Find answers to commonly asked questions about the Voice with our FAQs.
Find answers to commonly asked questions about the Voice with our FAQs.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart is the culmination of 13 Regional Dialogues with First Nations people which arrived at a consensus about what constitutional recognition should look like. The Statement is an invitation from First Nations people to all Australians. One of its key features is to ask Australians to support meaningful constitutional recognition through providing a First Nations Voice.
(Source: The Uluru Statement)
A First Nations Voice to Parliament protected by the Constitution is a key element of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The Voice would make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
A Voice to Parliament will give Indigenous communities a route to help inform policy and legal decisions that impact their lives. Giving people a say will lead to more effective results. Embedding a Voice in the Constitution would recognise the special place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia’s history, but importantly would also mean that it can’t be shut down by successive Governments.
The Voice needs to be enshrined in the Constitution of Australia so that future governments can’t easily overturn or remove it. Past Indigenous bodies set up through legislation have been abolished when political priorities changed.
Since 1967 federal governments have required a mechanism like a voice to support its work in the Indigenous policy space. The government needs to know who to talk to on issues that affect First Nations people. Each of the five previous mechanisms which have been set up by parliamentary processes for this purpose have been abolished by successive governments cancelling programs, policies and investment with the stroke of a pen. This chopping and changing according to election cycles has contributed to the ongoing disadvantage experienced by many First Nations people. If the Voice was enshrined in the Constitution, it could not be abolished without significant public scrutiny, giving the government of the day a strong incentive to work with First Nations people and ensure their advice and input is heard.
Any alteration to our Constitution requires a referendum where all Australian voters are asked to vote Yes or No to the change. For a referendum to be successful, it requires a majority of voters across the country and a majority of voters in a majority of states - this is known as a double majority.
A Voice will mean the Government will have better quality information about First Nations communities and issues, delivered directly from communities themselves. Information from communities will result in better quality laws and policies, better targeted investment and ultimately better outcomes for First Nations people across many sectors.
The referendum will give Australians the chance to write a new chapter into our Constitution. The wording proposed on 23 March is:
Chapter IX Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples
129 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice
In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia:
The referendum will ask Australians if they agree with the principle that First Nations people should have a seat at the table when decisions are being made about their lives. The exact shape will be determined by the parliament following a successful referendum. This allows for the shape to be changed by parliaments over time according to the conditions of the day. Put simply, the constitution is for the principles, the concept. The parliament is for the shape, the bricks and mortar.
As an example of this principle in practice, the Constitution confers on the Government the legal right to tax residents and citizens. But the detail on taxation legislation, what the government can tax and the rates of tax are not included in the constitution - that is up to the government of the day and the Parliament to decide.
Similarly the Constitution allows the Federal Government to raise a Defence Force. But there is no detail in the Constitution on the shape, size and makeup of Australia’s Defence Force - that is for the Parliament to decide.
Notwithstanding this, there is significant detail contained in the Design Principles of the Voice to Parliament agreed by the First Nations Referendum Working Group. You can read the full set of Design Principles here.
(Source: Uluru Statement.org)
On 23 March The Prime Minister announced the following design principles for the Voice to Parliament agreed by the First Nations Referendum Working Group.
See the full set of Voice Design Principles here
The Voice Design Principles lay out the powers of the Voice as follows:
No. The Voice would have the right to make representations and provide advice to the Parliament and the Executive Government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. But the Parliament and Executive Government would be under no obligation to accept or act on that advice, or to incorporate it into policy and legislation. Most constitutional experts and senior members of the judiciary including former chief justice Robert French, the former High Court Justice Kenneth Hayne, and Constitutional lawyer Anne Twomey have rejected suggestions the Voice would have veto power, describing them as "doomsaying" and "distorting" the truth.
The Commonwealth’s top legal adviser, Solicitor-General, Stephen Donaghue KC has provided a written opinion that the Federal Cabinet and public service will not be forced to consult with the Voice before making policy or legislation. He noted that the Voice would “enhance” Australia’s system of government and will “will not fetter or impede” the powers of the parliament or executive.
Members of the Voice would be selected by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, not appointed by the Executive Government. Members would serve on the Voice for a fixed period of time, to ensure regular accountability to their communities. To ensure cultural legitimacy, the way that members of the Voice are chosen would suit the wishes of local communities and would be determined through the post-referendum process.
(Source: The Voice Design Principles)
Amongst Indigenous Australians there is a range of views about the Voice - just as there is in the wider community. Notably, however, the Voice was designed by First Nations peoples and is the result of years of extensive consultation amongst Indigenous communities across Australia. It is powerfully articulated in the Uluru Statement of the Heart, which was written and endorsed by hundreds of Indigenous leaders in 2017.
Polling undertaken in April 2023 shows resounding support for the Voice amongst First Nations Peoples, with 83% in favour of a Voice enshrined in the Australian constitution. The poll, conducted by YouGov, shows that the overwhelming majority of First Nations Peoples would vote YES in the referendum. It shows First Peoples see the potential of the Voice to deliver improved outcomes on the ground through better decision making.
First Nations members of parliament are elected to represent their electorates – this is the fundamental basis of our representative democracy. They speak for their constituents and represent the political party under which they are elected. Those who participated in the Regional Dialogues do not want to join political parties, they do not want to be politicians. They devote their lives to improving outcomes in their communities and they just want a say in matters that impact them.
Similar mechanisms are common in liberal democracies as they are a way to ensure Indigenous peoples, who often make up only a small percentage of the population, are able to actively participate in decision making regarding the polices and laws that affect them.
