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  • Omar Khan

Australia Set For Indigenous Voice Referendum

“Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle.”

More than 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives were gathered at Mutitjulu in 2017 to deliver the Uluru Statement from the Heart which called for a First Nations Voice to be enshrined in the constitution. The statement went on to say that the additional proposal for a Makarrata Commission “captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.”

This month, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese confirmed that Australians will get to vote in a federal referendum in late 2023 on whether to constitutionally establish an elected advisory body known as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. In March, Albanese’s Labor government will introduce legislation to set up what will be Australia’s first referendum since 1999. The proposed Voice would advise parliament and the government on affairs affecting First Nations peoples. The advice would be non-binding and the body would not carry a veto but being included in the constitution would oblige lawmakers to consult it. To alter the constitution by referendum however, a difficult double majority must be achieved, that is a majority of voters in a majority of states must vote yes. Public opinion remains divided and as the campaigns get underway, this is unlikely to change. Significantly, Indigenous Australians are themselves divided on the issue.

The more than 800,000 Indigenous people whose communities have lived on the continent for over 65,000 years currently make up about 3.2% of the Australian population. That today’s First Nations peoples suffer from institutionalised inequality cannot be disputed. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities often register below the national average for most socioeconomic measures and suffer wildly disproportionate rates of incarceration, suicide, and domestic violence. Communities are still reeling from the trauma of the Stolen Generations, when, from 1910 to the 1970s, a third of Indigenous children were kidnapped with the intent of assimilating them into white society. Today, shockingly, the life expectancy for First Nations peoples is eight years lower than for non-Indigenous Australians.

Albanese has suggested that the 2021 Co-Design Process report’s recommendations would guide the shaping of the Voice, though Liberal opposition leader John Dutton has, among many others, requested more details. The report proposes a 24-member body that includes: two representatives per state; one each from the Northern Territory, ACT and Torres Strait Islands; an additional member each from the Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, and New South Wales; and, another member representing Torres Strait Islanders on the mainland. Co-chairs (of different genders) and half the members would be elected every two years, each serving a maximum of two consecutive four-year terms. Gender equality would be structurally guaranteed. The national Voice is recommended to have an ethics panel and two permanent groups focused on youth and disability respectively.

Advocates of the Voice highlight the Uluru Statement’s tripartite aim, namely voice, treaty, and truth. The “Yes” campaign, endorsed by the Labor and Green parties, is lobbying Australians on the understanding that political decisions about native title, race or other issues directly impacting Indigenous communities will have greater benefit if those communities are consulted. The Makarrata Commission, the second proposal, would then oversee treaty-making and truth-telling. Former Coalition Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who originally rejected the Uluru Statement in 2017, has come out in support of the Voice. Torres Strait Islander Thomas Mayo, in 2022, compared the current fight for the Voice to Indigenous leader Vincent Lingiari’s struggle for land rights recognition. In 1966, the year before a referendum in which 90% of Australians approved recording Indigenous peoples in census figures, Lingiari led the Wave Hill walk-off which led to Prime Minister Gough Whitlam handing back some land to traditional owners in 1975 inviting land rights reforms across the country. Urging people to learn from his legacy and support the Voice, Mayo called Lingiari a visionary who dreamed of “a new relationship with broader Australia – one where First Nations people and kartiya (white people) could live as mates.” Certainly, this idealism is central to the “Yes” campaign.

Opponents of the Voice, including many Indigenous Australians, have stressed major concerns with the proposal. Prominent Aboriginal senator Lidia Thorpe left the Green party this month in protest, asserting that the Voice poses a risk to First Nations sovereignty and demanding that a “treaty” should be signed instead. Author Ronnie Gorrie was a speaker at last month’s Invasion Day rally in Melbourne (an annual protest on 26 January coinciding with national holiday, Australia Day) alongside Thorpe and her sister Meriki Onus. Gorrie, in support of the “Treaty before Voice” campaign, said: “We want our land back... We want [the government] to follow the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. We want them to follow through with all the recommendations from the Bringing Them Home report. And we want reparations.” (The Bringing Them Home report was the result of an inquiry into the Stolen Generations.)

The “No” campaign, backed by the National party (the Liberals’ partner) and former Coalition Prime Minister Tony Abbott, is also spearheaded by notable Indigenous figures like Northern Territory senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and “Recognise a Better Way” leader Warren Mundine who suggests a constitutional preamble and a native title committee as counterproposals to the Voice. Other critics have likened the Voice to previous bodies set up with a similar intent which generally failed to deliver, and some have decried the risk of racial division potentially posed by the proposal.

As of late February 2023, polls show a waning majority in favour of the Voice and the result is expected to close. It is worth noting that only eight of 44 referenda have passed in Australia, none of them without bipartisan support. The double majority challenge poses a serious obstacle to Albanese who has staked a large amount of political capital on the vote, while Dutton’s indecision only serves to increase scepticism of the proposal. With Independents broadly in favour and conservatives generally against, plus various advocacy groups scattered across the divide, the Voice, intended to bring people together, only looks set to divide.

Ultimately, though, this debate comes down to the complicated relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Comparisons have been made with Canada, which recognised indigenous people in the 1982 Constitution Act, and New Zealand, which created Maori seats in parliament and made Te reo Maori an official language. Both sides take away different lessons from these cases. Importantly, First Nations peoples in Australia are not a monolith – they are incredibly diverse in language, culture, and, notably in this case, political outlook. Consequently, the only thing that is truly certain about this referendum is that it will be very difficult to predict the outcome.


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