Explainer: Why are Australians voting on in a referendum for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice?

Headshot of Sean Van Der Wielen
Sean Van Der WielenBunbury Herald
Australians will decide the fate of the proposed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice in a referendum on October 14.
Camera IconAustralians will decide the fate of the proposed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice in a referendum on October 14. Credit: Michael Wilson/The West Australian

After weeks of campaigning and of debate, the Australian public will be decide on Saturday the fate of the Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

It is the first time in nearly 25 years voters are being asked to make a change to the Australian Constitution.

With the campaign in its final days, we look at what is being proposed, the history behind it and what could happen next.

What am I being asked to vote on?

When voters receive their ballot paper, they will be asked whether they approve the alteration of the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.

The Australian Constitution is the country’s overarching legal document and deals with everything from determining how the High Court works to the responsibilities of the State and Federal governments.

If approved by the Australian public, the new section of the constitution will say this:

In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia:

  1. there shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice;
  2. 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;
  3. 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.

What is the history behind proposed Voice?

The origins of the Voice lie in the 2017 First Nations National Constitutional Convention, where over 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders met at Uluru to discuss how to recognise First Nations people in the constitution.

The majority of those leaders agreed to release a statement at the end of the convention, which is known as the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

In the statement, the leaders seek two reforms. They call for the establishment of an First Nations Voice in the constitution, alongside the creation of a Makarrata Commission to oversee the possible creation of treaties and truth telling.

The commission does not make up part of this weekend’s referendum vote.

The Voice proposal was declined by the Turnbull Government shortly following the statement’s release, with the then-Prime Minister claiming it would not be able to win a referendum and “would inevitably become seen as a third chamber of Parliament”.

Mr Turnbull has since changed his views and is now backing the Yes campaign.

Uluru Statement from the Heart
Camera IconUluru Statement from the Heart Credit: Supplied

The situation remained stalled until Labor won last year’s Federal election, during which they promised to hold a referendum on creating a Voice to Parliament in the constitution.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese reiterated that support in his election night acceptance speech, saying: “I commit to the Uluru Statement from the heart in full.”

What are the arguments of the Yes campaign?

The Yes campaign provided eight key arguments in their official case, which were published without checks for factual accuracy:

  • The Voice came directly from First Nations people, not politicians;
  • Constitutional recognition would create concrete results;
  • It would ensure First Nations people have a better life by providing a way for them to be heard;
  • A successful Yes vote would bring the country together;
  • The Voice would save money by ensuring taxpayer funds are used more effectively;
  • The time is now - voting no means nothing will change;
  • The Voice will deliver practical advice that works; and
  • It will make government work better and enhance Australia’s system of government.
ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 30: Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese speaks at the Yes campaign launch on August 30, 2023 in Adelaide, Australia. On October 14, 2023, Australians will vote on a referendum to amend the Constitution to recognise First Peoples of Australia and establish an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament. To pass, the referendum requires a 'double majority'ó a national majority of  'yes' votes, and a majority of states voting 'yes'. (Photo by James Elsby/Getty Images)
Camera IconPrime Minister Anthony Albanese at the official Yes campaign launch on August 30. He has committed to implementing the Uluru Statement “in full”. Credit: James Elsby/Getty Images

What are the arguments of the No campaign?

The No campaign provided ten key arguments in their official case, which were published without checks for factual accuracy:

  • The Voice is legally risky and is a leap into the unknown;
  • The Federal Government has not revealed key details about how the Voice will work;
  • It would permanently divide Australians;
  • It won’t help Indigenous Australians and close the gap;
  • There will be no issue beyond the Voice’s scope;
  • The Voice could risks delays and dysfunction by legally appealing decisions;
  • It opens the door for activists to make other changes;
  • It will be costly and add to bureaucracy;
  • The Voice will be permanent; and
  • There are better ways forward.

What will the Voice look like if implemented?

What the Voice will look like if it is approved by the Australian public on Saturday will be decided by Federal Parliament after the referendum. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has promised bipartisanship on the design committee if the referendum succeeds.

The best indication of what the Voice might look like if implemented is a proposal by Professor Tom Calma and Professor Marcia Langton, which has been referenced by the Federal Government.

Their proposal would see a 24-member national body created, consisting of two representatives from each state and territory, two from the Torres Strait, one representing Torres Strait Islanders living in mainland Australia and five representing remote communities.

Similar to how councils work in WA, members would serve a four-year term with half up for election every two years.

Members would be an equal balance of men and women and not able to serve more than two terms at a time.

There are a proposed 35 regional voices across the country, which would be designed and run by the communities they serve.

What happens if the Voice does not succeed at the referendum?

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Sunday stated he would not push ahead with legislating the Voice as a second-best option if the referendum is defeated this weekend.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, who has been campaigning against the Voice, last month raised the possibility of holding a second referendum on symbolic Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander recognition in the constitution if the Coalition wins the next election.

Pictures of Federal Opposition Leader Peter Dutton at a press conference in Carmel, Perth.
Camera IconFederal Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has left the door open to a second referendum on symbolic recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian Constitution. Credit: Ross Swanborough/The West Australian

How likely is the Voice to succeed at the referendum?

Changes to the Australian Constitution are notoriously difficult to get passed. A change must get at least 50 per cent of the national vote alongside majority support in most states to be approved. Only eight out of 44 referendums held since Federation in 1901 have been successful, with the last change being approved in 1977.

The republic referendum in 1999 was the last time Australians voted on changing the constitution, with nearly 55 per cent of the country voting against the change. The Yes campaign did not receive a majority in any state.

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