A referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian Constitution and to establish a Voice to Parliament to represent their interests will be held on Saturday the 14th of October. Here we provide some basic information about the referendum and its history.
What is a referendum to change the Constitution?
The Australian Constitution came about through a process of negotiation and compromise between the six Australian colonies. The colonies had been self-governing for many years, but they saw the benefits of uniting into a federation. This would allow them to speak with one voice on the world stage, and it would also make it easier to manage their common interests, such as defense and trade.
The Constitution is a complex document that sets down the powers of each of our three branches of governance – the Parliament, the Executive and the Courts and the relationship between the Commonwealth Government and the States. It includes section xxvi which permits the Commonwealth to make laws with respect to the people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws.
A referendum is a vote by Australians to change the Australian Constitution. Only a vote of the people can change the Constitution.
For a referendum to be successful a ‘double majority’ must vote ‘yes’ to the proposed changes. That means there has to be an overall majority of voters across Australia and a majority of voters in at least 4 of the 6 States. People in the Territories get counted in the overall national vote but not in the separate State votes.
What is the referendum proposal?
The referendum proposal is as follows:
In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia:
(i) there shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice;
(ii) 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
(iv) 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.
In straight forward terms:
(1) the referendum recognises the long history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Constitution.
(2) The referendum requires the Commonwealth Parliament to establish a body to give advice to the Parliament and the Government on matters that affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.
(3) The referendum makes it clear that Parliament has the power to determine how the new body to be known as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice will operate. The Parliament will determine who will be on the new body, its functions, its powers and its procedures.
How did the referendum come about?
Many other countries, including Canada, New Zealand, Columbia and Mexico have special provisions in their national Constitutions to protect the rights of their indigenous peoples and to give them a voice. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) affirms the rights of indigenous peoples to self-determination, self-governance, and the protection of their culture, language, and land. The Declaration was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007 and has been ratified by over 80 countries. Canada and New Zealand are signatories. Australia is not.
The referendum to change the Australian Constitution follows 15 years of extensive consultation and negotiation that began following a bipartisan commitment by both Labor and the Coalition to constitutional recognition at the 2007 election. It led to the establishment of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition established in 2010.
In 2012 the Report by the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians explored the options for constitutional change. This was followed by the Report by the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples about steps towards a successful referendum on Indigenous Constitutional Recognition in 2015.
In 2015 the Kirribilli statement was presented by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander attendees at a meeting with the then Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten on Constitutional Recognition.
The Referendum Council held First Nations Regional Dialogues across Australia to discuss constitutional recognition with First Nations people in 2016 and 2017.
In May 2017, at a milestone event, two hundred and fifty First Nations Representatives called for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander Voice through the Uluru Statement from the Heart and in June 2017 The Final report of the Referendum Council, supported the findings of the First Nations Regional Dialogues.
In 2018 the Final Report of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition then recommended a co-design process to develop models and options for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice leading to the Indigenous Voice Co-design members releasing their final report in 2021.
The Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese then committed to implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full in 2022 leading to the referendum proposal.
How will the referendum be conducted
The referendum will be held on Saturday 14 October. Voting is compulsory. You have until Monday, September 18 at 8pm to enrol to vote. Postal voting closes at 6pm, 11th of October.
The AEC is currently in the process of finalising the locations of polling places and pre-poll voting centres for the referendum.
A referendum booklet has been circulated to all households setting out the wording for the Constitution. Commonwealth Parliamentarians who voted for the referendum to go ahead have prepared a ‘Yes’ case in the booklet and Parliamentarians who voted against the referendum going ahead prepared the ‘No’ case. There is an online brochure setting out each case.
In summary, the yes case argues that passing the referendum would recognise the long history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in a Australia and the importance of listening to their advice about matters that affect them so that governments make better decisions. The no case argues the referendum is legally risky, permanent and has unknown consequences.