the government funding campaigns until a proposal is settled upon. But once that happens it can fund multiple “yes” or “no” cases as it wishes,so long as it is authorised by both houses of parliament – as happened at the 1999 referendum when the Howard government funded two campaigns against the proposal for a republic.

Labor may have won the election,but there is still a long road ahead to implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full – and with three processes to set in motion,it is likely that it will take more than one term to get the job done.

This explainer was first published on May 25 and has since been updated to reflect developments.

Let us explain

If you'd like some expert background on an issue or a news event,drop us a line atexplainers@smh.com.au orexplainers@theage.com.au. Read more explainershere.

Cameron Gooley is a Gamilaroi man and the Indigenous affairs reporter at the Sydney Morning Herald.

Jack Latimore is the Indigenous affairs journalist at The Age. He is a Birpai man with family ties to Thungutti and Gumbaynggirr nations.

Most Viewed in Politics