Ideas for a brighter future for all

The Voice to Parliament: Australia’s Constitution

Most people know, this referendum vote is not just about creating a new institution to represent and convey the aspirations of Australia’s first peoples within our Commonwealth democracy.  It is also, first and foremost, a way of formally recognising our first peoples in the Australian Constitution, the foundational law of our entire nation. 

Over the years, Griffith University’s Australian Constitutional Values Survey has shown that a very large majority of Australians want to see this done.  Constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians will fill a huge and chilling political silence in that crucial document.  It will also take us into a new phase of reconciliation between the political systems of our continent’s original owners and citizens, developed over thousands of years, and the one imported into the continent with British colonisation just 235 years ago. 

But there have always been two big challenges for Indigenous constitutional recognition.  The Voice proposal solves both. 

One has been how to provide a form of recognition which does not tread too far into the vexed question of how best to recognise Indigenous sovereignty, as a collective of first nations who never ceded their territory, relative to the ‘sovereignty’ of the Australian people as a nation under our post-colonial Constitution. 

"Constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians will fill a huge and chilling political silence in that crucial document"
Sir Samuel Walker Griffith
Sir Samuel Walker Griffith, co-author of Australia's Constitution
Strengths of this Referendum

The first strength of this referendum is that a vote for a constitutionally enshrined Voice will explicitly recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, in a way that should support but does not prevent any particular resolution of those difficult sovereignty questions, which on most analyses of contemporary politics, need more time to play out. 

As the Uluru Statement from the Heart lays out, enshrining a formal Voice to Parliament is just one of three key elements.  The Voice can then advise on the path to a federal Treaty, as a way of negotiating how Indigenous and Australian sovereignty should meet in the 21st century.  And obviously the Voice can also support and guide the Truth-telling needed to overcome generations of misunderstanding, miseducation and, often, denial about key aspects of our colonial history, necessary to achieve and sustain that full political reconciliation. 

The second strength of the Voice proposal is just as great, and even more immediate.  A permanent, highest-level, national Indigenous representative body offers huge potential for boosting practical improvements in the policy decisions of government which affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people every single day.  This was always the second challenge for constitutional recognition: how to make it more than simply a symbolic, or token gesture. 

Symbolic or historical recognition of the reality of prior Aboriginal ownership – such as attempted in 1999 – is important but it is not enough.  It’s clear that all Australians, and especially Indigenous citizens, also want a meaningful form of recognition which helps address the practical consequences of two centuries of colonialism, and the actual social, health, educational, economic and political needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today. 

The Voice does this by offering a new platform for the type of engagement between governments and our first peoples that can deliver far better policy design and implementation, on a myriad of burning issues, than we have had for decades, if ever. 

It can inform legislation and policy in a way that no representative body or agency has done before.  It can cut through bureaucracy and offer solutions that will give influence and control back to Aboriginal and Islander people over decisions that affect them, in place of years of policies that are often mediocre at best, and failed or destructive at worst.  It can draw attention to what works, and make it standard in what the Commonwealth Parliament and Government do, across the board. 

And in keeping with the long-term scale of this task, and the rightful place of the first Australians in our Constitution, an enshrined Indigenous Voice to Parliament will be permanent.  Not something that comes or goes with future parliaments or governments. 

Lack of detail?

Much has been said about lack of detail, and uncertainty about whether these goals will be achieved.  But I feel like I know enough from the years of legwork that have already gone into this, and enough about the fact that Parliament itself will determine the final shape of this new institution, to have confidence in voting ‘yes’ for the change on the table. 

Put simply – it is by far the best option for constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians anyone has come up with.  When first floated by Noel Pearson and colleagues at the Cape York Institute, it seemed ambitious, but within months, our Constitutional Values Survey showed it to be the only option that actually met the above tests and was genuinely capable of winning support across non-Indigenous citizens as well as Indigenous Australia. 

Until then, the main plan was about recognising the first Australians by simultaneously removing or improving the Commonwealth’s power to make discriminatory laws based on race.  But this was confusing, and not something enough voters were ready to support, whether because some think such laws still have their place, or because they know such laws also provide a basis for positive, not just negative discrimination. 

Fundamentally, the Voice is a better plan.  Because as Noel Pearson himself made me realise years ago, this question is not actually about the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are their own distinct races, in ethnographic terms.  It is about the fact that, irrespective of race, they were here first.  And owned this continent and its islands.  For thousands of years.  It is actually about simple political history, truth, identity, and justice.  It should also be about building pride and self-respect in ourselves, as a nation.  Pride in being home to the world’s longest-standing continuous political cultures.  And pride in their survival. 

I expect my casting of my ‘yes’ vote will be one of the single most important things that I ever get to do, in my lifetime.  I will be proud to do it.  And if enough fellow citizens do the same for this referendum to succeed, then as a nation, we should all feel even prouder. 


Professor AJ BrownProfessor A J Brown is leader of the Centre for Governance & Public Policy’s public integrity and anti-corruption research program, and Professor of Public Policy and Law in the School of Government & International Relations. 


You might also like

Will new Gamble Responsibly taglines impact gambling behaviour?

Online betting companies in Australia now use new messages instead of the ambiguous ‘gamble responsibly’ in advertising. The seven new ‘gamble responsibly’ taglines aim to encourage consumers to pause and consider the consequences of losing a bet or question their behavioural choices. However, whether the messages will be effective in influencing behavioural choices is still debated writes Griffith University’s Dr Marie-Louise Fry.

Read more

Chatting about ChatGPT

In November 2022, the release of ChatGPT, a free-to-use chatbot based on GPT-3, brought powerful language models to the public. The educational sector faced a dilemma as the bot’s ability to assist in writing essays and passing exams sparked debates on whether to embrace or ban its use.

Read more

Between different worlds

Antarctica is both a physical locality and an imaginary possibility – as a pivot around which the world turns, it has proven historically to be a space where human ideas of exploration, investigation and fantasy have played out.

Read more
Translate »