Questions and answers about the proposed First Nations Voice to Parliament

Questions and answers about the proposed First Nations Voice to Parliament

5.15.    What are some of the challenges to a free and open discussion about the issues?


  • Waleed Aly, ‘The biggest threat to the Voice is the tenor of today’s politics’, Opinion, The Age, January 27, 2023.
  • John Chesterman, ‘Settling on a national Indigenous Australian “voice”’, Australian Public Administration 80 (2021).
  • Bronwyn Fredericks and Abraham Bradfield, ‘More than a Thought Bubble … : The Uluru Statement from the Heart and Indigenous Voice to Parliament’, M/C Journal 24,1 (2021).
  • Nick Bryant, ‘Spare us the gotcha questions: my plea to fellow journalists’, The Age, February 11, 2023.
  • Fred Chaney and Greg Carne, ‘The Long Road to Uluru and Beyond’, The University of Notre Dame Australia Law Review 21, article 6 (2019).
  • Andrew Jakubowicz, ‘Will multicultural Australians support the Voice? The success of the referendum may hinge on it’, The Conversation, February 9, 2023.
  • John Hewson, ‘Coalition objections to the Voice’, Opinion, The Saturday Paper, October 1, 2022.
  • Ed Coper, ‘It’s our first social media referendum. The rules of engagement have changed’, The Age, February 19, 2023.

What are the key challenges to a free and open discussion about the issues?

Waleed Aly, ‘The biggest threat to the Voice is the tenor of today’s politics’, Opinion, The Age, January 27, 2023


Waleed Aly argues that in an age of pessimism dominated by political discourse that is aimed primarily at promoting division and conflict, it is challenging to convince the population to support a proposal as subtle and generous as the establishment of a First Nations Voice to Parliament. This is reflected in sometimes confused statements, even from people who are supporters of the idea. Aly expresses his concern about the way the conversation has been heading.  


‘… Voice campaigners have to thread an impossibly fine needle. Present this as a moment in history, but also as something modest rather than radical. Not so modest as to be merely symbolic, though. Provide enough detail to give confidence, but not so much it becomes a scare campaigner’s dream. Argue it will make a difference, but that parliament will be fully entitled to ignore it. And, as this week has shown, this case must be made to a deeply fractured audience.

And that might prove to be the Voice’s greatest problem. It’s a subtle proposal, but it lands in an age with the least subtle of temperaments. This is a time when even Voice supporters are prepared to attack it in public and can’t wait a few weeks to hear more of the detail they’re after. It’s a time where progressive politics — a bit like the conservative politics of climate change — cannot unify because it has the habit of constantly outflanking itself. In short, it’s a time where politics is showing itself increasingly incapable of building anything. Ours is now a politics of perpetual deconstruction in which majorities only seem to gather around disaffection, with very few exceptions.

But a referendum requires a politics of affirmation. That has always been a difficult bar to clear — evidenced by the fact most Australian referenda have failed, and the successful ones have tended to be prosaic and procedural. In this case, we’re watching a government try to execute Australian politics’ most difficult manoeuvre in deeply unhelpful conditions. …’

John Chesterman, ‘Settling on a national Indigenous Australian “voice”’, Australian Public Administration 80 (2021), p. 364-365.


This article argues that the call to establish a national Indigenous Voice ought to be seen by the Australian government in historical context, primarily as a call for remediation for historical injustices, not just as an opportunity for improvement in the lives and governance of Indigenous Australians. Viewed this way, the call carries with it an imperative for government both to recognise the moral weight underpinning it and to be active in seeking to settle the matter, either by agreeing to the reform proposal or otherwise by negotiating an acceptable outcome. The article closes by considering possible ways in which settlement might occur.


‘Equality and difference

A key challenge facing the establishment of a national Indigenous voice is the lack of general community acceptance of a robust understanding of equality; the idea that equality does not require identical treatment. Without such understanding, the proposal is vulnerable to the critique that it provides an unjustified “special” right of representation for one group of society.

Burney (2017, p. 409) made this point well, in an article reflecting on the 1967 referendum and a possible future one, writing that “the Australian people value fairness and equality … It’s simply about building the case for them: outlining why something is unfair, why it needs to be changed, and why change will bring fairness”. For her (p. 410), the voice idea would simply “give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a greater say in the issues and the decisions of government that affect our lives”.

