What is the Indigenous Voice to Parliament?

You don’t have to be an avid follower of mainstream media to know that the upcoming Voice to Parliament referendum has been a hot topic in the early days of 2023.

With a date slated for the second half of this year, debate is likely to become even more dominant in the news cycles ahead.

The debate has split many Australians along the ‘traditional’ political fault line, with ‘yes’ voters, those in favour of enshrining an ‘Indigenous Voice to Parliament’ into the constitution generally coming from the left, and those against on the right.

Both sides have been using social media to promote their arguments in recent weeks, and this has led to some controversy, with Facebook removing some posts deemed by fact checkers as misleading.

What is the Voice to Parliament?

Given the near certainty that you will be required to vote one way or the other later this year, understanding what the Voice is, and what its consequences will be, is important.

Read: Our country, our way – why Australia must embrace Indigenous knowledge

The seed for the Voice was sown in the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, a petition by Australian Aboriginal leaders to change the constitution of Australia to improve the representation of Indigenous Australians.

The text of the statement includes the line, “We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.”

Successive Liberal governments denied the call but Anthony Albanese, upon becoming Prime Minister last May, promised to put the call to a vote via a referendum during his term in office.

In a speech in July last year, Mr Albanese suggested the question: “Do you support an alteration to the constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice?”

Read: Albanese’s history-making Labor ministry sworn in

Mr Albanese also added three sentences that could be added to the constitution:

  • There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice.
  • It 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.

Since then, debate has raged over what the Voice will mean in practical terms. In a letter to the Prime Minister this week, federal Opposition Leader Peter Dutton expressed concerns about a lack of available detail.

Mr Dutton’s letter does not mince words, and he states, “I believe you are making a catastrophic mistake in not providing accessible, clear and complete information regarding your government’s version of the Voice, condemning it to failure and, in turn, damaging reconciliation efforts in our country.”

But critics of Mr Dutton have accused him of scaremongering, arguing that the vote is simply one in favour or otherwise of the concept of a Voice, and also that plenty of detail has already been provided by academics such as Marcia Langton, Megan Davis and Tom Calma.

Read: Seven accessible Indigenous experiences from Cairns

Writing in response to Mr Dutton’s letter, Michael Bradley, managing partner at Sydney firm Marque Lawyers, says that the Opposition Leader’s concerns are unfounded, and that his tactics mirror those of his predecessor, John Howard, when Australia voted on becoming a republic in 1999.

“The play is an attempted repeat of John Howard’s successful three-card trick that brought down the 1999 republic referendum,” he says.

“One, demand the detail; two, when it’s provided, demand more detail; three, claim there’s now too much detail and advocate a ‘no’ vote on the basis that, if you don’t understand it, you’re being conned.”

Mr Dutton asks, “Is [the Voice] purely advisory, or will it have decision-making capabilities?”

Mr Bradley claims this is proof of Mr Dutton’s disingenuousness. “Nobody has ever said, suggested or implied that it will or should be anything more than advisory in construct and effect,” he said.

With no fixed date yet for the referendum, the debate is set to remain in the news for some time yet.

Are you uncertain about what the proposed Voice to Parliament will mean? What further information would you like? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

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