Vote with care: a guide to the Voice to Parliament referendum

Lost in all the conversation around the Voice to Parliament referendum? No fear, Ruby Ritchie strips back to the basics. ...
Parliament House, Canberra (Pixabay)


In the past few years, you may have read news about the Uluru Statement and, more recently, the proposed Voice to Parliament referendum. Questions may pop up like ‘What even is a referendum, what is the Voice to Parliament, and what do I need to vote about?’


The simplest answer is: voting is the most powerful thing you can do.


Your vote is yours alone, and nobody should coerce you to vote in a particular direction. Whether you vote yes or no, the best course of action is to vote while being informed and aware of what you are voting on. Your vote forms the very basis of democracy in that you have a say in what happens in Australia.


This year’s referendum will prompt Australians like you to consider their attitudes toward Indigenous peoples’ rights to self-determination.


While every eligible Australian must vote, some of us have questions, and not all Australians understand the significance of the proposed referendum. Let’s start with the basics.


What is a referendum, and how do they work?


In Australia, we hold referendums to change the contents of the Australian constitution – which is essentially the rulebook that sets out how our country runs. For an Australian referendum to result in constitutional change, the question must receive a ‘yes’ vote from:


  • A national majority of voters in the states and territories.
  • A majority of voters in a majority of the states (i.e., at least four out of six states).


In a referendum, a question to Australia is posed that is answered by either a vote of yes or no. The current wording for the proposed referendum question reads:


A proposed law: To alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
Do you approve this proposed alteration?


Before the government presents the question to the public, the government needs to pass the proposed constitutional change as a bill, which is essentially a draft law a member of Parliament proposes.

What is the Voice to Parliament referendum, and where did it come from?


The concept of a Voice to Parliament stems from a proposal for constitutional reform in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which emerged from the First Nations National Constitutional Convention in 2017. The convention was attended by over 250 Indigenous representatives from across Australia, solely to develop a unified position on Indigenous recognition in the Australian constitution.


The Uluru Statement from the Heart called for establishing a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous representative body, commonly called the Voice to Parliament. This representative body would give Indigenous Australians a formal mechanism to advise the Australian Parliament on matters that directly affect them, such as policies, laws, and programs.


The Uluru Statement from the Heart also proposes a treaty and a truth-telling process to be implemented within the Australian constitution.


The representative body’s power is strictly limited to advising the Australian government. The representative body would not be able to make or amend laws, veto laws, or even vote on bills because they are not members of Parliament.


The representative body would not be able to make any recommendations to the Australian courts either. Instead, the representative body would make recommendations to Parliament when it comes to laws and policies that affect First Nations peoples.


The representative body has no exact structure, as that will depend on First Nations community leaders to work towards if a ‘yes’ outcome is secured. However, the prospective representative body has design principles and a proposed structure that gives us a picture of what the Voice will look like.


Yes, or no? What should I vote for?


Many acknowledge Voice to Parliament proposal as a significant step towards reconciliation and addressing the historical marginalisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In a YouGov poll conducted in March this year, 46 per cent of people recorded a ‘yes’ vote, 31 per cent a ‘no’ vote, and 22 per cent remain undecided. That said, polls do change – and so may your vote over time.


Under the views expressed in the ‘yes’ campaign, the Voice promotes recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s adversity and the self-determination required to reduce inequality.


First Nations peoples who have driven for this proposal argue that for the prosperity of future generations, the Voice proposal is a crucial first step. In an interview with ABC News, Labor MP Linda Burney shares her assertions supporting the proposed change.


“We are asking the Australian people to say yes to a simple and practical principle: that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a say in the policies and decisions that affect their lives,” she says.


However, it has also gained its fair share of criticism. At one end of the spectrum, political figures urge Australians to vote ‘no,’ believing the proposed change divides Australia by race and challenges notions of equal opportunity.


On the other end, certain First Nations peoples have also opted to vote ‘no’, citing that Treaty should come before Voice and that Voice provides too little authority to Indigenous peoples in making decisions on behalf of their communities. In an interview with ABC News, Independent Senator Lidia Thorpe shares her assertions around the proposed change.

“I want my people to be heard and to have a say over their lives, but with the current proposal the parliament maintains supremacy over the Voice and will get no veto or real influence,” she says.

