'Do First Nations people support the Voice?' All your Voice to Parliament questions, answered.

Voting for the Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum is officially underway.

Australians now have the once-in-a-generation opportunity to "bring our country together", says Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. 

"The idea for a Voice came from the people and it will be decided by the people. On October 14, you are not being asked to vote for a political party, or for a person. You're being asked to vote for an idea. To say yes to an idea whose time has come," he explained.

Australians are being asked to vote on the question of whether the nation should recognise First Nations people through an Indigenous Voice to Parliament in the Australian Constitution. 

"It's a form of recognition that will importantly make a positive difference to their lives and their futures," Albanese said. "The Voice is a way for all of us to recognise Indigenous Australians and their history in our constitution." 

Whether you've been following the Voice debate online, struggling to understand the issue, or Googling 'What is a referendum?', you're definitely not alone. Many people have never voted in a referendum before, and it can be hard to make sense of the conversation if you haven't been following along.

As a proud Wiradjuri lawyer and Uluru Youth Dialogue Ambassador, I've been working on community education to help people understand the Uluru Statement from the Heart and First Nations Voice since 2019. To help you get up to date, this Voice 101 explainer will answer all of your questions. 

Let's start at the beginning. 


The Voice to Parliament: What does 'constitutional recognition' even mean?

When people talk about 'constitutional recognition,' they're talking about making changes to the 'Australian Constitution' to properly recognise the unique status of First Nations people in Australia’s history. 

So what actually is the Australian Constitution? It's technically Australia's founding legal document and it was written back in the 1890s. The Constitution sets out the broad powers of Australia's legal and political system. It outlines the roles of the courts, the Parliament, and the Executive Government, and explains what their powers are and how they work together. 

When the Constitution was first written, there weren't any First Nations people in the room (there weren't even any women). First Nations people were explicitly written out of the Australian Constitution. This stopped them from being counted in the census or as members of the Australian population (this is what changed in the 1967 referendum). 

The Voice to Parliament: What is required to change the Constitution?

While we're hearing a lot from the government at the moment about the Constitution, only the Australian public can change it through a special vote called a referendum. 

To pass a successful referendum, you need what's called a 'double majority.' This means:

  • A national majority of voters in all of Australia must vote yes, AND
  • A majority of voters in four out of the six states must vote yes.

If a referendum gets a double majority, the result is binding on the Government, meaning they have to follow the result. This is different from the same-sex marriage plebiscite, which was more of an opinion poll that the government was not required to follow.

While a double majority is a high bar to reach, the Constitution is supposed to be able to change over time as society changes too.


The Voice to Parliament: What is the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and where did it come from?

To really understand what the Uluru Statement from the Heart is and why it's important, you have to also understand the broader history. For many decades, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advocates have been calling for different forms of constitutional recognition, agreement-making and parliamentary representation to help improve the lives of their communities.

In response to these calls, the national government has been working towards recognising First Nations people in the Constitution for over two decades. Over the last twenty years, there have been more than six parliamentary processes and nine government reports on this issue, each one trying to answer the question of what constitutional recognition of First Nations people looks like. 

To help answer this question, and in response to calls from First Nations leaders, the government set up the Referendum Council. The role of the Referendum Council was to go out in community and run a dialogue process answer the question of what form of recognition First Nations people want.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart came out of this process, which was the most comprehensive consultation of First Nations people that Australia has ever seen. Twelve Regional Dialogues were held across Australia throughout 2016-2017, where more than 1200 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people came together to deliberate and think about which reforms would have the most impact in their communities.

At the end of this process, over 250 representatives of the Dialogues attended the First Nations National Constitutional Convention at Uluru. the purpose of the Convention was to try and bring together the views of the different dialogues and reach a consensus position. They weren't sure if they were going to be able to reach a position where everyone agreed, but on the Saturday of the Convention, a consensus was reached. There were seven attendees, including Senator Lidia Thorpe, who walked out due to concerns over sovereignty and did not form part of the final consensus position.


On the Sunday of the Convention, on 27 May 2017, the Uluru Statement from the Heart was gifted to the Australian people, outlining calls for two sequenced reforms – a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament and a Makarrata Commission to oversee processes of agreement-making and truth-telling (or Voice, Treaty, Truth). 

The Uluru Statement is a written statement surrounded by the signatures of the over 250 signatories who attended the Convention. It is bordered by an artwork painted by Mutitjulu artists, led by Maruku artist and Uluru traditional owner Rene Kulitja. 

