The Australian Referendum: a First Nations Voice to Parliament

by Paul J Govind and Dina Lupin

On October 14 2023, Australians will vote in a referendum to decide whether the Commonwealth (national) Constitution should be amended to create a First Nations Voice to Parliament.

For 65, 000 years Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been custodians of the land. Their wisdom and practices continue to guide respect and care for nature and our environment.

The Voice will give independent advice to the Commonwealth government and Parliament on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The creation of the Voice is part of a broader process outlined in the Uluru Statement of the Heart that was drafted and shared with the Australian people in 2017. The Uluru Statement was developed through a series of regional dialogues that included the participation of over 1,200 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders from across Australia.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart artwork is made by senior Maruku artist and traditional owner of Uluru, Rene Kulitja with Mutitjulu artists Christine Brumby, Charmaine Kulitja and Happy Reid.

Three elements are central to the Uluru Statement: Voice, Treaty, and Truth. These elements are critical and must be worked on alongside one another.

The Uluru Statement specifically noted that the Voice must be permanently recognized in the Constitution, which is why the government has taken this path.

No treaty exists, or has ever existed, between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and either the British crown or the modern Australian nation state. Treaties in the colonial era were often broken, however treaties globally often recognized that Indigenous Peoples had rights in terms of their relationship with land and crucially exercised sovereignty over the land. Under the Uluru Statement, the process for Treaty would consist of agreement-making between government and First Nations Peoples that acknowledges the historical and contemporary cultural rights and interests of First Peoples by formally recognizing sovereignty and that land was never ceded.

The Uluru Statement calls for the establishment of a Makarrata Commission to supervise agreement-making and truth telling to enable understanding to Australia’s colonial history and its legacy as experienced through contemporary impacts.

The Voice is critical in ensuring that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders can help guide decisions that affect their communities in the most effective way. The First Nations Referendum Working Group’s design principles for the Voice has indicated that advice can be given both in response to a request from government or Parliament and proactively. The design principles also indicate that members of the Voice will be expected to reflect the wishes of their respective community. The Voice will work in conjunction with the existing organisations and traditional structures. Consultation is to take place with grassroots communities and regional entities to ensure that any representations made by the Voice is informed by their experience, including those who have been historically excluded from participation.

The Voice has the potential to make a significant, beneficial contribution in future environmental decision-making in Australia, especially in relation to natural disasters and climate change policy. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are often more vulnerable to the impacts of disasters, including drought and sea-level rise. Intersecting cultural, social, historical, legal, political, and economic conditions have meant that Indigenous people have been overrepresented in the number of those impacted by disaster in Australia. Participation and community-based management are recognised as central to effective disaster response and management and the Voice holds the potential for greater Indigenous representation and participation to better respond to these threats to vulnerable communities. Greater participation and engagement through the Voice could not only benefit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, however. First Nations Peoples hold thousands of years of knowledge and experience in responding to changing climates and conditions. The Voice could be a means through which this expertise is better integrated into governance, benefitting all Australians.

“ When we listen to First Nations peoples, when we respect their knowledge and wisdom, and when we empower First Nations communities, we see better outcomes for all. The Voice is about listening to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and ensuring they have greater say over matters that affect them.” – Emergency Leaders for Climate Action

The Global Network for Human Rights and the Environment supports Voice, Treaty, Truth and the full implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.