8 questions to ask about the Voice to Parliament

Aboriginal boy in Arnhem Land

Later this year, Australians will vote in a referendum to decide whether to change our nation’s Constitution to include an indigenous Voice to Parliament. Our Constitution is the set of rules which govern the federal Parliament, executive government, and the High Court.

This vote is one of the privileges of living in our democracy, which we shouldn’t take for granted. Likewise, changing the Constitution is no trivial matter. So, we should all think carefully about the proposed Constitutional reform.

The proposed Voice to Parliament

The proposed alteration to the Constitution would involve:

  • Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the first peoples of Australia.
  • Establishing a body of people selected by indigenous communities across the country as the Voice to Parliament (‘the Voice’).
  • Enabling that body to provide advice to the Parliament and executive government on policies that directly affect indigenous communities.

If most Australians in most States vote in favour of establishing the Voice, then the referendum will succeed. Parliament will then be responsible for designing the Voice mechanism in detail. It is clear, however, there is no intention for the Voice to be a decision-making body. Nor would it have a program delivery function or the power to impede or veto government decisions.

In making a decision about the proposed Voice, we need to reflect and act on our personal beliefs and values. What are yours? It’s clear that within political parties there are a range of views about the Voice, as there are within our families and communities.

Thinking objectively about the Voice

What matters on such issues of national significance, is that we get informed and think objectively. It’s also true that we all make better decisions when we break a proposal down and think about its constituent parts. To aid my own thinking, I have sketched out and reflected on 8 questions that you may also find useful:

  1. Is it helpful to healing and inclusion to recognise in our Constitution the peoples who inhabited, cultivated and cared for our country before colonisation?
  2. Should a broad group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders be enabled to ‘have a say’ on policy issues that directly affect the lives of their communities?
  3. Are parliamentarians of indigenous background already capable of reflecting these views? Might personal interests, community allegiances, or party politics get in the way?
  4. If indigenous communities provide policy advice to Parliament will it translate into better outcomes on the ground? Conversely, does a lack of engagement contribute to poor policy and thus outcomes for communities?
  5. Should the right to give advice to the Parliament be an ongoing right or a legislated entitlement that a future government could change?
  6. Are federal parliamentarians are capable of designing the Voice – its composition, functions, powers and processes – in a way that will make it fair, representative, useful and effective?
  7. If some indigenous people are not in favour of the Voice, does that mean it has no merit?
  8. What credible, unresolvable problems would accompany a majority “yes” vote, and would they outweigh the credible, unresolvable problems from a majority “no” vote?

First nations leaders asked for a Voice to Parliament

The recognised facts are that Australia’s indigenous peoples suffer systemic and multi-generational disadvantage. This contributes to lower standards of health, education, employment and housing, and higher rates of incarceration.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are also the only Australians about which laws are currently made based on their ethnicity. This has involved the establishment of representative bodies, which previous governments have progressively reformed, transformed, defunded and abolished. In aggregate, past attempts to ‘close the gap’ on indigenous disadvantage have been largely ineffective.

This is why most first nations leaders across Australia decided they wanted a Voice to Parliament. They want a say in determining how their lives can be improved in a practical way.

In my experience of working alongside aboriginal people, their knowledge and culture is rich and valuable, and they want to create a better Australia for all Australians.

The big question

Ultimately, I think the most important question is “What sort of Australia do we want to create?” And “What do our kids want for their Australia?” It’s our children that will inherit the consequences of this decision – a decision that won’t be revisited for many years, if at all.

I don’t see this referendum is about judgement of the past, about rights and wrongs, or blame. It’s a question about what will make Australia stronger, happier, and more prosperous. Can we work together to make the lives of all Australians better?

This is a personal reflection and perspective that in no way reflects the positions of any organisation with which I am affiliated. Information on the referendum question and details of the constitutional amendment are available here.