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The Referendum Explained

Voters at a polling place. Federal Election 2016.

For Australians under the age of 42, this Saturday will be their first time voting in a referendum. So you may be wondering, what actually is a referendum, and what exactly are we voting on? Yak Writer Daniel Swane provides an overview.

On October 14th, the outcome of the first referendum in 24 years will be decided. This referendum will be held to determine whether or not the Australian Constitution shall be amended to enshrine an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament. The main questions that arise when discussing this referendum are usually along the lines of what the referendum is about, its origins, and what it seeks to achieve. Fortunately for you, these questions will all be answered in the article below.

Background and Origins 

Australia’s history is intricately tied to that of its First Nation’s population – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. For over 60,000 years, these communities have lived on the continent, making them the world’s oldest living cultures. Despite their ancient roots and deep connection to the land, Indigenous Australians have faced historical and ongoing challenges related to dispossession of land, discrimination, and socio-economic disadvantages. These challenges have resulted in Indigenous Australians being among the most overrepresented demographics in areas such as incarceration and adverse health outcomes. 

Over the years, there have been numerous pushes to recognise and rectify the disadvantages and historical injustices faced by Indigenous Australians. A key turning point in this journey was the 1967 referendum, where over 90% of Australians voted to change the Constitution to count Indigenous Australians in the census and allow the federal government to make laws for them. 

Fast forward to recent years, and the ‘Voice to Parliament’ emerged as a proposal to further Indigenous recognition and involvement in the democratic process. It was a significant recommendation from the Uluru Statement from the Heart in 2017, which came after extensive consultations and dialogues with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Australia. 

What is the ‘Voice to Parliament’? 

According to the Voice design principles developed by the First Nations Referendum Working Group the Voice to Parliament would be an advisory body that will give independent advice to the Parliament and Government. The Voice seeks to provide Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with a more direct say in matters of legislation and policies that affect them. How this would be structured in practice, and the manner of its operation are details that will be decided through legislation if a ‘yes’ vote is successful. Its primary purpose is to ensure that Indigenous perspectives are consistently considered at the highest levels of government. 

The Referendum’s purpose 

The Constitution is a set of rules by which Australia is governed, and can only be changed through a federal referendum. A federal referendum is a vote on a question about whether a part of the Constitution should be changed. 

The upcoming referendum will ask Australians to decide whether the Australian Constitution should be amended to recognise and establish a Voice to Parliament. A ‘yes’ vote would mean that Australians support the amendment to the Constitution for this recognition, while a ‘no’ vote would indicate the opposite. 

It’s essential to clarify that the referendum does not seek to decide the specific form, function, or structure of the Voice to Parliament. Those details would be determined afterward, following further discussions, consultations and the passing of legislation. The referendum primarily aims to ascertain whether there’s broad public support for amending the Constitution. 

How do I vote?

All Australian’s aged 18 and above are required to vote in the referendum. To find out more, and find a polling place near you, visit the Australian Electoral Commission. Importantly, referendum ballots are not filled by a tick or cross, as might be used in other elections, rather ‘YES’ or ‘NO’ must be printed on your ballot paper. Still unsure? You can practice responding to the referendum ballot to ensure that your vote will be counted.

A smart vote is an informed one. While this article provides you with a brief overview of the referendum and the Voice to Parliament, further information can be found in the resources below.

Please note: Yak Media is not an authority on the upcoming referendum. Please consider this article as a starting point of your research. More information can be found in the resources linked above.

Feature Image by the AEC

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