Voice referendum: what will the vote mean for Australia’s Indigenous peoples?

The referendum will be held on October 14, 2023 (AFP via Getty Images)
The referendum will be held on October 14, 2023 (AFP via Getty Images)

The Australian Electoral Commission has called for “civility” as the country prepares for this week’s referendum on whether Indigenous peoples can advise parliament on policies that affect their lives.

Early voting has started in the official referendum, known as the Voice, which will be held on Saturday, October 14. However, those unable to take part on polling day were able to cast their votes earlier this week.

Indigenous Australians, who are the most disadvantaged ethnic group in Australia, will be recognised in the country’s constitution if the majority vote ‘yes’. The bill would acknowledge the special place that Indigenous peoples have in Australian history, as well as allow them to have a greater say in government policies.

It would be a huge change in Australia for a group that suffers disproportionately from low life expectancy, high rates of suicide, domestic violence and imprisonment. Australia PM, Anthony Albanese, said the vote would be a “once-in-a-generation chance to bring our country together”.

However, the upcoming vote has also caused tension among the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camps. Some people in the indigenous community are against the Voice, arguing that it doesn’t go far enough, or alternatively goes too far. Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians Jacinta Nampijinpa Price told ABC Radio Adelaide that the referendum had caused “division”.

According to ABC news, opinion polls have shown that a majority of Australians will vote against the proposal but Mr Albanese has said he will not give up and that “arrogance” has crept into the no campaign’s ranks.

The Australian Electoral Commission has called for order after reports of polling booth staff being filmed without their consent and subjected to false accusations, the Guardian has reported.

What is the referendum?

On referendum day, Australian adult citizens will be asked to vote. The question they will be posed is: “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?”

If the referendum is passed, the constitution would be rewritten to state that the Voice “may make representations” to the parliament and executive government “on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”.

The Voice would include Indigenous Australians from all eight states and territories, and the Torres Strait Islands as well as remote and regional communities.

Members would be chosen by local Indigenous people and serve for a fixed period.

The proposal comes after fierce debate in Australia, and was recommended by a historic document in 2017, the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It was drafted by over 250 Indigenous leaders, and is considered the best call to action for reforms that affect First Nations Australians.

The leader of the opposition and Voice opponent, Peter Dutton, said there is not enough detail behind the proposal and has said it could racially divide Australians.

Mr Dutton has been accused of race-baiting and spreading disinformation.

When is it being held?

The referendum will be held on Saturday, October 14, 2023.

Australia’s last referendum took place in 1999, when it opted not to become a republic.

Australian PM Anthony Albanese (via REUTERS)
Australian PM Anthony Albanese (via REUTERS)

What has Anthony Albanese said?

Anthony Albanese has said that the Voice would be “a committee of Indigenous Australians, chosen by Indigenous Australians, giving advice to the government so that we can get a better result for Indigenous Australians”.

“You’re being asked... to say yes to an idea whose time has come – to say yes to an invitation that comes directly from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves.”

“There are local success stories out there. Just imagine the progress we could make with a voice connecting the regions with the nation,” Albanese added.

“Giving locals a say of course means that we save money too. Because we’ll be making sure the funding actually reaches the people on the ground.

“No more waste. Better results, where they are needed.”

Indigenous people may finally be given a Voice in parliament (Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images)
Indigenous people may finally be given a Voice in parliament (Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images)

What have Indigenous groups said?

Thomas Mayo is director of the nonprofit group Australians for Indigenous Constitutional Recognition, as well as a Kaurareg Aboriginal and a Kalkalgal, Erubamle Torres Strait Islander. He said: “It’s an opportunity for Australia to be unique in the world, sharing over 60,000 years of Indigenous heritage and culture in a practical way that gives greater fairness to Indigenous people.”

Lidia Thorpe, the first Aboriginal senator in the state of Victoria, said the Voice could override existing Indigenous governance systems.

“I have supported and amplified the voices of the Sovereign ‘No’ camp, which is made up of First Nations people across the country that have never ceded their sovereignty and do not want to be recognised in the colonizer’s constitution,” she told NBC News.

Indigenous groups in Australia have faced considerable hardship throughout the centuries. Between 1910 and the 1970s, a third of Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families in an attempt to assimilate them into white society. In some families, children from three or more generations were taken. They are known as the “stolen generation”.