The Indigenous Voice: An explainer on Australia’s 45th referendum

By: arron williams&
October 13 2023

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The Indigenous Voice: An explainer on Australia’s 45th referendum

Signages are seen at an early voting centre for the Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum in Melbourne, Australia October 2, 2023. AAP Image/Joel Carrett via REUTERS

On October 14, 2023, Australians will vote in the country’s 45th referendum. The referendum, on the Indigenous voice, proposes the question, “A proposed law: To alter the Constitution to recognize the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?”

As outlined in the official referendum pamphlet, the proposed law would recognize the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia. To recognize this, it would create “the Voice,” which “may make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.” Eighty-three percent of First Nations people support the Voice.

The First Nations people of Australia consist of Aboriginal people on Australia’s mainland and the culturally distinct Torres Strait Islanders. Current estimates state that there are 983,700 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia, representing 3.8 percent of the population. Of the 3.8 percent, 91.7 percent identified as Aboriginal, 4 percent as Torres Straight Islander, and 4.3 percent as both.

However, the path to approval is fraught with political debate and faces heavy opposition, causing mis- and disinformation. Polls suggest that the “no” vote is likely to be successful, as opposition to the referendum sits at about 50-55 percent. More recent polls suggest the gap between the votes has closed, with support for the referendum at 43 percent and opposition at 49 percent. Despite this increase, it is still possible that the referendum will not be approved.

Dr. Agnieszka Sobocinska, director of the Menzies Australia Institute at King’s College London, told Logically Facts that if the referendum is unsuccessful, then “it’s possible but probably not likely in the near future” that another referendum to establish an Indigenous Voice would be held.

Referendums in Australia also face other difficulties, both in terms of a track record of disapproval and in the voting process itself. The referendum requires a double majority for the constitution to be changed. This means more than 50 percent of the national voters and at least four out of the six states need to vote yes for the referendum to be approved. In Australia’s past 44 referendums, only eight have been carried through and successfully made changes to the constitution.

How did the Voice referendum come about?

aus pm voteAustralian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese casts his vote with his son Nathan in the referendum for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament at Marrickville Town Hall in Sydney, Australia October 7, 2023. (Source: AAP Image/Michelle Haywood via REUTERS)

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice was recommended and drafted in 2017 as part of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The statement was drafted and proposed by 250 Indigenous leaders who were delegates of the First Nations National Constitutional Convention. However, the conservative government at the time rejected the proposal. 

The proposal for the Voice is that it would be an independent and permanent advisory body that would advise the government on issues affecting First Nations people. The Voice itself would be made up of Indigenous Australians. These members would be selected by the First Nations people in their local area and would represent and advise on Indigenous issues to inform law and policy that affects their community. 

Dr. Sobocinska says, "If approved, the constitution will protect the Voice. However, the referendum is very vague about what shape the Voice advisory body will actually take, and the government won’t be bound to act according to its advice, so there is potential for a future government to sideline the Voice advisory body entirely.”

If approved, the Voice would not be the world's first body of its kind. In 1989, Norway established a Sámi Parliament, made up of elected indigenous representatives, to represent the indigenous issues of the Sámi people. Sweden and Finland followed in 1993 and 1996, respectively, forming similar national bodies to represent Sámi issues.

What the referendum won’t do

The Voice referendum is specifically about altering the constitution to recognize the First Peoples of Australia through establishing the Voice. Australians are not voting on the details of the Voice; the referendum purely enshrines it in the constitution.

If the referendum is approved, the composition and details of the Voice will be determined and debated by Parliament. This discussion would determine the Voice’s functions, powers, and procedures and be determined through consultation with the public and Indigenous communities.  

The decision to leave the details about the Voice out of the referendum was decided by Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese. In 2022, he stated that he wanted to avoid past referendum mistakes where people who disagreed with a single element out of all the clauses were urged to vote no. He further stated, "The legislation of the structure of the Voice won’t happen before the referendum.”

Indigenous Rights in Australia

A cyclist rides past the Australian flag, the Indigenous flag and the flag of the Torres Strait Islands, in Canberra, Australia October 13, 2023. (Source: AAP Image/Lukas Coch via REUTERS)

Like many colonized areas, Indigenous Australians suffered extensively from oppression and racism. When the Constitution was established in 1901, it did not count or recognize Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as part of its population. This meant that states could make their own policies for these Indigenous communities.

This led to injustice and oppression through government laws and policies, including the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families, a period known as “The Stolen Generations.” From the mid-1800s to 1970, children were systematically taken from their families, culture, and communities by police, placed in institutions, or adopted by non-indigenous parents, refused access to their culture, and often suffered abuse. The Stolen Generations broke important cultural and family ties and left a lasting intergenerational impact on the lives of Australia’s indigenous population. Today, there are more than 17,000 Stolen Generation survivors in Australia.