Why did First Nations people ask for a Voice to Parliament?

In the Uluru Statement, First Nations people called for a Voice to Parliament, which is a representative body that can give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders a say in the law and policy that affects them. The Dialogue attendees spoke of the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities not being properly consulted on laws that impact their lives, the impact that this has on the community.

While the purpose of the Regional Dialogues was not to decide on the form or the model of the Voice, many delegates believed that the Voice could allow for elected representatives from remote, rural, and regional communities to be heard at the national level. They spoke of the need for the Voice to be representative rather than hand-picked by government, and to be structured in a way that respects culture. Delegates also said that the Voice could support treaty-making processes by providing a structural body that could represent First Nations people during any agreement negotiations (see more below).


The Voice to Parliament: Why does this need to go to a referendum? Can't we just set up the Voice in normal laws?

The Uluru Statement specifically asks for a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament. This is because many of the delegates were aware of the limits of creating the Voice in normal legislation/laws. The way that our system works is that the Parliament can create laws, change laws, and repeal (or remove) laws. This means that when a body is created in normal laws, it can be removed easily by normal laws. Other First Nations representative bodies in the past have been removed overnight because they were either part of the government, or made in normal laws, like the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (or ATSIC). When this happens, First Nations communities need to start over, working to set up new representative bodies to allow them to speak to the government.

When a body is created through the Constitution, the existence of the body is guaranteed. This means that the only way that it can be removed completely is by holding another referendum. While the form of the body can change over time (as the details of how it works are set up in normal laws), the existence of the body is protected.

Watch: Prime Minister Anthony Albanese explains the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. Post continues below.


Video via TODAY Show Australia.

The Voice to Parliament: What will we be asked at the referendum? 

A referendum runs just like a normal election, where every Australian voter casts a single vote (which means yes - there will likely be democracy sausages). 

On referendum day, the ballot contains the following question: 

A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First People of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.

Do you approve this proposed alteration?

For your vote to count, you have to write 'YES' or 'NO' clearly in the box provided.

If successful, the referendum would insert the following actual words into the Constitution:  

"Chapter IX Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples

129 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice

In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia:

1.There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice; 

2.The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;


3.The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.”

It might be surprising how short the section is that actually goes into the Constitution, but this is just the way out system works. The purpose is to set out the broad power of the body, with the detail to be explained in normal legislation/laws. We wouldn't want all of the details written into the Constitution because it is so hard to change with a referendum.

What could a Voice to Parliament look like?

The final form of the Voice will be worked out through consultation with First Nations communities following a successful referendum. This is important, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities need to be able to design the Voice in a way that is culturally appropriate for communities across the country.

It's important to remember that the referendum is about voting on the existence of the Voice in the Constitution. What the Voice looks like and how it works will change and evolve over time depending on what works and what doesn't. By protecting the Voice in the Constitution, the Voice has the flexibility to change and improve within risk of being completed removed. That's why the third paragraph of the Constitutional Amendment above gives the Parliament a broad power to set up the Voice following this design process.

Together with First Nations leaders, the Government have developed and released a number of Voice design principles which set out the key features of the Voice. To summarise:

  • The Voice will give independent advice to the Parliament and Government
  • The Voice will be chosen by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people based on the wishes of local communities
  • The Voice will be representative of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, gender-balanced and include youth
  • The Voice will be empowering, community-led, inclusive, respectful and culturally informed
  • The Voice will be accountable and transparent
  • The Voice will work alongside existing organisations and traditional structures
  • The Voice will not have a program delivery function
  • The Voice will not have a veto power.

Further details expanding on each of the Voice principles can be found on the voice.gov.au website.

The Voice to Parliament: Do First Nations people support the Voice?

Polling over the last year has shown that most First Nations people support the Voice, with polls showing between 80-83 per cent support. However, there are of course Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who disagree. It's important to remember that we don't expect 100% of any other social group to agree before implementing changes, so why would we expect that of First Nations people? 

There are different reasons why First Nations people disagree with the Voice, such as Senator Lidia Thorpe's view that a Voice does not go far enough and that a treaty should be pursued instead of a Voice, or Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price who is leading the No campaign and has said that the Voice is 'virtue-signalling agenda'. There are differences of opinion amongst First Nations people like there is in any other community, and that's okay.

The Voice to Parliament: Would the Voice give more rights to First Nations people than non-Indigenous people?

