CANBERRA, Australia -- The Australian government on Thursday released the wording of a referendum question that promises the nation’s Indigenous population a greater say on policies that affect their lives.
Australians are expected to vote sometime between October and December on a constitutional amendment that would enshrine a new body called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. The Voice would be an elected group charged with advocating Indigenous interests, but would not have a vote on laws.
An emotional Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the body was needed to overcome Indigenous disadvantage.
“We urgently need better outcomes because it’s not good enough where we’re at in 2023,” Albanese told reporters.
The Voice was originally proposed by a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advocates in 2017.
Megan Davies, an Indigenous lawyer who consulted with grassroots communities over years to develop the Voice proposal, described the decision on the referendum question as a historic day.
“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,” Davies said.
“This prime minister, this government, has listened respectfully, genuinely, authentically,” she added.
Indigenous Australians from the Torres Strait archipelago, off the northeast coast, are culturally distinct from the mainland Aboriginal population. The two peoples account for 3.2% of the Australian population, and are the nation’s most disadvantaged ethnic group.
“On every measure, there is a gap between the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the national average,” Albanese said.
“A 10-year gap in life expectancy, a suicide rate twice as high, tragic levels of child mortality and disease, a massive overrepresentation in the prison population and deaths in custody, in children sent to out-of-home care,” he said.
“And this is not because of a shortage of goodwill or good intentions on any side of politics and it’s not because of a lack of funds. It’s because governments have spent decades trying to impose solutions from Canberra rather than consulting with communities,” he added.
The wording of the referendum question that the Cabinet signed off on Thursday is similar to words proposed by Albanese last year.
The question will be: “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 succeeds, the constitution would state that the “Voice may make representations” to the Parliament and government “on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”
Most details of the Voice's makeup and function would be left to Parliament.
Opinion polls suggest most Australians support the Voice concept, which Albanese announced was a major priority of his center-left Labor Party government during his election night victory speech in May last year. But deep divisions remain across Australian society.
Opposition leader Peter Dutton said his conservative Liberal Party has yet to decide whether they would support the Voice and required more detail including the government’s own legal advice.
Dutton questioned whether the Voice would help Indigenous women and children who suffer far higher rates of domestic violence than the wider community. He suggested the Voice might even drown out the victims’ voices.
“Is it going to make it more difficult because there is another layer of bureaucracy and makes it harder for the Indigenous women in these communities to be heard?” Dutton asked.
The Nationals party, the junior coalition partner in the former government, announced in November they had decided to oppose the Voice, saying it would divide the nation along racial lines.
The government has not said what form it proposes the Voice would take. But Cabinet on Thursday agreed on a set of principles.
Its members would be chosen by Indigenous people, and would serve for fixed terms. Members would be chosen from every Australian state and territory as well as the Torres Strait islands and include specific representatives for remote areas.
Genders would be equally represented and Indigenous youths would be included.
Cabinet specifies that the Voice would not have a veto power, countering arguments that the constitutional change could lead to unpopular laws being challenged in the courts.
Changing Australia’s constitution has never been easy. Of the 44 referendums held since 1901, only eight have been carried and none since 1977.
Draft laws setting out the question and the proposed constitutional change will go to Parliament next week and are expected to be voted on in June.
Even lawmakers who oppose the Voice are unlikely to anger constituents by standing in the way of the referendum going ahead.
Australia is unusual among former British colonies in it has never signed a treaty with the nation’s Indigenous population. The constitution came into effect in 1901, and has never acknowledged the Indigenous population as the country’s original inhabitants.
Many talk about a Great Australian Silence, a term coined late last century to describe an erasure of Indigenous perspectives and experiences from mainstream Australian history.