An Indigenous Voice to Parliament in Australia

A watershed election for Indigenous Australians . . .

When the Australian Labor Party won the Australian federal election last month, new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s acceptance speech was remarkable in the context of Indigenous affairs. He opened by acknowledging the traditional Indigenous owners of land in Australia and committed his government in full to the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart,’ an invitation from First Nations to walk together “in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.” The former Liberal/National coalition government, which lost the election last month, had agreed to implement only portions of the Statement.

What’s in the Uluru Statement?

The ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ calls for a First Nations Voice to Parliament – a two-way representative and advisory body – to be enshrined in the country’s constitution and the establishment of a Makarrata Commission to supervise treaty- and agreement-making between First Nations and governments and a truth-telling process. Makarrata is a word from the Yolngu people in northern Australia that means “people coming together after a disagreement.” It also identifies that First Nations sovereignty in Australia was never ceded and that it continues today in co-existence with the sovereignty of the Crown. The Statement was developed through a series of 13 dialogues of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people held across Australia, culminating in the First Nations Constitutional Convention in 2017 held at Uluru, the important Indigenous site near the centre of the Australian continent.

Next steps . . .

Enshrining the First Nations Voice to Parliament in the constitution would require a referendum, possibly as early as May 2023. But Australian referenda require a ‘double majority’ of more than half of all voters as well as half of all voters in four of the country’s six states. Only 8 of 44 referenda have passed in the country’s history and none for more than 40 years. The Labor Government wants to undertake more consultation to identify specific phrasing of the proposed constitutional change and how the referendum question would be framed. It also wants to ensure support from the opposition Liberal/National coalition. And while amending the constitution would ensure a First Nations Voice to Parliament could not be abolished by future legislation, some observers argue the Voice to Parliament should be introduced through legislation now, with moves toward a referendum in the future.