The Australian Labor government’s official release of its wording for a proposed referendum on a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous Voice to Parliament has caused consternation among many conservatives, the Liberal Party, and among some First Nations people, too.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese ran for office promising to enshrine an Indigenous Voice to parliament in the constitution. This mandate was confirmed when the question to be put forward to the Australian voters was revealed in March. In simple language it states:
“A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?”
Altering the Australian Constitution is difficult, with a successful referendum requiring the majority of voters in a majority of states to approve any change. Coupled with compulsory voting, this has led to only eight of 44 nationwide referendums held since federation being carried.
When announcing the wording of the question, an emotional Albanese said consultation with Indigenous people was not a radical solution, but a “sensible and practical proposition” that would allow First Nations people to have a say in the decisions and policies that affect their lives.
“This is about recognition, something that’s far more important, but it’s also about making a practical difference which we have… a responsibility to do,” the prime minister said.
Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney, a Wiradjuri woman, told reporters, “If not now, when? We have been talking about recognizing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in our founding document for decades – now we have the chance to do it.”
What Is the Voice?
The referendum working group – a broad cross section of the Indigenous community – has said the Voice will work alongside exiting structures and organizations and recommends the body have 24 members. At a regional level, 35 regions – broken down by state and territory – would provide advice to all levels of government on issues impacting First Nations people.
At the federal level, the government was quick to highlight that the Voice would not be able to overrule Parliament. This has been backed up by a slew of former high court judges, including a former chief justice, and multiple constitutional experts, including many of the nation’s top lawyers, as well as Australia’s top apolitical law expert, Solicitor-General Stephen Donaghue KC.
Donaghue, in response to a bevy of attacks by the Liberal Party, went against regular protocol and released his advice to the government. He dismissed arguments that an enshrined Voice would lead to a deluge of legal challenges in the High Court and argued that it would instead “enhance” Australia’s system of government.
Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said that the proposed amendments to the constitution were “legally sound.”
“We have received advice from a diverse range of constitutional experts… and their advice was clear: the Voice will be empowered to make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government about matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It will not have a veto or grant special rights.”
The Opposition to the Voice
Current polling shows that the referendum, likely to be held toward the end of the year, will succeed. However, this has not stopped a predominantly conservative minority from arguing heavily against it. This has started to fracture the Liberal and National Parties.
The Liberal/National coalition, as my colleague Grant Wyeth argued recently, is suffering an electoral decline. In the case of the larger of the two – the Liberals – this has seen the electoral purge of its moderate wing, with the result being a strong conservative base. The ultra-conservative, regional voice of the National Party has remained strong in its base areas but has been lambasted by many for its failure to confront the reality of climate change.
The National Party were the first to oppose the voice, saying in November – before the wording of the questions was settled – that they would vote against it on principle. National Senator and Warlpiri-Celtic woman Jacinta Nampijinpa Price has been one of the leading Indigenous voices against the Voice, arguing that some Aboriginal people were being exploited through the referendum. She is leading the “No” vote through her connections with conservative lobby group Advance and as shadow Indigenous minister. She has become a feature in the last 18 months on conservative channel Sky News, often appearing on shows that heavily denounce the Voice.
More surprisingly, the Liberal Party announced at the start of April that they too would formally denounce the enshrining of the Indigenous Voice to Parliament in the constitution. Unlike the marriage plebiscite in 2017, or the Republican referendum in 1999, they will not allow their shadow cabinet a free vote on the subject.
The long-term consequences for this remain to be seen, but in the short term, they seem disastrous. In the days following the announcement, shadow Attorney-General Julian Leeser – a long-time supporter of the referendum, despite disagreeing on some of the proposed wording – stood down from his portfolio. Other Liberal backbenchers followed suite, with Tasmanian MP Bridget Archer openly dismissing her party’s position. Ken Wyatt, the first Aboriginal man to be elected to the House of Representatives and Indigenous minister under former Prime Minister Scott Morrison, resigned from the party in anger at the decision.
Some sections of the conservative media have made hyperbolic comments, attempting to portray the referendum as a “race-based” move that will usurp the government. Despite all the legal opinions disagreeing with this framing, it has nevertheless become a talking point in certain circles.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott described the referendum process as “perilous,” while his former chief of staff, Peta Credlin, told her viewers that the Voice “must be defeated.” Elsewhere, controversial columnist Andrew Bolt (who was found in 2011 to have contravened the Racial Discrimination Act) went one step further by labeling the process as amounting to a modern “apartheid.”
Meanwhile, critics on the left have argued that the Voice is another government effort to placate First Nations people. DjabWurrung, Gunnai, and Gunditjmara woman Lidia Thorpe stood down from the Greens in February due to their stance on the Voice, arguing that she was unable to represent the Indigenous sovereign movement from her position in the party. While she hasn’t stated definitively how she will vote in the referendum, she has identified reservations around the process. It remains to be seen if this will impact the progressive vote for the referendum.
Will It Pass?
Despite its critics, in its current iteration and with present polling, there is a good chance the Voice will pass. Goodwill toward the proposal seems to be strong, with conservative media offering a louder voice than what polling suggests exists among the general population. However, there remain real concerns that the Voice will be seen as the end of the process of Indigenous recognition, rather than the beginning.
With First Nations people only making up around 3 percent of the voting electorate, it will ultimately be non-Indigenous citizens who will decide if the descendants of the oldest continually living culture on Earth will gain recognition in Australia’s constitution.