Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese choked up Thursday as he announced the terms of a referendum that would lead to a profound constitutional change: the creation of a new representative body composed of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, in what would be known as the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. If passed, it would be the country’s first successful constitutional referendum in 46 years.
Supporters say that if Australians back the referendum, which is scheduled to go to a vote late this year, it could help rectify a longstanding wrong in the country: a failure to consult Indigenous people and recognize their 65,000 years of history in Australia.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should have a say in the decisions and policies that affect their lives,” Albanese said, when describing the proposal. “Not just because it’s common courtesy and decency to ask people before you take a decision that will have an impact on them, but because when you reach out and listen to communities, you get better results.”
What is the Voice to Parliament?
If made law, the Voice to Parliament would be a representative body composed of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who make up about 3% of Australians today. They would represent their communities’ interests to the parliament and Executive Government of the Commonwealth, which would consult them on laws and policies. Its members would be selected by Indigenous peoples, and not appointed by the government. Its authority would inherently be limited, as it would not have veto power and it would not deliver programs.
It was first proposed in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a document signed by more than 250 delegates representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in 2017 following meetings with Indigenous representatives from across the country.
What do supporters of the Voice to Parliament believe?
Advocates say that the Voice to Parliament would make the government more responsive to Indigenous people and could help to address the lingering effects of colonialism, including its legacy of discrimination, violence and displacement. Unlike former British colonies, Australia does not have a treaty with the Indigenous population, and its constitution does not recognize them as the country’s first peoples.
Supporters say that better representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders will help to improve long-standing inequities. Indigenous representation in the government has improved in recent years, and Indigenous politicians now make up about 5% of parliamentarians. However, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples face major social inequities in Australia, including a life expectancy that lags 10 years behind other Australians; high unemployment; and high mortality among infants and children. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are about 10 times more likely to be incarcerated than other Australians and make up 26% of the prison population, according to Amnesty International.
“When we ran the dialogues all over Australia, our people spoke about not being listened to and not being heard. They spoke about powerlessness and voicelessness,” said Megan Davies, an Indigenous human rights lawyer who helped develop the proposal following consultations with communities, in a statement.
What needs to happen for the proposal to become law?
More than half of Australians support the Voice to Parliament becoming law, but the margin has narrowed over time. That’s a challenge, because Australia does not have a strong history of passing referendums on constitutional change. 44 referendums have been held since 1901, but only eight carried—and none since 1977. And to make a constitutional change, the vote must receive a double majority: a national majority, as well as a majority in more than half of states.
Albanese, meanwhile, expressed confidence that the referendum will pass, and that it will help achieve better outcomes for Indigenous people.
“I know that every Australian wants to see our nation do better than this. Because our nation is better than this,” he said.
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