When will it happen?


The projected date for the referendum is October or November 2023, although this is subject to change.


In Australia, referendums must be held not less than two months after and not more than six months after the bill to hold the referendum is passed.

Do I have to vote in a referendum? Why is this referendum important?


Yes, every Australian citizen enrolled to vote is required to vote in a referendum.


The importance of the 2023 Voice to Parliament referendum lies in its rarity and widespread impact. While changing the Australian constitution is a serious event in any context, First Nations peoples existed long before the constitution’s creation.


The gravity of this particular constitutional change will, in either result, weigh heavily on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.


So, if you think your vote won’t matter, note that every vote counts and not vote a particular way without being properly informed.


Don’t vote yes on a guess, and don’t vote no if you don’t know: Vote with care.


Where should I go for more information?


As the Voice proposal is subject to change, regularly updating yourself on any changes surrounding the future referendum is essential. Make sure to visit reputable websites and fact-check information where possible.



Uluru Statement from the Heart:




Design Principles:


Structure of Voice:


Information on referendums:




Exploring Dreamtime: art and stories

Ishmamul Haque provides a brief guide to Dreamtime beliefs for our international students....

Many international students desire to learn more about Australian Indigenous culture. Here, Ishmamul Haque provides a brief guide to Dreamtime beliefs for our international students.

Aboriginal people are part of the oldest continuing culture in the world. A vital tool of preserving and passing this culture onto the next generations, was the Dreamtime (or Dreaming) stories and art. It is a foundational pillar of understanding Aboriginal spirituality, beliefs and the essence of their existence.

Aboriginal rock art showing a kangaroo at Kakadu National Park
What is Dreamtime or Dreaming? 

The Pitjantjatjara people call it Tjukurrpa while the Arrernte use the word Aldjerinya to convey its meaning. The English language is inadequate for understanding or explaining the Dreamtime in a single word. Firstly, it attempts to use a single term as an umbrella to encapsulate the different meanings and understandings applied to the term by various cultural groups of Aboriginal people. Secondly, the English term confines time contrary to the essence/meaning of the Dreaming that began, is present and will continue as an event beyond time.

In essence, the Dreaming explains the creation of the world and existence of life in the Aboriginal belief system. Value systems, relations to the land and its dwellers, and the very way of life are determined by the Dreaming.

How is the Dreaming expressed? 

The immortal form of the Dreaming is provided through art and stories. The art and stories are complemented by ritualistic songs, dances and ceremonies which in conjunction informs the holistic culture of the people.

There is no written language used by the Aboriginal people. Hence, the visual medium is used to capture the stories of the Dreamtime, which are passed down for centuries using icons and symbols in art. The art is used for the aesthetic preservation of culture but also as tools of instruction to younger generations. The same art piece can be interpreted at a higher level among initiated elders, while told in a simpler form to children.

While contemporary art is done on canvas, traditionally, Aboriginal art has been found in rock walls, done as body paint and etched in sand or the earth while the story was being communicated.

Aboriginal rock art showing a barramundi fish
Synopsis of a Dreamtime Story

The Rainbow Serpent is a Dreamtime story that explains how the ancestral spirits gave life to the land and attained a form in nature. Goorialla, the Rainbow Serpent, went on a quest to find its tribe across all of Australia and cut gouges into the land. The serpent then decided to create more life. The frogs flooded the gouges with water – creating the streams and rivers, wombats populated the burrows and kookaburras came into existence.

During a time of unprecedented heavy rainfall, the serpent ate the Rainbow Lorikeet brothers, deceiving them of the promise of shelter. Realising his mistake, he hid away in the sky and now appears as the rainbow to apologise for taking the brothers from the people.

Synopsis of Dreamtime Art

Contemporary Dreamtime Art is a modern movement on canvas and board. It is used to express stories like the Rainbow Serpent using symbols and creativity. Dot paintings also constitute as Dreamtime art which originated as a means to disguise communication from European settlers and to preserve their secrets. Permission is required to produce these paintings if the story has not been inherited from family.

Dreamtime art is a cornerstone of Aboriginal culture. The stories and paintings should be observed and understood by settlers in this country and purchased only with a comprehensive understanding of their value. Support of Aboriginal artists and their culture acts as a healing for this nation which had tried to erase their existence.