Since British invasion, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have fought for recognition as the First Peoples of Australia, which encompasses their rights to traditional lands, languages, and to self-determination.
As of 2017, when over 250 First Nations representatives gathered near Uluru, this persistent call for recognition of their sovereignty manifested in a call to action delivered in the form of an invitation to the Australian people – the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The statement begins with a call to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the form of a First Nations Voice to Parliament (the ‘Voice’) – which would consist of a body to advise the Parliament and government on legislation and policy areas that affect First Nations Peoples’ lives and communities.
The Voice, in its current iteration, brings together two strands of action that many First Nations peoples in Australia have been campaigning for since federation: recognition, and representation.
What follows is a selected snapshot of the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples calling for recognition through a representative Voice.
- In the 122+ years since Federation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been fighting for recognition of their ancient and continuing sovereignty. The Constitution, Australia’s ‘rulebook’ as a nation, only recognised First Nations peoples in the form of exclusion, negating their rights, denying their inclusion in federalised laws and failing to acknowledge their unique status as the First Peoples of Australia. This silencing and exclusion in Australia’s foundational document has continued to the present day.
- Previous First Nations representative bodies designed to represent a collective Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice in federal decision-making have been successively silenced by being abolished or defunded by governments. Historically, government support of First Nations representative structures has been conditional on such bodies not advocating for rights or processes that conflict with or undermine Parliament’s agenda, as seen with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) that was established in 1990 and ultimately abolished in 2005.
- Since 2000, there have been numerous Parliamentary processes to address the conspicuous silence in the Constitution on the rights and recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. However, consecutive governments have failed to take the next steps toward meaningful recognition and structural reform.
- The 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart reflects Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states:
Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters that affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures, as well as to maintain and develop their own Indigenous decision-making institutions.
- The Uluru Statement from the Heart has elevated the long established debate about recognition and constitutional reform, centered around the enshrinement of a First Nations Voice in the Constitution.
- When Labor came to power at the May 2022 federal election, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese pledged his support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart, starting with the establishment of a First Nations Voice to Parliament. On 23 March 2023, the Albanese Labor government announced the draft question for the referendum:
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?
- Constitutional enshrinement of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament would ensure it is safe from short-term political variations and abolishment, and would establish and strengthen a pathway to better enable First Nations peoples to have a say in the development of laws and policies that impact their lives.
- The Referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Constitution and establish the Voice to Parliament was unsuccessful with less than 40% of voters – 6.2 million Australians – voting Yes and the ACT being the only jurisdiction to vote Yes therefore losing both counts of the double majority required to pass.