Why so many Indigenous Australians won't be allowed to vote on the Voice to Parliament.

Australians far and wide will be asked whether they support an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice in our nation's constitution.

Currently, our constitution does not even mention Indigenous Australians.

The Voice to Parliament referendum is now on the way, with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese asserting a 'yes' vote would result in an independent, representative advisory body for First Nations people. 

It would provide a permanent means to advise the Australian Parliament and Government on the views of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on matters that affect them.

But for thousands of Indigenous Australians — they will be unable to vote in this referendum. And as many advocates have noted, this poses a serious problem.

According to the law, incarcerated people serving sentences of more than three years are ineligible to vote in federal elections or referendums. This includes the Indigenous Voice to Parliament vote.

Watch the trailer for the Incarceration Nation documentary. Post continues below.

Video via NITV.

Inmates who are sentenced to less than three years, on periodic detention, early release or parole are eligible to vote. 

Keep in mind the overwhelmingly high rates of incarceration among First Nations people.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics data, there are 42,000 people in prison nationwide. Thousands of those are First Nations people. 

More than 30 per cent of people in prison in Australia are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. 

Although the length of their sentences are not indicated in the ABS data, it's apparent that out of approximately 13,000 incarcerated First Nations people, there are thousands who would be serving more than three years. This in turn renders them ineligible to vote.

And the tragic irony is that for a referendum pushing to give all First Nations people a voice in issues that directly affect them, this loss of voting power is rendering many voiceless. 

In a statement to Mamamia, Australian Greens spokesperson for First Nations, and Yamatji-Noongar woman Senator Dorinda Cox, said the Greens have been pushing for the government to remove barriers to people in prison being able to vote. 

"With 32 per cent of incarcerated Australians being First Nations people, there has never been a more important time to allow those who will be most affected by the Voice to Parliament referendum, the opportunity to cast their vote," she said.


"It's not an insignificant number of people — there are 13,197 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people locked up."

The federal government announced the Referendum Machinery Bill in Parliament. Its legislation will govern the operation of the Voice to Parliament vote. 

Although one of the key amendments that the Greens and several First Nations advocates called for was to remove the barriers for those impacted by the incarceration vote ban — the government is yet to make the change. 

"We support a referendum that gives all Australians the opportunity to vote on the Voice to Parliament. We supported the government's Referendum Machinery Bill this week in Parliament, but we were very disappointed the government did not adopt any of our amendments," Senator Cox said to Mamamia.

"We've been negotiating with the government in good faith. Our amendments to this Bill were very simple improvements that would have boosted electoral enrolments and accessibility to voting for First Nations people."


It's not just the over-representation of Indigenous people in prison that represents a problem for eligible voting numbers.

As per the Australian Electoral Commission, there are an estimated 87,000 First Nations people who are eligible to vote — but are not enrolled. 

This comes down to a variety of reasons.

One of those core reasons is accessibility, mostly impacting remote communities and those who have experienced displacement due to flooding across Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland.

"There's much work to do to reach First Nations people across this country and get them enrolled. The Australian Electoral Commission supports extending on-the-day enrolment for the referendum, and there's no reason not to do this," Senator Cox said.


"Failing to adopt our amendments is a missed opportunity for Labor to acknowledge the rights of First Nations people. We will continue to push the government on these issues in the lead-up to the referendum."

The Australian Electoral Commission estimates that only 84.5 per cent of Indigenous Australians eligible to be enrolled have actually enrolled. In comparison, enrolment for non-Indigenous Australians stands at 97 per cent.

And in a referendum that is all about working towards closing the gap —  every vote is crucial.

Senator Cox said to Mamamia that in the meantime, the Greens will continue pushing for amendments, while also supporting the Yes campaign for the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. As she said: "a successful Yes vote is the pathway to implementing all aspects of the Uluru Statement of the Heart".

As Widjabul Wia-bal woman and chief executive of GetUp Larissa Baldwin-Roberts said to ABC News, Indigenous communities are so often "massively under-represented" in political conversations. 

"We need to talk about pulling out all stops to make sure that First Nations people can be at the polls."

Mamamia has reached out to Change the Record for comment — a coalition of First Nations led legal, health and family violence prevention experts. Once comment is received, we will be sure to include in this article. 

Feature Image: Canva.

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