CANBERRA, Australia — Australians will vote on Oct. 14 in a referendum that would enshrine in the nation’s constitution a mechanism for Indigenous people to advise Parliament on policies that effect their lives known as the Voice.
Proponents say embedding the Voice in the constitution would recognize the special place that Indigenous people have in Australian history while giving them input in government policies.
Opponents argue it would be the biggest change to Australia’s democracy in the nation’s history and divide Australians along racial lines without reducing Indigenous disadvantage.
As Australia’s first referendum in a generation approaches, the bipartisan support regarded as essential to successfully changing the constitution has not emerged and Indigenous leaders remain divided.
Here are some questions and answers about key issues behind the referendum:
WHO ARE INDIGENOUS AUSTRALIANS?
Australia is unusual among former British colonies in that no treaty was ever signed with the nation’s Indigenous inhabitants. The Aboriginal people of Australia’s mainland are culturally distinct from Torres Strait Islanders who come from an archipelago off the northeast coast. So Australia’s Indigenous population is known collectively as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
They accounted for 3.8% of Australia’s population in 2021, a 23.2% increase in five years, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Some say declining stigma encouraged more Australians to acknowledge their Indigenous heritage. Others say Indigenous roots are being faked to claim government benefits aimed at overcoming Indigenous disadvantage.
Indigenous Australians are the most disadvantaged ethnic group in Australia.
Indigenous men have a life expectancy of 71 years and Indigenous women 75 years. That’s 8.6 years shorter than other Australian men and 7.8 years shorter than other Australian women.
WHAT IS THE VOICE?
On referendum day, Australian adult citizens will be asked to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on a single question: “A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognize the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?”
If the answer is “yes,” the constitution would be rewritten to state that the Voice “may make representations” to the Parliament and executive government “on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”
Proponents say there would be no Indigenous right of veto over government policy and lawmakers would be free to disregard the Voice’s representations.
But opponents argue the courts might interpret the Voice’s constitutional powers in unpredictable ways, creating legal uncertainty.
It’s not clear who would be part of the Voice and how they would get there. Proponents say the Voice would include Indigenous Australians from all eight states and territories, the Torres Strait Islands and remote and regional communities.
Members would be chosen by local Indigenous people and serve for a fixed period.
The Parliament would “have power to make laws with respect to the composition, functions, powers and procedures” of the Voice, the constitution would say.
CASES FOR AND AGAINST
The Australian Electoral Commission has begun sending to voters a pamphlet written by lawmakers with cases for voting “yes” and “no.”
Proponents argue that the Voice is needed because Indigenous Australians die years younger than other Australians, have a suicide rate twice that of the wider community, have worse rates of disease and infant mortality and fewer education opportunities.
They argue that this is evidence that the current approach isn’t working and a Voice would lead to governments making better decisions.
Opponents say the Voice would be the biggest change to Australian democracy in the country’s history and the biggest ever change to Australia’s constitution.
They say the courts rather than the Parliament would determine the Voice’s power and Australians would be permanently divided “in law and spirit.”
The Voice would also be a first step towards Indigenous claims for repatriation and compensation.
WHERE DID THE IDEA OF A VOICE COME FROM?
The Voice was recommended in 2017 by a group of 250 Indigenous leaders who met at Uluru, a landmark sandstone rock in central Australia that is a scared site to traditional owners. They were delegates of the First Nations National Constitutional Convention that the then-government had asked for advice on how the Indigenous population could be acknowledged in the constitution.
The conservative government immediately rejected the proposal, arguing that a Voice would be seen as a “third chamber” of Parliament, an unwelcome addition to the House of Representatives and the Senate.
When the center-left Labor Party won elections in May last year, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese used his first speech to commit his government to creating the Voice.
The Liberal Party and the Nationals party, which formed the previous conservative coalition government, both oppose the Voice.
HOW IS AUSTRALIA’S CONSTITUTION CHANGED?
Changing the constitution has never been easy and more than four in five referendums fail.
A referendum to change the constitution requires what is known as a double majority — the support of most Australians nationwide plus a majority of voters in a majority of states. Five referendums have failed because while they were supported by most Australians, they fell short of gaining majorities in at least four of the six states. Voter turnout is high because voting is compulsory.
Of the 44 referendums held since the constitution took effect in 1901, only eight have been carried and none since 1977.
When Australia last held a referendum in 1999, Indigenous recognition in the constitution was a key issue behind one of the questions. Australians were asked to approve adding a preamble to the constitution — an introduction that carried only symbolic and no legal significance.
The preamble was to have acknowledged that Indigenous Australians had inhabited the country “since time immemorial” and were “honored for their ancient and continuing cultures.”
Some observers argue that such an acknowledgment of Indigenous Australians’ place in the nation’s story would be an easier constitutional change to make today than the creation of the Voice.