We asked our readers what they would like to know about the proposed Indigenous Voice to Parliament. In the lead-up to the referendum, our expert authors will answer those questions. You can read the other questions and answers here.
The Australian federal parliament now includes a record 11 Indigenous parliamentarians, nearly 5% of the total number of federal politicians. Given this level of Indigenous representation in parliament, some have questioned why a referendum on a constitutionally guaranteed Indigenous Voice is needed.
Parliament should reflect the diversity of the Australian community, and it’s great there is strong Indigenous representation in parliament.
However, this does not guarantee Indigenous communities across the country a proper say in laws and policies made about them. That’s why Indigenous Australians through the Uluru Statement asked for a constitutionally guaranteed Voice in their affairs.
Indigenous politicians fulfil a different role
Indigenous parliamentarians, just like parliamentarians of Indian, Chinese, Greek or other European backgrounds, must represent all Australians in their electorates.
Indigenous politicians can’t just represent Indigenous communities, because they weren’t only voted in by Indigenous communities. And Indigenous politicians also have to represent their political parties - just like any politician.
The job of politicians is to represent Australian voters and make laws and policies. The role of the Indigenous Voice is very different.
The Voice would sit outside parliament and government and would not make laws. Rather, it would enable Indigenous communities to provide advice on, and partner in, the development of laws and policies made about them. This would enable Indigenous communities to be heard in their own affairs.
Indigenous politicians do not always agree with Indigenous communities
Indigenous communities say they need a grassroots Voice that is outside parliament and government, and independent of party politics. As the Indigenous activist Roy Ah-See said,
We don’t want a green voice, we don’t want a red voice, we don’t want a blue voice: we want a black voice.
An independent Indigenous Voice is needed because the views of Indigenous politicians - which are usually constrained and informed by electoral considerations and party affiliations - cannot be expected to align with the views of Indigenous communities across the country.
We can see this in current Voice debate. Both Country Liberal Party Senator Jacinta Price on the right and now-independent Senator Lidia Thorpe on the left have disagreed with majority Indigenous opinion on the Voice. Around 80% of Indigenous Australians support a constitutionally guaranteed Voice, however these Indigenous politicians oppose it.
This demonstrates that Indigenous politicians and Indigenous communities do not always agree.
Grassroots Indigenous voices are still going unheard
Having Indigenous politicians in parliament is also no guarantee that Indigenous communities are heard in crucial policy decisions made about them. Take the way alcohol bans were left to lapse in the Northern Territory last year, against the wishes of many Indigenous communities.
As Professor Marcia Langton explained, the pleas of Indigenous communities for a better plan might have been heeded if those communities had a constitutionally guaranteed Voice in their affairs. Much harm could have been avoided.
That such policy decisions are still made without proper Indigenous community input – despite strong Indigenous representation in parliament – demonstrates why Indigenous communities want a constitutionally guaranteed Voice in their affairs.
The Voice would benefit all politicians
Receiving advice from Indigenous communities would be of benefit not only to non-Indigenous policymakers, but also Indigenous policymakers.
The Voice would enable all politicians to hear from and partner with Indigenous communities across the country, to make better policies about those communities.
For example, Indigenous Senators like Patrick Dodson and Price could be involved in making laws and policies about welfare reform that have a particular impact on Indigenous communities in Cape York, Queensland, or heritage protection policies with a unique impact on Indigenous communities in Tasmania.
Being senators for Western Australia and the Northern Territory, respectively, Dodson and Price probably have less understanding of the specific challenges facing Indigenous communities in Cape York and Tasmania.
Australia is a big and diverse continent, and Indigenous communities are diverse. Indigenous politicians would benefit from hearing Indigenous advice from different local regions when making laws and policies for Indigenous affairs – just as non-Indigenous politicians would.
Fixing a history of exclusion
Finally, it’s worth recalling the history of Indigenous exclusion from political processes, which underscores the need for a constitutionally guaranteed Voice in their affairs.
In the past, there were laws and policies denying Indigenous people the vote in some jurisdictions. Indigenous people didn’t get equal voting rights across the board until the 1960s. And enrolling to vote at federal elections only became compulsory for Indigenous Australians in 1984.
Indigenous representation in parliament has fluctuated, and is not guaranteed. While there are 11 Indigenous federal parliamentarians now, there were far fewer in the past.
A constitutionally guaranteed Indigenous Voice would provide advice to help prevent a repeat of the unjust laws and policies of the past – like those that denied Indigenous people the vote.
The Voice would also help policymakers – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous – partner with Indigenous communities to improve practical outcomes in Indigenous affairs.