Everything You Need To Know To Vote In The The Indigenous Voice To Parliament Referendum

An aboriginal flag. The Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum explainer.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has announced that we’ll all be voting on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament on October 14, 2023. Here’s your explainer on what this all means and what’ll happen next.

What is the Indigenous Voice to Parliament?

In case you haven’t been fully across the Voice to Parliament, it’s a proposal to enshrine an Indigenous voice in the constitution by way of a First Nations-led advisory body.

This would allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to give advice on matters which impact their lives, rather than have choices made for them.

When is the Voice to Parliament Referendum?

The Indigenous Voice to Parliament Referendum is officially locked in for Saturday, 14 October, after Governor General David Hurley issued the writ for it to the Australian Electoral Commission.

We now have one week to enrol or update our details on the electoral role to vote, with the roll closing next Monday, 18 September. Postal voting applications are also now open.

FYI, it’s compulsory to vote and Australia’s electoral laws don’t allow for online voting.

Key dates you need to know for the referendum:

  • 11 September: Issue of writ, postal voting applications open
  • 18 September: Rolls close at 8pm
  • 25 September: Remote voter services begin
  • 2 October: Early voting begins for the Northern Territory, Tasmania, Victoria and WA
  • 3 October: Early voting begins for ACT, NSW, Queensland and SA
  • 11 October: Postal voting applications close at 6pm
  • 14 October: Voting day

Where are we at with the Voice right now?

The bill that will set up the referendum for us to vote on the Voice passed in Parliament, and Governor General David Hurley has issued the writ for the referendum to the Australian Electoral Commission.

The Senate vote ended months of procedures and other bureaucracies and cemented the referendum in place. The final vote in the Senate was 52 for the Voice referendum, 19 against. The 19 that were against were a mixed bunch — the usual suspects of the Nationals and One Nation, but also Independent Senator Lidia Thorpe, who dubbed the Voice as tokenistic and created to “appease white guilt”. More on that later on in this article, because it’s all more complicated than you think.

ICYMI, the final vote in the lower house earlier this year in May was 121 in favour of the legislation, 25 against. Shocking no one, the Liberals and Nationals were the ones who moved to block the referendum — they’ve been pretty vocal in their opposition to the Voice.

However, things did get a little spicy: former shadow minister for Indigenous Australians Julian Leeser, who quit the Liberal frontbench to back the Voice, wanted its proposal to ditch the bit which says the Voice will be able to advise the “executive government”.

He argued that having that little line will turn off Aussie voters from supporting the Voice, and he wants it to have the best opportunity to get a yes vote.

As pointed out by Independent MP Zoe Daniel, that’s a bullshit adjustment because it basically kneecaps the Voice to Parliament body and makes it even more tokenistic than some might argue it already is.

“I understand the Member’s good faith intention to alleviate the concerns of some, but I fear that such a change will undermine the confidence in the point of all of this among all Australians, but particularly First Nations Australians who rightly deserve something more than symbolism,” she said, per ABC News.

Fellow Independant Andrew Gee seconded this, and pointed out that the Voice “is rendered meaningless” if its powers to advise the government are removed. I mean, at that point, why even create one?

“If you really want constitutional uncertainty, if you really want constitutional chaos, then take out the very clause which defines the Voice,” he said.

Pop off king!

How will the Voice to Parliament work?

The Albanese government also introduced the Indigenous Voice to Parliament “design principles” in March, though they aren’t finalised — they’re more like the overall guide. The exact workings of the Voice will be determined after the referendum, which is strange given I’d like to know what I’m voting for before I vote for it, but go off I guess?

Anyway, the key points are:

  1. The Voice will give independent advice to the Parliament and Government on Indigenous affairs, have its own resources so it can do its own research, and be able to respond to requests for representations in Parliament.
  2. The First Nations people on the Voice will be selected by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and only serve for a fixed period of time. How they will be chosen remains to be seen.
  3. The Voice will be gender balanced, have remote representations and also represent youth.
  4. It will be “empowering, community-led, inclusive, respectful and culturally informed”.
  5. It will require transparency and accountability through reporting, and members will be in the scope of the National Anti-Corruption Commission.
  6. The Voice will work alongside existing organisations and structures.
  7. The Voice can recommend improvements or changes in services, but cannot manage money or deliver these services.

What is the exact wording of the Indigenous Voice Referendum question?

In a press conference in March, it was announced that the official question the parliament is considering to put to Aussies at the 2023 referendum will be: “A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?”

The proposed new chapter in the Constitution will be as follows:

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 Straight Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.

What are the concerns about the Voice to Parliament?

There’s been a lot of confusion around the Voice, because while it may seem obvious to some that enshrining Indigenous people’s representation into the constitution is good, there are some complications — namely around its implementation and who gets to vote on it.

As pointed out by those hesitant to vote in favour of the Voice due to fears of tokenism, it appears it will be purely advisory. Meaning it will be able to make suggestions to parliament, but there is no obligation for parliament to actually implement these suggestions.

