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:




The lucky (racist) country

Dinusha Soo dissects racism in Australia through the lens of Reg Mombassa's art....

For many of us growing up in Australia, we were often reminded of the fact that we live in the ‘lucky’ country, made up of a rich fabric of multiculturalism. Our diversity is touted as one of our key strengths, particularly when compared to other Western nations.

But for several Australians – our diversity is the very thing that can lead to oppression. One in five Australians have experienced racism in 2017 alone, according to a poll commissioned by the SBS with Western Sydney University.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a large portion of this racism has been directed to Asian-Australians and prior to this, the Muslim population.

So, what makes Australia racist and has this always been the case?

When the White Australia Policy came into effect in 1901, anyone from a non- European background could not enter the country. This was not abolished until as late as 1973, all while the Stolen Generations period was occurring between the mid-1800s to the 1970s.

Then if we look at our current national anthem, which surprisingly came into effect in 1984, we would all be familiar with the words, “for we are young and free.” Harmless enough? “These very words sung in our Australian anthem ignore the 65,000 years or more of Indigenous Australian culture,” says France Mao in a BBC article.

Reflecting on Australia’s laboured efforts to recognise and afford rights to those of Indigenous descent, it presents as a mere example of underlying racism in this country.

One of Australia’s most renowned artists, Reg Mombassa provides searing political commentary through his artwork. When asked by Troublemag what he perceives as the most important societal issue in Australia today – his response was racism.

Design by Dinusha Soo
Design by Dinusha Soo

Reg has done several pieces discussing racism, one of his more notable designs was for Mambo, where an Australian representation of Jesus extends an olive branch with the words “Australian Jesus welcomes the boat people.”

In recent times, these ‘boat people’ have been denied entry to Australia, even if they were facing persecution in their homelands. Australia currently has agreements with neighbouring countries, to process asylum seekers ‘offshore.’

The Refugee Council of Australia states that this means that people seeking asylum are generally detained, often for long and uncertain periods”. Additionally, there is no independent review of the decision to detain, and people have been detained for increasingly long periods.

“The detention of people seeking asylum under this regime is one of the harshest in

the world and causes terrible suffering,” the Refugee Council of Australia states.

As Australians who recognises our past and indeed our current policies – we must strive to do better. This will require having a sense of empathy and understanding toward our fellow humans, irrespective of the colour of their skin, their creed or their cultural beliefs. It is only by striving for a more equitable society, will movements like Black Lives Matter, which resonates with people globally, have any profound impact on our own culture here in Australia.


When worlds collide: why learning about Indigenous culture is important for international students

International students' engagement with Aboriginal Culture ...

Following the death of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protests in the US have sparked a string of protests on our own shores, as the often-overlooked issue of police brutality against Indigenous Australians returns to the forefront.
On and off-campus, there are plenty of opportunities to help international students learn about the Australian way of life from English conversation groups to beach safety events — but how much do international students know about Indigenous history?

Black Lives Matter protests rage on in the United States of America demanding justice for George Floyd


Many current domestic students may be able to recall participating in an Indigenous education program at some point in their life. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s 2007 “sorry speech” was made a compulsory viewing for primary school students nationwide. The year 7-10 Aboriginal studies syllabus states that its primary focus is for students to develop “an appreciation which acknowledges and addresses racism existing in Australian society and promotes inclusiveness.”

Whether or not the emphasis on Indigenous history in primary and secondary education syllabuses is enough remains a debate, but the fact remaining is that your average domestic student could confidently name a fact about the Stolen Generation, or even recite an Aboriginal Dreamtime story.

Kevin Rudd’s apology speech

For international students, there is no such equivalent. Western Sydney University’s Welcome guide for International students provides a brief history of European settlement, but unless they choose to take up a voluntary subject on Aboriginal culture, resources and opportunities for international students to gain an in-depth understanding of Australia’s history are scarce.

In 2015, after uncovering a lack of Indigenous literacy among its students, La Trobe University introduced a compulsory first-year module on Indigenous culture. The decision was said to not only allow domestic students to enhance their knowledge of Indigenous issues, but to also provide a chance for international students to learn and interact with Aboriginal elders. Western Sydney University could also pursue a similar policy.

Rabbit Proff Fence wonderfully depicts the stolen generation’s struggles in film. Source: Wikipedia

What do international students think?

When asked whether international students have sufficient knowledge on Indigenous culture, Anil Adhikari, a Master of Information and Communications student from India, mentioned that life was stuck between university, assignments and his part-time job.

Bangladeshi accounting student Nazmul Haque Shakil, says that most times it is uncommon to meet or even see Indigenous people. “I haven’t met a single person from that culture, and moreover its very rare seeing them around in Sydney and surrounding suburbs. So, I don’t have much idea about their culture and living standards.”

WSU is home to more than 7,000 international students. Source: pexels.com

What are their suggestions? 

Nazmul said he would appreciate lessons on Indigenous culture. Anil on the other hand had suggested an opt-in mechanism. “Making international students learn won’t be helpful. It’s a good idea to make international students know the Aboriginal culture but only if the students are willing to learn. Making subjects compulsory and forcing them to pay fees for that subject or spend their valuable time is not a good idea.”

Anil also added, “The other thing they can do is make it an online video of one to two hours and ask students to make a report on it – this will be the best solution. International students can take out this much of time and they can also learn about aboriginal culture.”

Why is it important in the first place?

Despite several Federal Government initiatives to “close the gap”, including scholarships and increased funding, racism towards Aboriginal staff and students still prevails within universities. In 2018, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) reported that three quarters of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander university staff had experienced racial discrimination in the workplace.

Education is a powerful tool to start to unlearn prejudicial attitudes, and to learn about social disparities so that we may stand together to correct them. Furthermore, in a country where Indigenous Australians make up only three per cent of the population, it becomes increasingly important to preserve Indigenous culture among future generations.

The lack of understanding about Aboriginal people is one that exists within our campuses as well and providing opportunities such as these is integral to the continuation of the culture.

Some statistics from the NTEU report

Kristy Bell, the Student Success officer at the Badanami Centre, which is WSU’s centre for Indigenous education, says that providing Indigenous education for international students is important for the longevity of our culture. “Indigenous culture is the history of Australia,” she stated in an email. “If it is not shared among all people, the Aboriginal culture will be lost.”

It’s no doubt that international students entering a new country face a vast series of challenges. From navigating transport systems to finding a job and learning to converse in English, international students have their hands full. However, we must find a way to integrate knowledge about the Indigenous people on whose land they now reside. International students can use the following avenues to enrich their understanding of Aboriginal culture.

Where can international students go to find out more about Indigenous culture?

If you’re an international student who wants to learn more about Aboriginal culture, there are plenty of opportunities both on and off-campus to get involved.

Get involved

There are a number of events across Sydney you can attend to immerse yourself in Aboriginal culture. Western Sydney hosts regular programs during NAIDOC Week (5th-12th July) including art classes and musical performances. Alternatively, you may choose to attend an Aboriginal Heritage tour or see an Aboriginal play at one of the many local theatres.

Study an Indigenous history unit

One of the many Aboriginal electives available at Western Sydney University will help form a solid introduction to Indigenous culture for those who are new. Not only are they available across a variety of disciplines, you will have your peers and tutors to guide you through any further questions you may have.

The Badanami Centre at WSU

Visit the Badanami centre

The Badanami centre is a great start for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander related resources. Their website has plenty of free resources including the Aboriginal Studies virtual library and links to Indigenous news articles.