There are many ways that this can be achieved. Norway, Sweden and Finland all have a First Nations Parliament, with authority over certain matters and a right to be consulted over legislation that affects them. In contrast, the New Zealand Parliament has seven seats reserved for Māori people. Both of these mechanisms allow Indigenous peoples to have a voice in the processes of government. Other countries adopt different approaches. In Colombia, a constitutional provision requires the government to consult with Indigenous peoples before permitting natural resource exploitation on Indigenous land.
These different arrangements follow international standards. Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, endorsed by Australia in 2009, provides that Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures, as well as to maintain and develop their own indigenous decision making institutions’.
Under the current Constitutional amendment proposal the Voice would be able to make representations to Parliament and also to the executive government. This means that the cabinet and the public service could be offered advice by the Voice. Providing advice to executive government means the Voice could have input into the development of laws and policy. Enabling the Voice to provide advice to the executive has been included right from the beginning, when the idea for a constitutionally enshrined voice first originated in 2014. It is not new.
Proponents of the Voice believe it is critical for the Indigenous consultation body to be able to make representations to executive government so that advice from the Voice is on the table as policies and laws are developed. The executive is where the most important decisions concerning Indigenous people are made, and where most legislation is drafted. The Voice needs to be able to advise on policy development, as well as when legislation is before parliament, so as to be able to achieve better practical outcomes, “[The Voice] must be able to speak to both [parliament and executive government],” says Professor Megan Davis, a key member of the referendum working groups and co-chair with Pat Anderson AO of the Uluru Dialogue , “It must be at the table working with government as policies and proposed laws being developed … Speaking only to one or the other is not enough.”
A small number of conservatives have argued that allowing the Voice to make representations to executive government could clog up government processes, delay decision-making and lead to High Court challenges if advice from the Voice was not followed
While it is never possible to guard against cases being brought to court, most leading Constitutional experts believe there is very little chance that the current wording would give rise to protracted or substantial litigation in the High Court or elsewhere . The current wording is supported by a majority of Constitutional law experts, several former justices of the High Court as well as leading members of the legal profession.
For example, Professor Anne Twomey from the University of Sydney has rejected the argument that there would be an obligation on the executive to wait on advice from the Voice. Former Chief Justice of the High Court, the Hon. Robert French AC has written that the executive would have “no constitutional legal obligation to accept or be bound by” the Voice’s advice, with “little or no scope for constitutional litigation”. The Commonwealth’s top legal adviser, Solicitor-General, Stephen Donaghue KC has provided a written opinion that the Federal Cabinet and public service will not be forced to consult with the Voice before making policy. He noted that the Voice would “enhance” Australia’s system of government and will “will not fetter or impede” the powers of the parliament or executive.
(Sources: The Australian, Australian Financial Review, Guardian, Inquiry into the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice Referendum Submission 64)
A Voice will give the Government better quality information about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and issues, delivered directly by a body of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives. This will result in better quality laws and policies. Better laws and policies will mean improved outcomes - across health, housing, criminal justice and education.
Advocates such as Pat Anderson AO have made it clear that the current approach is not working, and that they see the Voice as offering a new way of approaching the development and implementation of laws and policies that affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People. They point out that a Yes vote in the Constitution will be a powerful message from the Australian people as a whole that governments should respect and consider the advice of those with local knowledge and expertise.
The Constitutional Expert Group has agreed that the Voice would not affect the sovereignty of any group or body.
The Uluru Statement says that First Nations’ sovereignty was never ceded and coexists with the Crown’s sovereignty today, that sovereignty comes from a different source to the sovereignty claimed by the Crown, from the ancestral tie between the land and its people. The Uluru Statement calls for this ancient sovereignty to be recognised through structural reform including constitutional change. Enshrining a First Nations Voice is recognition of First Nations’ sovereignty and First Nations’ rights based on their unique political and cultural existence. Simply, sovereignty is not undermined nor diminished by the Voice.
The proposal to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution does recognise their distinctive identity and our shared history. However, this Constitutional recognition does not confer “special rights” on any person or group, according to the Constitutional Expert Group set up to advise the Government on the constitutional amendment proposed. This group, which includes Professor Anne Twomey (Sydney Law School) and Professor George Williams AO, also advised that the Voice would not “change or take away any right, power or privilege of anyone who is not Indigenous.”
Importantly, the Expert group points out that the proposed change to the Constitution did not in any way provide the Voice with veto power over the functions or powers of the parliament or the executive, and appropriately reflected the Voice’s advisory role. “The Voice gives Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples an opportunity to make representations to the parliament and the executive, and this is an opportunity available to any individual or organisation.”
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a unique political and cultural existence in Australia because they have been here for over 60,000 years. Enshrining an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice in the Constitution is formal recognition for the first time of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia.
Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution won’t prevent other groups from being protected from discrimination under Australian law, or give Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples access to any special protections from discrimination not available to other racial groups.
Enshrining the Voice in the Constitution will not “introduce” race into the Constitution - it is already there, in the race power [section 51 (xxvi)] which has been used to make laws about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The Constitution gives the Federal Government the power to make “special laws” about people of any “race”, but Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are currently the only racial group about whom “special laws” are now made. While these laws can be for the benefit of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people (eg.about native title, cultural heritage protection), they can also be to their detriment (for example laws exempting the Government from complying with the Racial Discrimination Act) . It is only fair that they have a say in those laws.
It will not divide the country – but unify it, by giving every Australian the chance to vote on recognising the unique place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia. As Noel Pearson says: “recognition is foundational to reconciliation.”
Robert French, former Chief Justice of the High Court, has said: “The Voice is not about race. It is about our First Peoples as the indigenous people of Australia … by providing for the Voice in the constitution, the Australian people perform an act of recognition… of First Peoples as the bearers of the first history of our continent.”