Others sceptical of the Voice have also been critical of the fact that it is being put to referendum, with some Indigenous folk previously expressing concern that because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people only make up 3.8 per cent of Australia’s population, it’s not fair that everyone gets to vote on their affairs — the vast majority of people voting on the Voice won’t be Indigenous.

And there’s also the fact that people serving a sentence of more than three years in prison cannot vote in federal elections or referendums. Given First Nations people are overrepresented in prisons, this means thousands of Indigenous folk won’t get a say about their own Voice.

What is Anthony Albanese’s take on the Voice to Parliament and the referendum?

Albanese said there’s no chance the referendum will be called off, insisting it will be a “unifying moment” for Australia, and it looks like he was right about that first bit. He also insisted the Voice’s purely advisory powers are “not about symbolism” but “about recognition, something that’s far more important”.

“Consultation through the Voice is about strengthening parliament’s understanding, not supplanting its authority,” Albanese said in the press conference.

“It won’t take decision-making power away from government, or parliament, but it will help governments and parliaments make better decisions and achieve better outcomes.”

Despite this, he told 2GB’s Ben Fordham that if the Voice votes to change the date Australia Day is celebrated, he will ignore it. So, yeah, not reassuring.

In an emotional speech, Albanese also appeared to suggest the ongoing oppression First Nations people experience is because of a lack of consultation with their communities, not because the government has actively and purposefully harmed them. Hmmm.

“On every measure, there is a gap between the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the national average,” he said.

“A 10-year gap in life expectancy, a suicide rate twice as high, tragic levels of child mortality and disease.

“A massive over-representation in the prison population, in deaths in custody, in children sent to out-of-home care.

“And this is not because of a shortage of goodwill or good intentions on any side of politics. And that’s not because of a lack of funds.

“It’s because governments have spent decades trying to impose solutions from Canberra, rather than consulting with communities.”

Um, what?

While there is no doubt that consulting with First Nations communities is a positive step in the right direction, it is genuinely ludicrous to suggest that no one in government can be blamed for its inaction on Indigenous issues. Sometimes it’s been directly harmful.

The tearing down of a sacred Djab Wurrung directions tree, the increase of child removal from Aboriginal communities since our government’s national apology and our increasing rates of Blak deaths in custody are all examples of our government failing First Nations people. It’s not fkn right to pretend that all of this was an accident that came out of misplaced goodwill.

Back in March, Labor’s reconciliation envoy Senator Pat Dodson called out Anthony Albanese for failing to take action on Aboriginal deaths in custody despite its push for a Voice to Parliament.

Dodson was a commissioner for the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and pointed out that it’s been 32 years since the commission’s findings, with our government still yet to take all the action necessary to prevent future First Nations deaths in custody.

Since the commission, more than 500 prisoners have died in their cells.

So yeah, it’s pretty misleading (if not downright deceptive) to suggest Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ deaths at the hands of police only happened out of a lack of “consulting with communities”.

Kindly get the fuck out of here with that shit.

What are the “Yes” and “No” campaigns?

The upcoming referendum has led to “Yes” and “No” campaigns, each convincing the public which way to vote about the referendum. However, it’s not so binary — some people are voting for the same outcomes, but for completely different reasons.

A committee of six leads the “NO” campaign, or “No Case Committee”, four members of which are Indigenous.

They feel the proposed Voice to Parliament is “the wrong way to recognise Aboriginal people or help Aboriginal Australians in need” and seek a Treaty first, which would put First Nations people on par with the government instead of just in an advisory role.

Members include Northern Territory Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Former ALP President Warren Mundine.

Other Indigenous activists have also been concerned about the Voice given it’s being implemented by a government that has a history of violent colonialism, and so are waiting for the government to earn their trust first, by implementing other initiatives like recommendations from the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody, which some might argue should have been prioritised long ago.

And then there’s the question of who makes up the Voice and how they will be chosen — something we’re still in the dark about.

There’s also another, sadly more popular, “No” campaign led by the likes of Peter Dutton, which seems pretty disingenuous and appears to have more issue with Aboriginal people getting recognition than it does with the nitty gritty of the actual legislation.

Unsurprisingly, right-wing groups have flocked to this argument, with Indigenous folk noting its use by racists. Let’s not give it any more of a platform than it already has.

The “Yes” campaign has a more cohesive votership and is the least controversial.

Team “Yes” includes Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, as you may have noticed, as well as Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney, the Australians for Indigenous Constitutional Recognition group and those behind the Uluru Statement from the Heart. 

These groups argue that the Voice is a beautiful symbol of recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and that advisory powers are already a huge step in the right direction.

The general premise is that some action is better than no action, and that enshrining Indigenous voices into the constitution is an important symbolic gesture towards future reconciliation. It would not only recognise the struggle of Aboriginal people historically, but put more weight to their voices in the eye of the public.