What is the Indigenous voice to parliament and how would it work?

The Albanese government has put forward a preferred form of words to insert into the constitution to enshrine an Indigenous voice to parliament, which would be voted on in a referendum.

Here’s what we know so far.

What has happened already?

The Albanese government has put forward a simple question for us all to vote on.

“We should consider asking our fellow Australians something as simple as: ‘Do you support an alteration to the constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice?’” Anthony Albanese said in July during a landmark speech at the Garma festival in Arnhem Land.

He also suggested three sentences be added to the constitution:

  • There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice.

  • It may make representations to parliament and the executive government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

  • The parliament shall, subject to this constitution, have power to make laws with respect to the composition, functions, powers and procedures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice.

The government has promised a public education campaign ahead of the referendum, to answer the most commonly asked questions. But the prime minister and many others have said there is “already an extraordinary level of detail out there from the work that Marcia Langton and Tom Calma did”.

The Indigenous voice co-design report was produced by professors Langton and Calma, who led a group appointed by the former Indigenous minister Ken Wyatt as part of a 2019 election promise to develop options for an Indigenous voice.

Their report was the result of 18 months’ worth of consultation with 9,478 people and organisations, including 115 community consultations in 67 locations, 2,978 submissions, 1,127 surveys, 124 stakeholder meetings and 13 webinars.

The government has also introduced reforms to the Referendum Machinery Act, which it said will bring the process into line with the electoral laws governing federal elections. The reforms will also include donation disclosure rules, and public funding for campaigns to mitigate misinformation around the voice and referendum process.

What is the voice and how would it work?

The voice would advise the Australian parliament and government on matters relating to the social, spiritual and economic wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Parliament and government would be obliged to consult it on matters that overwhelmingly relate to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, such as native title, employment, housing, the community development program, the NDIS or heritage protection.

The voice would be able to table formal advice in parliament, and a parliamentary committee would consider that advice. But all elements would be non-justiciable, meaning that there could not be a court challenge and no law could be invalidated based on this consultation.

The co-design report said the voice needed “adequate, secure and long-term resourcing to be provided by the Australian government on a per-region basis” in order to operate successfully.

The minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, has often said the voice is a way for Aboriginal and Islander people to directly advise all levels of government about laws and policies that affect their lives. “It’s about drawing a line on the poor outcomes from the long legacy of failed programs and broken policies, and listening to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” she said.

“Things like incarceration and child removal. Housing, health and educational outcomes. This voice is about making sure that what happens in the federal parliament is going to be a positive step forward both in terms of us as a nation, but also the life outcomes for First Nations people in Australia.”

How would it be structured?

The report recommended the national voice have 24 members, with gender balance structurally guaranteed.

The base model proposes two members from each state, the Northern Territory, ACT and Torres Strait. A further five members would represent remote areas due to their unique needs – one member each from the Northern Territory, Western Australia, Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales. An additional member would represent the significant population of Torres Strait Islanders living on the mainland.

Members would serve four-year terms, with half the membership determined every two years. There would be a limit of two consecutive terms for each member.

Two co-chairs of a different gender to one another would be selected by the members of the voice every two years.

The national voice would have two permanent advisory groups – one on youth and one on disability – and a small ethics council to advise on probity and governance.

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How would local and regional voices feed in?

The co-design report proposed 35 regions, broken down by state and territory. Communities and governments in each state and territory would jointly determine these.

Local and regional voices would provide advice to all levels of government to influence policy and programs, and advise the non-government sector and business.

The report outlines their roles, how they would be constituted and the principles they would embody, like cultural leadership, community-led design and empowerment.

There would be “a clear, two-way flow of advice and communication” between them and the national voice, the report said.

What would a voice not do?

The national voice would be an advisory body to the Australian parliament and government. It would not deliver services, manage government funding, be a clearing house for research, or mediate between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations.

How would disputes be resolved?

The report recommended mediation in the first instance. If that failed, matters would go to an independent review. The report suggested there be an agreed list of people with appropriate experience to conduct such reviews, and at least one of the reviewers should be an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person.

It suggested the final decision-maker could be the relevant minister, alongside two respected, independent Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people.

For more information people can read the Uluru statement from the heart, the final report of the Indigenous voice co-design process and the joint select committee on constitutional recognition’s final report.

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