Leading legal and constitutional experts have agreed that the Voice will not give First Nations people 'special rights', or more rights or entitlements than non-Indigenous people. The change gives First Nations people an opportunity to have their voices heard, but it is still then up to the Parliament and the Government to decide whether they take that advice.

The Voice to Parliament: Will every new law have to go past the Voice?

In essence, nope. The proposed change to the Constitution says that the Voice may make representations to the Commonwealth Parliament and the Executive Government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 


The majority of experts agree that this does not create a duty to consult the Voice (meaning a requirement to consult with the Voice on all laws relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people). Instead, the Voice will be able to exercise self-determination and decide its own priorities based on the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

The Voice might give advice on laws that directly impact First Nations people, like laws made under the so-called 'races power'. The Races Power is a special power in the Constitution which gives the Parliament the power to make laws that only apply to a specific race, but is only used to make laws about First Nations people. The Voice might also give advice on matters that apply to all Australians but impact First Nations people differently, like matters relating to health, housing, education and employment.

Listen to The Quicky where the hosts bust some myths surrounding The Voice to Parliament. Post continues after audio.

Will the Voice to Parliament help improve Indigenous peoples' lives?

We don't have a crystal ball and can't know for sure whether the Voice will improve the lives of First Nations people. What we do know is that the people that attended the Regional Dialogues prioritised the Voice to Parliament because they believed that it would have the most impact on the lives of their communities. Many advocates for the Voice have argued that First Nations communities know what works in their communities, they just need an opportunity to have their voices heard so that law and policy can be better directed.


The Voice to Parliament: What is meant by a 'treaty' and what would that involve?

A treaty is a formal agreement between the government and Indigenous peoples that acknowledges that Indigenous people were the original occupants of the land and outlines their rights, responsibilities, and relationship. Treaties vary a lot around the world, but they often cover topics such as land rights, cultural preservation, and self-governance. 

Australia has never had a treaty between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations and the Commonwealth, despite long calls for treaties historically. What a treaty would look like at a national level would depend on what First Nations people and the government negotiate to include, as both sides need to agree on the contents of a treaty.

The Uluru Statement called for a Makarrata Commission to oversee a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations, and truth-telling. Makarrata is a Yolngu word which has been known to mean a 'coming together after a struggle', and the current Government has committed to the Uluru Statement in full, including establishing a Makarrata Commission. 

 As treaties can take years to negotiate, the Uluru Statement's calls for Voice, Treaty and Truth are in that order on purpose. Not only was the Voice seen as the most important reform, it was also seen as a way to address the lack of structural power and enable communication between First Nations across the country. Once established, the delegates saw the Voice as a body that could support the process of treaty-making.

The Voice to Parliament: What about truth-telling?

The third reform of the Uluru Statement is truth-telling, and it would be the second function of the Makarrata Commission to oversee truth-telling processes nationally. Truth-telling arose naturally at each of the dialogues as the attendees shared their stories and spoke of the need for all Australians to understand the truth of this nation's history. Truth-telling can take many different forms, from local events to national inquiries, and is occurring every day. 


The Voice to Parliament: How do I learn more?

There is a lot of misinformation (where people unintentionally mislead you) and disinformation (where people intentionally mislead you) surrounding the Voice at the moment. This is because it is, unfortunately, perfectly legal to spread disinformation and misinformation, so it's up to you to try and spot the lies. 

If you want to learn more about the Voice and referendum, check out the following resources:

  • The Australian Electoral Commission has all the information you need about the referendum process. They also have a handy fact sheet to help you identify misleading information. 
  • The Government's Voice website provides further details about the proposal, including the question and amendment, the design principles, community toolkits, and more.
  • If you want to get into the technical legal aspects, check out the Joint Select Committee on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice Referendum's Final Report.
  • Visit Life Without Barriers for information about the Voice referendum in over 45 different languages, or head to the Uluru Statement website to access the translated versions of the Statement.

The Australian Electoral Commission has also published the official Yes/No pamphlet, which will be mailed to all Australian households before the referendum. When reading the pamphlet, keep in mind that they are written by the members of Parliament who are for or against the proposal. They are not independently fact-checked before the Commission publishes them (they aren't even allowed to spell check), so keep that AEC misinformation fact sheet handy or check out a version of the yes or no pamphlet that has been fact-checked by a third party.

Want to know more about this topic? Visit Mamamia's Voice to Parliament hub.

This article was originally published on August 30, 2023, and has since been updated with new information.

Feature Image: Getty.