What is a Black Australian Voice in Parliament?

What is a Black Australian Voice in Parliament?

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australians expect to vote this year in a referendum that would enshrine in the country’s constitution a mechanism for Indigenous peoples to advise Parliament on policies that affect their lives, known as of Voice.

Proponents say incorporating the voice into the constitution would recognize the special place Indigenous peoples hold in Australian history while allowing them to contribute to government policy.

Skeptics and opponents say Australians need more details before voting on a proposal that risks dividing the nation along racial lines without reducing Indigenous disadvantage.

As Australia’s first referendum in a generation approaches, the bipartisan support seen as essential to successfully changing the constitution has yet to emerge and Indigenous leaders remain divided.

Here are some questions and answers on the main issues of the referendum:

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WHO ARE INDIGENOUS AUSTRALIANS?

Australia is unusual among former British colonies in that no treaties were ever signed with the nation’s indigenous inhabitants. Aborigines on the Australian mainland are culturally distinct from the Torres Strait Islanders who come from an archipelago off the northeast coast. Thus, the indigenous population of Australia is known collectively as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

They made up 3.2% of Australia’s population at the 2021 census. The number of indigenous people has jumped 25% since the last census in 2016. Some say the decline in stigma has encouraged more Australians to recognize their native heritage. Others say Aboriginal roots are faked to claim government benefits aimed at overcoming Aboriginal disadvantage.

Indigenous Australians are Australia’s most disadvantaged ethnic group. They die younger than other Australians, are less likely to be employed, reach lower levels of education and are overrepresented in the prison population.

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WHAT IS THE VOICE?

The proposed referendum question only asks Australians whether they agree with the Voice in principle.

“Do you support a constitutional amendment that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice? asks for the government’s proposal.

If the answer is “yes”, the constitution would be rewritten to state that the Voice “may make representations” to Parliament and the Executive Government “on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”.

Proponents say there would be no Indigenous veto over government policy and that lawmakers would be free to disregard voice representations.

But opponents argue that courts could interpret the voice’s constitutional powers in unpredictable ways, creating legal uncertainty.

It’s unclear who would be part of the voice and how they would get there.

Parliament would have “power to make laws respecting the composition, functions, powers and procedures” of the Voice, according to the constitution.

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WHERE DOES THE IDEA OF A VOICE COME FROM?

The Voice was recommended in 2017 by a group of 250 Indigenous leaders who met at Uluru, an iconic sandstone rock in central Australia that scares traditional owners. These were delegates from the First Nations National Constitutional Convention whom the government of the day had asked for advice on how the indigenous population could be recognized in the constitution.

The Conservative government immediately rejected the proposal, arguing that a vote would be considered a “third chamber” of Parliament, an unwanted addition to the House of Representatives and the Senate.

When the centre-left Labor Party won the election in May last year, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese used his maiden speech to commit his government to creating the Voice.

The Nationals party, the junior coalition partner in the former government, announced in November that it had decided to oppose the Voice, saying it would divide the nation along racial lines.

The Nationals also argue that the Voice would undermine the work of 11 Indigenous lawmakers among the 227 federal lawmakers in Parliament.

The Liberal Party, the main coalition partner, has not yet announced a position, but has demanded more details.

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WHEN WILL THE REFERENDUM TAKE PLACE?

The government plans to present a bill to Parliament in March that would organize the referendum.

The legislation would be scrutinized by a parliamentary committee for six weeks, during which more details would emerge, before the government hopes it will go to a vote in May.

The government hopes that the referendum will take place on a Saturday between August and November.

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HOW IS AUSTRALIA’S CONSTITUTION CHANGED?

Changing the constitution has never been easy and more than four out of five referendums fail.

A referendum to change the constitution requires what is known as a double majority – the support of most Australian adults nationally plus a majority of voters in a majority of states. Five referenda failed because while supported by most Australians, they failed to win a majority in at least four of the six states. Voter turnout is high because voting is compulsory.

Of the 44 referendums held since the constitution came into effect in 1901, only eight have passed and none since 1977.

When Australia last held a referendum in 1999, recognition of Indigenous peoples in the constitution was a key issue behind one of the questions. Australians were asked to approve the addition of a preamble to the constitution – an introduction which had only symbolic significance and no legal significance.

The preamble was to acknowledge that Indigenous Australians had inhabited the country “from time immemorial” and were “honored for their ancient and continuing cultures”.

Some observers argue that such recognition of Indigenous Australians’ place in the nation’s history would be an easier constitutional change to make today than creating the voice.

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