Wording for the Indigenous Voice referendum will be the subject of intense parliamentary debate in March, with the Government promising “ample time” for all sides to have their say.
With some confusion in the community about what the referendum is hoping to achieve – and opponents to it making the most of that confusion – Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has promised that the process will be transparent and the debate thorough.
“There’ll be ample time to debate the form of the question and what the sentences – what the changes to be included in the Constitution actually are,” he told the ABC.
He said the referendum question as well as the changes to the Constitution would be up for debate.
The Attorney-General said enabling legislation would come before parliament soon, with debate expected to start in March.
He confirmed that the referendum would be held some time in the second half of this year.
Self-funded campaigns for the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camps will kick off with gusto next month. No taxpayer money will be spent on the actual campaigns for either side, unlike the republican referendum in 1999.
Both houses of parliament must pass the proposal to change the Constitution before it is put to the people in a referendum.
The Government has already proposed one possible form of words for the referendum, with Anthony Albanese previously suggesting: “Do you support an alteration to the Constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice?”
Speaking on breakfast radio on Wednesday (18 Jan), the Prime Minister explained what form the Voice to Parliament could take and what role it might have.
“The Voice is an advisory body which will be able to communicate to the parliament and to the nation the views of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on matters that affect them,” he said.
“So, to improve their health, their education, their life expectancy, justice issues with incarceration rates of Indigenous Australians. It is simply that. Not a funding body. Not a body that will determine or be above the parliament, but will be able to do what it says it would do, a Voice for Indigenous Australians.
“And at the same time as part of that, we will recognise in the Constitution that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were Australia’s first peoples and that our great island continent we share goes back some 60,000 years. And that should be in our nation’s birth certificate.
“That is what you would be voting on. The detail of the functioning of the Voice, how it would operate, all of that will be subservient to the parliament, it will be the subject of legislation.
“So, over a period of time, for example, that might change, just like other legislation changes. All that a constitutional enshrinement will do is make sure that there must be a body. It doesn’t characterise the detail of how that body should operate, that level of detail. That’s not the job of the Constitution. The Constitution is just to set out the principles of the way that Australia functions.”
Edits to the constitution also previously suggested by the Prime Minister are:
1. There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
2. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to parliament and the executive government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
3. The parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to the composition, functions, powers and procedures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
But these are just suggestions, with nothing having been put forward formally yet. Hot debate and fierce opposition will result in numerous attempts at amending whatever the Government puts up. The final wording for the referendum and the edits to the Constitution are likely to be somewhat different from what has already been mooted.