Indigenous Australians Want a ‘Voice to Parliament.’ What Does That Entail?

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Isabella Kwai, a reporter with the Australia bureau.


In May 2017, hundreds of Indigenous Australian delegates from around the nation gathered near Uluru, the sandstone monolith in Central Australia, for the delivery of a landmark statement.

Formed after months of rigorous consultation, the Uluru Statement From the Heart symbolized a unified call from Indigenous Australians to the government: enshrine a First Nations voice in the Constitution.

Now, the government may be taking steps to heed that call, saying this week it will hold a national referendum within the next three years on the question of recognizing Indigenous Australians in the country’s governing law.

It’s unclear exactly what form this recognition would take — which meant the news was met by commentators with a mix of interest and caution. But many advocates say it must include a “Voice to Parliament” outlined in the Uluru Statement — a body of Indigenous Australians that would be allowed input for the first time into policies and legislation affecting them.

“The voice is not a metaphor for voicelessness and powerlessness. It is a proposal for hardheaded structural reform,” wrote Megan Davis, a professor of law at The University of New South Wales who delivered the Uluru Statement in 2017. It would afford political empowerment and a seat at a table traditionally occupied by professional bureaucrats, she added.

It could also pave the way for other reforms mentioned in the Uluru Statement.

“The Voice is an instrument of Reconciliation, designed to pave a pathway towards truth-telling and agreement-making — to Treaty,” wrote Patrick Dodson, an Indigenous lawmaker, in the Sydney Morning Herald.

And changing the Constitution to include such a body for Indigenous Australians in Parliament would give it a level of protection and permanency that legislation, which can be repealed, would not, said Anne Twomey, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Sydney.

Even if the government supports a referendum to amend the Constitution, such measures are notoriously difficult to pass: Only 8 out of 44 have been successful. But they are often “a powerful democratic voice of the Australian people to say what it is that they want, and what needs then to be respected by politicians,” Prof. Twomey said.

As an example, more than 90 percent of Australians voted in 1967 to include Indigenous Australians in the national census, a turning point referred to in the Uluru Statement.

“In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard,” it concludes. “We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.”

You can read the Uluru Statement From the Heart here. Do you think constitutional reform for Indigenous Australians will happen in the next three years? Write to me at or join the discussion in our NYT Australia Facebook group.

Now on to some stories from the week.


ImageKarla Dickens, an acclaimed Aboriginal mixed-media artist, at her home in Lismore, Australia. She uses discarded material in her work.
CreditNatalie Grono for The New York Times
CreditPeter Tarasiuk for The New York Times

This week’s news from our bureau:

He’s Writing 365 Children’s Books in 365 Days, While Holding Down a Day Job: A full-time oyster farmer in rural Tasmania, Matt Zurbo is undertaking an unconventional labor of love for his daughter by penning a book a day.

Climbers Flock to Uluru Before a Ban, Straining a Sacred Site: A rush of visitors to the central Australia monolith ahead of an Oct. 26 deadline has brought an increase in trash, trespassing and illegal camping, officials say.

How Australia Could Almost Eradicate H.I.V. Transmissions: The most recent advance in Australia’s decades-long fight against the virus is the rapid adoption of a preventive drug regimen known as PrEP.

Papua New Guinea Massacre Kills Pregnant Women and Children, Police Say: At least 20 people, including pregnant women and children, have been killed in an ambush and retaliatory massacre by villagers in Papua New Guinea, according to news reports.

Australian Police Obtained Journalist’s Travel Records From Airline in Leak Inquiry: The request for the travel records from Qantas Airways has alarmed the media industry and advocates for a free press.

Student Deported From North Korea Says He’s ‘Pretty Obviously’ Not a Spy: Alek Sigley, 29, an Australian who sometimes wrote about his life in Pyongyang, was accused of “systematically” collecting information for news media outlets.

CreditRose Wong

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