Image by Uluru Statement from the Heart.

This year, we will have a once in a generation opportunity to fundamentally change our story. Australians in 2023 are being given a chance to respond with a ‘yes’ in the referendum as to whether First Nations Peoples gain a voice in matters that overwhelmingly affect them.

How can we be a true commonwealth, a united and healed nation, without Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders having a voice to help inform policy and legal decisions that mainly impacts their lives?

Prime Minister Albanese says: “… it is a simple proposition, that we recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our constitution, and that they have a voice, that they be consulted. I regard it as good manners”.

Long-term critics of the Voice have claimed there’s little detail available, while actively ignoring the information that is available. However, the referendum is really about whether we in principle support empowering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices to advise Parliament, as opposed to the details of a First Nations Voice to be established.

Ultimately the details will be decided by the Parliament in consultation with First Nations peoples and their representative organisations and possibly by a Constitutional Convention to build consensus around a form of words to enshrine a Voice in the Australian Constitution. The last Constitutional Convention was held in 1998 to discuss retaining the constitutional monarchy or becoming a republic.

For those wanting more detail, Albanese said that “people can log on now” to read the Calma and Langton report (view here) or the report of the parliamentary Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, co-chaired by Leeser and Dodson (view here).

The Calma and Langton report Indigenous Voice Co-design Process – Final Report to the Australian Government was itself the product of 18 months of consultation across 115 communities with 9,478 people and organisations. The process received more than 4,000 submissions and surveys and conducted more than 120 stakeholder meetings.

The Final Report of the co-design process [1] outlines an Indigenous Voice made up of two parts that work together: a National Voice and Local & Regional Voices.

National Voice

The body proposed in the final report would advise the Australian parliament and government on matters relating to the social, spiritual and economic wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. These include issues relating to native title, incarceration, employment, housing, transport, the National Disability Insurance Scheme and heritage protections.

The National Voice would provide advice to both the Australian Parliament and Government early in the development of relevant laws and policies to allow for a partnership approach.

The Voice will not have a veto or have a program delivery function. It is an advisory body only.

How membership of a National Voice is determined is a crucial matter for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The model suggested for the national body would consist of 24 members, with gender balance structurally guaranteed. The base membership would consist of two members from each state, the Northern Territory, Australian Capital Territory and the Torres Strait Islands.

There would be five additional members to represent remote areas, one each from the Northern Territory, Western Australia, Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales. Another member would represent the Torres Strait Islands.

Local and Regional Voices

Thirty-five regions across Australia would be necessary to accommodate the complexities of generating and implementing the Indigenous Voice proposals. Consultation and feedback confirmed it was important for communities to be involved in further discussions about the configurations of regions.

That the two parts of the National Voice and the Local and Regional Voices would work together.

In the Sisters of Saint Joseph most recent General Chapter, it called us to “… learn from the First Peoples of our countries and wholeheartedly support as neighbours their initiatives for recognition, agency and justice”.  The Voice to Parliament is one such initiative.

This Week of Action Promoting the First Peoples Voice to Parliament (18-24 February) is an opportunity to get informed. You can also find out more by visiting the Reconciliation Movement United in Support for Voice website here.

Marianne Zeinstra rsj


References: Saturday Paper Raising the Voice – 14 Jan 2023 and the various government reports quoted.

[1] Indigenous Voice Co-design Process: Three Working Groups – did the work and created the report. A Senior Advisory Group including Fr Frank Brennan sj, A Local and Regional Voice Group, and a National Voice Group.