Questions and answers about the proposed First Nations Voice to Parliament

Questions and answers about the proposed First Nations Voice to Parliament

4.3.       How would the Voice work?

Since the publication of the Uluru Statement from the Heart in 2017, there has been increasing discussion over how a Voice to Parliament would function.[33] More recently, this has included ongoing requests for more details regarding its exact structure and powers (see the next question). Because of this, there is a significant amount of academic literature that tries to explain what a Voice to Parliament is and how it would work. The range of responses to this question reveal a number of common elements.

First and foremost, it is clear that the Voice would be a representative body, which would communicate with parliament and the executive, making recommendations on behalf of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples about policies and legislation. The recommendations would focus on issues that impact Indigenous communities.[34] As such, the purpose of the body would be to inform the government about the thinking of Indigenous communities and how best to respond to that thinking.[35] 

It is important to note here that it has been clearly stated that the Voice would remain ‘subservient to Parliament’.[36] It will not have a right to veto legislation. Parliament would not be legally bound to follow its recommendations.[37] Thus, on the one hand, to help bring about changes, the Voice would depend on building ‘political respect’. On the other hand, by being enshrined in the Constitution, it would be protected from being easily disbanded by future governments.[38] While the question of constitutional enshrinement is, of course, yet to be resolved, there is wide support for this approach among Indigenous communities and experts alike, at least on this basic question.[39]

There are ongoing calls for more detail from both the media and politicians (see the next question), but most legal commentators make the point that, like all other institutional bodies brought into being by the Constitution, the ‘precise role’[40] of the Voice would be decided by the government should the referendum be successful.[41] Exact details of the institutional structure of the Voice and how it would operate could not be enshrined in the Constitution but would be debated, agreed to and passed as legislation. This would have the advantage that if it turned out that the Voice was not functioning effectively or that the public were unsatisfied with its structure or progress, it would be possible to change the legislation and rectify any problems with the design.[42] 

Although the details of the Voice will not be decided until a later date, there is already a substantial amount of information available about what the body might look like. One important document is the Indigenous Voice Co-Design Process, which provides advice from experts in collaboration with other Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities on the design of the Voice.[43] 

Some concern has been expressed that the Voice might become a ‘Canberra Voice’ – that is, that it would not express the views of Indigenous people right around the country. However, various commentators have argued against this. It is notable that the final report of the co-design process takes into account feedback received on its interim report from a very large number – more than 94,000 – of organisations and individuals around Australia.[44]

In summary, the Voice to Parliament would function as a representative body with the intention of improving legislation in Indigenous affairs by enabling Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to communicate more effectively with parliament and the executive. The purpose of the body would be to offer advice, not to veto or delay legislation. It would operate according to changeable legislation. Those interested in the specific way that the Voice would operate and be structured may read the Indigenous Voice Co-Design Process Final Report to Government for one set of current recommendations.

Continue readingExcerpts 5.3.

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