WASHINGTON, DC — The question that will be before Australians later this year is only the latest iteration of a struggle as long as the history of Australia itself. In the upcoming referendum, or vote to amend the Constitution, voters will decide whether or not “to recognize the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.” Advocates of the Voice to Parliament hope that a direct line of access to the government will help lessen the many inequities that Indigenous peoples face in the country, which include a shorter life expectancy, twice the infant mortality rate and much higher rates of chronic diseases compared with non-Indigenous Australians. The poverty rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, based on the country’s 50% median income threshold, stands at 31% – more than twice the national rate.
To gain insight into how a Voice to Parliament could profoundly impact the lives of Indigenous Peoples across Australia, The Borgen Project spoke with Selwyn Button, Chair of the Lowitja Institute and member of the Referendum Engagement Group. The Lowitja Institute is the only Indigenous community-controlled research institute in the country, while the Referendum Engagement Group plays a pivotal role in fostering awareness and understanding of the referendum process among the public.
Politicization — A Shifting Narrative
Until 1967, Australia did not recognize Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples as “part of the population.” A 1967 referendum granted the federal government power to make legislation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples, who as a result of the referendum were legally considered citizens of the country. “What we’ve seen in terms of outcomes since that time,” Button told The Borgen Project, “is that things aren’t changing. Things aren’t improving.” Through the Voice, Indigenous Peoples are looking “to be able to sit at the table with politicians and with government, with bureaucrats, to have the conversation about effective policies before they come out, as opposed to reacting to them after the fact.”
Australia has not had a referendum since 1999; the last successful one took place in 1977. “People forget the process and forget the steps around what a referendum looks like,” Button noted. Australians have been asking, “‘Where’s the detail? We need to see the detail before we go to the polls.’” The Australian Constitution, like the American Constitution, is “light on detail because it’s a principle-based document. And what happens is that you’re actually asking the Australian public to insert a new principle.” Once that new principle has been adopted, it is then up to Australia’s Parliament “to determine what that legislation looks like, and that actually informs what the form and function of the Voice should be.”
2017 Uluru Statement
While Prime Minister Anthony Albanese championed the Voice, the upcoming referendum finds its origins in long-term community organizing that reached a consequential milestone with the 2017 release of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Indigenous leaders from across the country crafted the document which involved 12 regional dialogues. The process culminated in a National Constitutional Convention at Uluru, marking, “the most proportionally significant consultation process of First Nations Peoples Australia has ever seen.” The Uluru Statement contains two calls: for a constitutionally-enshrined Voice to Parliament and the formation of a Makarrata Commission to oversee a treaty-making and truth-telling process.
The Impact of a Principle
Given that a majority of voters nationwide and a majority of voters in at least four out of six states must vote “yes,” the referendum is not sure to succeed. Some believe the Voice goes too far in promoting Indigenous sovereignty, adding unnecessary bureaucracy, while others fear it does not go far enough.
The Borgen Project asked Button how he would see a Voice to Parliament being supportive of the work of the Lowitja Institute. “Given the Lowitja Institute’s been around for about 30 years, we have a body of knowledge… based on community stories about practical solutions for everyday things.” If the referendum were successful, this research could be used “to inform what new legislation and policy needs to look like to improve outcomes for our own people.” While the referendum is indeed a question of principles, those principles are not merely symbolic – once acted upon, they have tangible impacts on everyday life.
A Broader Picture
Models for promoting Indigenous sovereignty exist in several countries throughout the world.
- In New Zealand, Te Tiriti O Waitangi (The Treaty of Waitangi) underpins the right to Maori self-determination under the eyes of the Crown, while the Waitangi Tribunal offers a process for reconciliation and the resolution of Treaty-related disputes.
- In Norway, Sweden and Finland, Sámi Parliaments act as “consultative bodies whose purpose is to promote and preserve cultural self-determination, covering matters such as language, traditional livelihood, land rights and social wellbeing.”
- In Canada, the Assembly of First Nations functions as a political and policy forum for First Nations leaders to discuss issues, develop strategies and promote the rights and interests of their communities.
The Many Meanings of Sovereignty
If approved, the referendum will be the first recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as Australia’s First Peoples since the Constitution’s passage in 1901. While the Voice to Parliament would serve as a crucial step in fulfilling the promise of the Uluru Statement of the Heart, the question of Indigenous Sovereignty is broader than recognition by the Commonwealth. Further illuminating the complexities of the issue, Button asserted: “My sovereignty as an individual comes from my people, the Gungarri people… The only people that can take my sovereignty away are Gungarri elders, not the Australian government.”
– Hannah Carrigan