Questions and answers about the proposed First Nations Voice to Parliament

Questions and answers about the proposed First Nations Voice to Parliament

4.5.        What is the history of calls for a Voice?

Proposals for the constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians have been deliberated since the 1990s. In 1999, the Howard government proposed an alteration of the Preamble of the Constitution which, Prime Minister Howard suggested, would serve as symbolic recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The lack of enthusiasm for this proposal from the Indigenous community at the time has been interpreted as a concern about ‘tokenism, minimalism or symbolism’.[53] 

Further attempts to revise the Constitution took a less symbolic approach. In 2012, Noel Pearson suggested a revision of the constitutional provisions about race which was ultimately rejected.[54] In 2014, Pearson again attempted to garner support for a constitutional amendment, this time for the inclusion of a new representative body that would ensure the involvement of Indigenous people in legislation that would impact them.[55] This amendment failed to gain support from either Tony Abbott or Malcolm Turnbull during their respective terms as Prime Minister and therefore went unrealised. At that time, Malcolm Turnbull argued against a representational body on the following grounds:

our democracy is built on the foundation of all Australian citizens having equal civic rights, all being able to vote for, stand for and serve in either of the two chambers of our national parliament. A constitutionally enshrined additional representative assembly for which only Indigenous Australians could vote for or serve in is inconsistent with this fundamental principle.[56]

While this has since become a common argument against the Voice, it should be noted that Turnbull himself has subsequently reversed his position and will now be voting in favour of it.[57]

In 2015, the Referendum Council was formed by Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten to advise on the constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians.[58] This council resulted in the First Nations Regional Dialogues and a National Constitutional Convention. According to Dani Larkin and Kate Galloway, through these dialogues it became clear that the most popular form of constitutional recognition would be a Voice to Parliament. The Uluru Statement from the Heart was composed in 2017.[59] 

The recommendations in the Uluru Statement from the Heart have been the topic of intense debate since, and there has been a lot of misinformation about their purpose and possible powers. However, as criticisms mounted, so did support for the Voice. Particularly influential in the ongoing debate were Indigenous activists such as Megan Davis, Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton who focused on garnering support from the general public, and Senator Lidia Thorpe who moved in the opposite direction. Francis Markham and Will Sanders suggest that efforts by such activists to maintain public interest in the Voice have, despite initially discouraging political responses, allowed the Voice to Parliament to remain a ‘live political issue’.[60]

Following the publication of the Uluru Statement, several committees were established to make recommendations to Parliament about the structure and capacities of a Voice. One such committee released the Indigenous Voice Co-Design Process Interim Report in January 2021 and then started various forums for feedback on their recommendations.[61] Recurring feedback from that process has tended to support the need for the Voice to be constitutionally enshrined, both to prevent it from being disbanded by future governments and as a symbol of the Australian public ‘listening to and delivering on’ the wishes of First Nations peoples.[62] The Final Report to the Australian Government was released in July 2021, and Anthony Albanese announced the government’s commitment to instituting the  Uluru Statement from the Heart in his victory speech in May 2022.[63]

Continue readingExcerpts 5.5.

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