However, progress has been made for Indigenous Rights in Australia with the successful approval of the 1967 referendum. This changed the constitution so that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were counted as part of the population. In 2009, the Australian Government supported the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. In 2008, then-prime minister Kevin Rudd formally apologized to members of the Stolen Generations.

But while improvements have been made in some areas, Australia’s Indigenous community still faces issues of racism and discrimination. Two charity reports, in 2020 and 2021, show that the rate of Indigenous reporting of racism has increased in recent years. Aboriginal people are also victims of police violence, with more than 437 deaths reported in custody since the 1990s, several fatal police shootings, and high imprisonment rates, making up 28 percent of the prison population in Australia.

It is these issues that the Voice, if approved, can potentially help to address by advising the government to create better policies to tackle injustice and racial abuse. The official “yes” pamphlet also states that the Voice would aim to address other challenges faced by Indigenous communities, such as lower life expectancies, higher rates of disease, suicide, and fewer educational opportunities.

Conspiracies and misinformation

Beyond the political debates and history of referendums, discourse around the referendum has also been tangled with misinformation. 

Professor Axel Bruns, a program leader of the Digital Media Research Centre at Queensland University of Technology, told Logically Facts that “broadly, there are two types of disinformation circulating in the context of the Voice to Parliament referendum. The first, which accounts for a smaller number of claims, is making allegations about the integrity of the electoral process itself.” These claims include that the vote will be rigged and ballot boxes tampered with. 

An X post claiming that the Voice Referendum has been rigged. (Source: X)

The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) states that it is an independent statutory authority established in 1984 and maintains an impartial and independent electoral system. The AEC also refuted rigging claims in its Disinformation register, stating, “Referendums are run using the same infrastructure as federal elections. This involves 100,000+ temporary staff undertaking the count, under the supervision of AEC staff and independent scrutineers.”

Professor Bruns further explained, “These claims are clearly modeled on and influenced by similar rhetoric, especially in the United States over their past few election cycles – some claims state that electronic voting machines will be rigged – which is a particularly obvious U.S. import since Australia very sensibly does not use electronic voting machines. The importation of such disinformation from the U.S. to Australia is not entirely new, but has increased in recent times.” 

The second form of disinformation focuses on the details and nature of the Voice referendum. Professor Bruns explains that these claims transpire from genuine questions but fall prey to disinformation “largely because the Voice is a new and as yet poorly understood mechanism. The uncertainty that necessarily still surrounds it can be actively exploited to sow discord and generate fear.”

This uncertainty is a crucial part of the “no” campaign, and one of the key arguments of the “no” pamphlet is that it is “unknown.” The pamphlet aims to sow doubt and fear by stating, “We don’t know how it will work, we don’t know who will be on it, but we do know it will permanently divide us as Australians.” This doubt also informs its slogan: “Don’t know, vote no.”

One prominent claim is that the Voice would have the power to veto government decisions. However, the Voice would be an advisory body with no veto power. These claims were refuted by The Constitutional Expert Group, a panel of legal experts that advised on and supported the drafting of the proposed amendment, and by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

A screenshot of a post on X claiming the referendum would lead to a “veto on the government.” (Source: X)

Another prominent and racially charged narrative is that the Voice would lead to “apartheid” in Australia. While these claims are not from the “no” pamphlet, they are linked to the general claim pushed by “no” campaigners that the Voice would be divisive and empower one race over others.

A post on X linking the Voice to apartheid (Source: X)

Legal experts have refuted these claims. Professor Ben Saul, the Challis Chair of International Law at the University of Sydney, told RMIT University’s Fact Lab, "It is ludicrous to compare the Voice to apartheid” and rejected the claims, adding, “The Voice does not in any way involve Indigenous Australians perpetrating any inhuman acts against other Australians, or establishing systematic oppression and domination over other Australians.” 

Another common argument tied to this narrative is that the Voice would add “race” into or “racialize” the Australian constitution. However, the Constitution already includes and refers to race in section 51. 

Professor Bruns explains that the more extreme narratives, such as those about veto powers and the reshaping of race relations, “tend to originate with fringe political actors, including minor party politicians; there is also substantial evidence for the involvement of Australian far-right, racist, and neo-Nazi groups.”

He further stated that “arguably some of their heated rhetoric is also influencing more mainstream voices. Leading No campaigner Nyunggai Warren Mundine recently called the Uluru Declaration, which serves as the foundation of the Voice proposal, a ‘symbolic declaration of war against modern Australia’ - which is as fundamentally incorrect as it is extreme and inflammatory in its choice of wording.”

Dr. Matthew Marques, a social psychologist from La Trobe University, told Logically Facts, "Misinformation, or disinformation, is designed to be eye-catching and appealing - often leveraging negative emotional content to draw you in.” He advises readers dealing with potential misinformation about the referendum to “take a step back from the content, verify the source is trustworthy, and if still in doubt, do some homework and look more closely into the information.”

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