The success of the 1967 referendum is largely attributed to the fact that it was framed as a vote for non-discrimination (see Chesterman, 2005, pp. 87–91); an interesting outcome of that referendum, at the same time, was that it enabled Indigenous specific legislation (such as the Native Title Act). There are examples of progressive local initiatives that are also susceptible to, but have pushed back against, the critique that they promote a simplistic kind of inequality. For instance, the state of Victoria has begun a process that will likely see one or more treaties developed between Indigenous Victorians and the state government. This involved elections for a “First Peoples” Assembly in late 2019 to help guide the treaty process, utilising a mixture of seats set aside for traditional owners and other elected positions (see Victorian government, 2020; Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition relating to Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Peoples, 2018, pars. 2.146–2.158; Towell, 2019).

The idea that fairness does not equate with identical treatment received prominent High Court consideration in 2020 in the case of two Indigenous men who were facing deportation from Australia.

The case concerned the legality of deporting from Australia two men who were born outside Australia and who were not Australian citizens, but who were nevertheless recognised as Aboriginal Australians according to the three-part test developed in the Mabo case. The Court (Love v Australia, 2020, par. 81) found that Aboriginal Australians cannot be deported from Australia even if they are not Australian citizens. The Australian government had sought to deport both men, and one High Court judge (Justice Edelman, par. 453) characterised Australia’s argument as effectively saying that the gradual legislative expansion of the rights of Indigenous Australians “has assimilated Aboriginal people within a unitary, homogenous political community”. He continued:

This view reflects a human inclination toward homogeneity which Hume described as the “narrowness of soul” … It also misunderstands the concept of equality before the law. To treat differences as though they were alike is not equality. It is a denial of community.

Justice Edelman went on to state (par. 454) that “the expansion of Aboriginal rights by Commonwealth legislation does not require an identical treatment of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in the shaping of the political community”.’

Bronwyn Fredericks and Abraham Bradfield, ‘More than a Thought Bubble … : The Uluru Statement from the Heart and Indigenous Voice to Parliament’, M/C Journal 24,1 (2021), (Original work published March 13, 2021)


This article discusses political reactions to the Voice, the way the media portrays the referendum, the need for a Voice and further reforms in the form of a treaty and truth-telling commissions. According to Fredericks and Bradfield, the Uluru Statement from the Heart was originally treated as a ‘thought-bubble’ by government, but should be considered a ‘gift to the nation’. The article denounces misinformation spread by the media and claims from Scott Morrison and Barnaby Joyce that the Uluru Statement is not a viable proposal. The article emphasises the ‘decades of work’ that has gone into the formation of the Statement, and explains the potential effectiveness of the Voice, despite its inability to veto legislation.

Fredericks and Bradfield also describe parliament as existing within a ‘self-referential bubble’, where discourse revolves around non-Indigenous members. For this reason, they argue, parliamentary structure must be altered; the inclusion of a Voice would mean greater and more informed discussion of the views of and issues facing Indigenous peoples. Despite ongoing debates about the structure and details of the Voice, the establishment of a Voice to parliament is still a popular proposal among Indigenous communities.  

The establishment of a Voice would mean a clearer and more effective path to treaty, wherein Indigenous voices would be better heard by parliament. The article discusses the word ‘Garma’, meaning ‘knowledge is attained from a point where differences converge’ as an explanation of how the Voice may be benefit future discussionsFredericks and Bradfield conclude by emphasising the need for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be included in discussion and decisions that directly impact the livelihood of their communities.


‘Constitutional change is often spoken of by politicians, its critics, and within the media as something unachievable. For example, in 2017, before even reading the accompanying report, MP Barnaby Joyce (in Fergus) publicly denounced the Uluru Statement as “unwinnable” and not “saleable”. He stated that “if you overreach in politics and ask for something that will not be supported by the Australian people such as another chamber in politics or something that sort of sits above or beside the Senate, that idea just won’t fly”. Criticisms such as these are laced with paternalistic rhetoric that suggests its potential defeat at a referendum would be counterproductive and “self-defeating”, meaning that the proposed changes should be rejected for a more digestible version, ultimately saving the movement from itself …

…Whilst education and cultural competency play a significant role within the reconciliation process, the most pressing obstacle is not necessarily non-Indigenous people’s inability to fully comprehend Indigenous lives and socio-cultural understandings. Even within an ideal world where non-Indigenous peoples attain a thorough understanding of Indigenous cultures, they will never truly comprehend what it means to be Indigenous (Fanon; de Sousa Santos). For non-Indigenous peoples, accepting one’s own limitations in fully comprehending Indigenous ontologies — and avoiding filling such gaps with one’s own interpretations and preconceptions — is a necessary component of decolonisation and the movement towards reconciliation (Grosfoguel; Mignolo).’

