Photo: Mick Tsikas/AAP
The Albanian government has proposed a preferred form of words to be included in the constitution to enshrine an indigenous voice in parliament, starting with a simple question that we can all vote on.
“We should consider asking our fellow Australians something as simple as, ‘Do you support an amendment to the Constitution that establishes a voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?'” said Anthony Albanese in July during a landmark speech at the Garma Festival in Arnhem Land.
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He also proposed adding three sentences to the constitution:
There is said to be a body called the Voice of the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.
She can represent herself to Parliament and the Executive on matters affecting Indigenous people and Torres Strait Islanders.
Subject to this Constitution, Parliament shall have the power to legislate in relation to the composition, functions, powers and procedures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
According to Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney, the Government is now in the “consultation phase of this important nation-building project”.
She has promised a public awareness campaign before the referendum to answer the most frequently asked questions. But the Prime Minister has said that “there is already an exceptional level of detail in the work of Marcia Langton and Tom Calma”.
What do we already know?
The Prime Minister refers to the report on the co-design of the indigenous voice by Professors Langton and Calma. They led a group appointed by former Indigenous Minister Ken Wyatt as part of a 2019 campaign pledge to develop options for an Indigenous voice.
The group was not allowed to consider having a vote enshrined in the constitution, but was nonetheless able to create a comprehensive plan of how a vote would work—statutory or otherwise.
Their report was the result of an 18-month consultation with 9,478 people and organizations, including 115 community consultations in 67 locations, 2,978 submissions, 1,127 surveys, 124 stakeholder meetings and 13 webinars.
How would the national voice work?
The Voice would advise the Australian Parliament and Government on matters affecting the social, spiritual and economic well-being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Parliament and Government would be required to consult it on matters predominantly relating to Indigenous People and Torres Strait Islanders, such as:
The Voice could table formal advice in Parliament and a parliamentary committee would consider that advice. But all elements would be non-justiciable, meaning that there could be no judicial challenge and no law could be invalidated on the basis of this consultation.
The co-design report states that the voice requires “adequate, secure and long-term resources provided by the Australian government on a regional basis” to function successfully.
Burney said the voice is a way for Aboriginal and Islander people to directly advise all levels of government on laws and policies that affect their lives. “It is about drawing a line under the poor results of a long legacy of failed programs and broken policies and listening to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
“Things like incarceration and child deprivation. Housing, health and educational outcomes. With that voice, it is about ensuring that what is happening in Parliament is a positive step forward, both for us as a nation and for First Nations life outcomes in Australia.”
How would it be structured?
The report recommended that the national vote should have 24 members, with gender balance structurally guaranteed.
The base model proposes two members from each state, the Northern Territory, ACT and Torres Strait. A further five members would represent remote areas because of their special needs – one member each from the Northern Territory, Western Australia, Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales. An additional member would represent the significant population of Torres Strait Islanders living on the mainland.
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Members would serve for four years, with half the membership being determined every two years. There would be a limit of two consecutive terms per member.
Every two years, two co-chairs of different genders would be elected by the members of the voice.
The national voice would have two permanent advisory groups – one on youth and one on disability – and a small ethics council advising on probity and governance.
How would local and regional voices feed in?
The co-design report suggested 35 regions broken down by state and territory. Communities and governments in each state and territory would determine these collectively.
Local and regional voices would advise all levels of government to influence policies and programs, and advise the non-governmental sector and business.
The report outlines their roles, their makeup, and the principles they would embody, such as cultural leadership, community-led design, and empowerment.
There will be “a clear, two-way flow of advice and communication” between them and the national voice, the report says.
What would a voice be Not do?
The National Voice would be an advisory body to the Australian Parliament and Government. It would not provide services, administer government funds, be a clearinghouse for research, or mediate between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organizations.
How would disputes be resolved?
The report initially recommended mediation. If that failed, the matter would be subject to independent review. The report suggested that an agreed list of people with the appropriate experience to carry out such inspections should be drawn up, and at least one of the inspectors should be an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
It suggested that the final decision-maker could be the responsible minister alongside two well-respected, independent Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people.
What measures are taken?
In a news conference with NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal on Saturday, the prime minister said he had spoken to athletes, including talks with the AFL and NRL, to support the campaign.
“I’ve had talks with churches, I’ve had talks with the AFL, with the National Rugby League, with basketball organizations, with netball, with other sports organizations,” Albanese said.
“We want to get in touch with people who can get in touch with young people in particular, but with all parts of our society.”
On August 17, Burney met her state and territory counterparts, who agreed to continue supporting a constitutional voice.
A statement after the meeting said there was “a shared desire across jurisdictions to prioritize advances in recognition and better outcomes for First Nations peoples over politics.”
Ministers discussed some of the practical steps to take to implement language regimes at regional level.
“There are a number of things Australians can do now to ensure they are ready for a referendum, which we are determined will happen this term,” Burney said.
People can read the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the final report of the Indigenous Voice Co-Design Process, and the final report of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition.
What are people saying about the plan?
The government said it would seek bipartisan support for the vote. Opposition leader Peter Dutton said he was prepared “to listen to the arguments respectfully” but there were legitimate questions to be answered about the details.
“For example, the Prime Minister says the voice will only interfere on public policy issues affecting Indigenous Australians. I don’t understand what that means because defense policy affects Indigenous Australians as much as it does health and education, law and order. Every element of public policy affects Indigenous Australians like every Australian,” Dutton said.
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Given that the co-design report has been publicly available since late 2021, Langton was visibly frustrated by the continued calls for “details,” telling the ABC in July, “When people say they want more details, tell me everything that they refuse to read our report”.
Two former Liberal Prime Ministers have publicly opposed the vote, seemingly regardless of its form or function. Tony Abbott wrote in the Australian that he does not support a “race-based body” and believes in a voice that “enshrines race in the Constitution, driving us further apart”. John Howard warned that the vote “has the potential to create a body that is believed to exercise coercive influence over government”.
In response, Burney said that discussions and debates “must be based on facts.” “The voice of Parliament has only an advisory role. It advises on matters affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It will not be able to block or veto laws,” she said.
“John Howard, the Prime Minister who has refused to apologize to the stolen generations for so many years, certainly does not have a strong record when it comes to promoting reconciliation in this country.”