Nick Bryant, ‘Spare us the gotcha questions: my plea to fellow journalists’, The Age, February 11, 2023


The public debate leading up to the referendum will be closely shaped by the way journalists present the various issues and points of view. In this article Nick Bryant makes a call for fair and open discussion that is not distorted by prior assumptions or mistaken ideas about presenting all perspectives equally.


‘The very nature of the referendum, which is asking voters to decide on a principle rather than a specific model, poses a special challenge. The absence of detail is anathema to journalists. Any hint of vagueness opens up an obvious line of attack. In this unique instance, though, politicians are not yet going to be able to provide all the answers. Gotcha questioning will be oh-so-easy. All the more reason to avoid it.’

Fred Chaney and Greg Carne, ‘The Long Road to Uluru and Beyond’, The University of Notre Dame Australia Law Review 21, article 6 (2019)


This paper, delivered as a lecture in honour of High Court Judge Sir Frank Kitto, explores the significance of the Uluru Statement from The Heart as a ‘profound act of Indigenous leadership’ and as a constitutionally informed proposal. The initial rejection of the Uluru Statement by the  Government was a blow to Indigenous Australians, and an examination of the reasons for opposing a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament is needed. It is argued that the Voice to Parliament is of value both symbolically and practically. Understanding the reasons why some sections of the Australian community find any constitutional recognition proposition difficult is a key to successfully achieving such recognition.


‘It seems to me that there is a minority of Australians who still cleave to the notion of terra nullius, who want Indigenous Australians to forget their unique identities, to forego the world’s oldest living cultures, to meet the 1930s idea of disappearing into the wider (white) communities. They hold to the notion of assimilation rather than integration. It is that attitude that underlies the objection to any form of constitutional recognition and is why there will never be a perfect consensus on the way ahead.

That assimilationist attitude ignores history and reality. History shows that the Indigenous peoples displaced do not give up their identities however kindly or brutally we demand that of them. History shows that from settlement we have differentiated them and legislated about them. History shows that whatever we have done they have survived. Now, post Mabo, their collective identities are part of the legal framework of our shared country. They are not going to go away. They are not going to give up their identities. It is time for us to listen to the message from Uluru and to act on it.’

Andrew Jakubowicz, ‘Will multicultural Australians support the Voice? The success of the referendum may hinge on it’, The Conversation, February 9, 2023


Leaders of many culturally diverse communities in Australia have expressed their support for the Voice, against claims that it could exacerbate divisions in society. However, the eminent sociologist Andrew Jakubowicz, a long-time researcher into multiculturalism, draws attention to the complexity of the attitudes of people from different communities towards the government and authority. He argues that it will not be sufficient for the Yes campaign to assume that they will express their support on the basis of an assumed trust in government. Rather, it will be necessary to engage directly with these communities to stimulate dialogues that draw attention to the importance of the Voice to citizens from every background across the country.


‘Recognising how important the multicultural vote is, the “yes” campaign has already identified several broad coalitions whose support is critical.

First is the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia (FECCA), which announced its full support of the Voice at its annual conference in late 2022.

Its chair, former Victorian state MP Carlo Carli, has been using the media to push back at [Warren] Mundine’s comments, saying there is no interest in ethnic community organisations for a multicultural Voice to parliament.

FECCA is a federation of state and regional councils, each of which comprises many individual ethnic organisations. As such, it neither controls nor completely reflects the opinions of the broad masses of unaffiliated ethnic voters.

However, in the case of the Voice, these bodies may well influence how voters think — this will be tested in coming months.

While FECCA is an important body, individual ethnic community organisations have much closer relationships with the electors who will vote in the referendum. And within these smaller groups, trust in government is sometimes lacking and support for progressive causes less assured. Many of the important conversations about the Voice will also need to be in people’s native languages.

The various Chinese communities offer a good example here. They are increasingly dominated by university-educated mainland China or Hong Kong migrants. And they’ve been badly hurt by the upsurge in anti-Chinese rhetoric and harassment over the past few years of the pandemic.

Many who supported the Coalition in the 2019 federal election deserted them last year, seeing the Morrison government as the epicentre of anti-Chinese hostility. Yet, Chinese voters have not always trusted the ALP, either.

This very diverse community does not have a necessary attachment to the Voice. On the one hand, many Chinese migrants may have a shared experience of racism that helps shape their attitudes. But on the other hand, some may retain a suspicion and anxiety about Indigenous people, as well.

Another coalition that matters is religious-based. The heads of various religious congregations gathered last year to decide whether a consensus on the Voice would be possible. They soon reached agreement on supporting the referendum, finding in all faiths a moral, if not religious, imperative to endorse Indigenous aspirations for recognition.

However, some of these religious leaders also actively opposed the same-sex marriage plebiscite, while some religious groups were fervently against the government’s COVID vaccine drives.’

John Hewson, ‘Coalition objections to the Voice’, Opinion, The Saturday Paper, October 1, 2022


Many commentators have expressed concern that a divisive debate about the Voice may reactivate racist attitudes that have so regrettably marked the conservative side of Australian politics. Expressing little optimism, John Hewson, a former leader of the Liberal Party, summarises what he sees as the range of views in the Coalition, which extend from a belief that governments should control the lives of Indigenous people and refuse to support welfare policies to a sense of anguish at the failures to effectively address disadvantage in First Nations communities.  


‘We know from a long history of failed referendum questions how easy it is to run the “No” case: to create uncertainty and concern about the detail, leading to the line that “if you don’t understand it, don’t vote for it”. This allows the prejudice and racism to be masked. On the Indigenous Voice question, some now seem to be pursuing a strategy of just muddying the waters, hoping to overcomplicate the issue. This was certainly the early response to the Uluru Statement from Malcolm Turnbull, who used the furphy argument that it called for a third chamber of parliament. In a similar vein, some are arguing this is what we had in the past with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), even though that body had programs and allocated money. It was considered by many to be corruptible and ineffective. It is deliberate obfuscation to link this view of ATSIC to the Voice, with the aim of killing it off.’

Ed Coper, ‘It’s our first social media referendum. The rules of engagement have changed’, Opinion, The Age, February 19, 2023


This article expresses deep concern about potential misuses of social media to spread misinformation and foment division to undermine the case in favour of the Voice. Fearing that conservative forces will try to mobilise the capacity of the internet to obscure key issues the author calls instead for a focus on creating hope and opposing hate.


‘Now asked to change the Constitution once again, Australians are having to form opinions in a vastly different information environment from the one we inhabited 25 years ago. This one … is much less healthy. This will be the first-ever referendum fought out on social media. Already awash with polluted online misinformation about the Voice, we need to understand how campaigning for a referendum in the social media age is different. Social media was never intended to be the place where we formed our opinions about critical issues of importance, it was designed to be a viral advertising platform. It’s great at informing me, late at night as I thumb through Instagram, that I really need to buy a novelty fly swat; but much less suited to conveying the nuances of legislative processes around constitutional change. Unfortunately, our brains have great difficulty distinguishing between the two: what we think are rational decision-making processes about political debates are, in fact, just as gut-driven as our impulse-buying decisions. And this gut instinct is precisely what social media platforms are designed to leverage. It explains why social media will favour hyperbole and hysteria around the Voice campaign, and suppress consensus and common sense. …

… Social media equally presents another confronting imbalance: it favours the spread of misinformation over factual information. This is largely due to the truth being mundane while misinformation is both gripping and deliberately spread by those on a mission to game the algorithm. Narratives in the social media age are easily manipulated. An army of Twitter bots, all tweeting in unison, can hijack the discourse and create a fake groundswell that is often reported as genuinely held community opinion. We saw this as the fake bot army tried to make the Black Summer bushfires about arson, and again in Victoria as the bots rose up against COVID lockdowns in 2020. For the Voice to be successful — which it absolutely must for the sake of all progress — we need to first collectively face these imbalances. This is a novel challenge. The first social media referendum must invent its own playbook, not borrow from the last one — which was fought in an era of shared reality, with the 6pm TV news beamed equally into every household. The good news is that none of these challenges are insurmountable. Simply by warning and educating about these dangers, we can help inoculate against misinformation around the Voice. We are all digital citizens in a new country, and learning the skills to inhabit it healthily.’

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