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Thursday, 23rd March 2023

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice Referendum Question

The Uluru Statement from the Heart invites all Australians to walk together to a better future. Today, we take a very important step forward on that journey.


After many months of careful consideration on the draft form of words that I presented at Garma last July, the Referendum Working Group and the Government have agreed on the provisions that all Australians will vote on in this year’s Referendum. I want to thank, sincerely, all the members of the Working Group and all who have engaged with them.


For many, this moment has been a very long time in the making. Yet they have shown such patience and optimism through this process. And that spirit of co-operation and thoughtful, respectful dialogue has been so important at arriving at this point in such a united fashion.


The question Australians will be asked at this year’s referendum is very a simple one. It will read:


“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?”


That’s the question before the Australian people. Nothing more but nothing less.


And the provisions Australians will be voting to approve, are as follows:


Chapter IX Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples


129 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice


In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia:


  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 the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth 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 matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.

This form of words is legally sound. And it is the form of words that all of us have confidence will gain the strongest possible support from the people of Australia at the referendum - and deliver the best possible outcomes in the years ahead. The constitutional provisions we are releasing today enshrine two fundamental principles: Recognition and Consultation.


First, recognition. As Australians, we have an extraordinary privilege. We share this great island continent with the world’s oldest continuous culture. Our nation’s birth certificate should recognise this and be proud of it. People who have loved and cared for this country for 65,000 years and more. In countless ways, we embrace that as a source of great pride - and we should recognise it, we should recognise it.


Secondly, consultation. Not a radical notion - a sensible and practical proposition that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should have a say in the decisions and policies that affect their lives.


Not just because it’s common courtesy and decency to ask people before you take a decision that will impact them. But because when you reach out and listen to communities, you get better results.


Consultation through the Voice is about strengthening Parliament’s understanding – not supplanting its authority. It won’t take decision-making power away from Government or Parliament – but it will help Governments and Parliaments make better decisions and achieve better outcomes. And we urgently need better outcomes. Because it’s not good enough where we’re at in 2023.


On every measure, there is a gap between the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the national average. A 10 year gap in life expectancy. A suicide rate, twice as high. Tragic levels of child mortality and disease. A massive over-representation in the prison population, in deaths in custody, in children sent to out of home care.


And this is not because of a shortage of goodwill or good intentions on any side of politics, and it’s not because of a lack of funds. It’s because governments have spent decades trying to impose solutions from Canberra, rather than consulting with communities.


I know that every Australian wants to see our nation do better than this. Because our nation is better than this. Every Australian wants to know that an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander baby born today will enjoy an equal right to grow up healthy and safe, to get a great education, find a good job, to live a long and happy life. That’s what this is about. That’s what this is about. Every Australian wants us to close the gap. Today points the way to how we are going to do it. By consulting the people on the ground, by working with the people who live alongside these challenges. By enshrining a Voice in our constitution – and by listening to that Voice.


Today, alongside the final form of words for adding to the Constitution, we are providing some important principles that will underpin the shape and function of the Voice. These principles have been developed by the Referendum Working Group and this morning they were adopted by my Cabinet.


Firstly, the Voice will give independent advice to the Parliament and Government. It will be able to make proactive representations – as well as respond to requests. And the Parliament and Executive Government should seek written advice from the Voice early in the development of proposed laws and policies.


The Voice will be chosen by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, based on the wishes of local communities – not appointed by the government. Members will serve for a fixed period of time to ensure accountability. It will be representative of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, with a gender-balance and include youth. Members will come from every state and territory, the Torres Strait Islands and specific remote representatives. It will be accountable and it will be transparent, subject to the standard governance and reporting requirements. The Voice will work alongside existing organisations and traditional structures, respecting their work. And, as has been made clear very many times, the Voice will not have a veto power, and it will not deliver programs or manage funding.


It’s been nearly six years since Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people gathered at Uluru, ‘from all points of the Southern Sky’. Galarrwuy Yunupingu said they “lit a fire” that day – a flame of truth and healing, a bright burning light for us to follow.  The Uluru Statement from the Heart – and this Referendum – also presents every Australian with a historic, democratic opportunity. A chance to show the very best of our national character – our fundamental optimism, our deep sense of fairness, our instinctive respect and kindness for each other. If not now, when? That is an opportunity that doesn’t belong to the politicians, it belongs to every Australian. One person, one vote. People from all faiths, backgrounds and traditions. All of us will have an equal say. All of us can own an equal share of what I believe will be an inspiring and unifying Australian moment.


I want to take this opportunity to give my sincere thanks to the Referendum Working Group. What an extraordinary job they have done. From time to time, I have been asked from people in this room what my view is on various things, and I’ve said, ‘this isn't about me’. I wanted to hear from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Themselves, the process of getting to this point isn't top-down, it's bottom-up, from the people here. And soon, the Parliament will debate the final pieces of legislation necessary to facilitate the vote.


I thank the Parliament yesterday for unanimously passing through the Senate the legislation for provisions of the vote. We will introduce legislation with this wording next Thursday. We will establish a Joint Parliamentary Committee which will have time to consider any submissions which are made, and then we will put that to a vote in June.


To be very clear – because I was asked this question this morning – are there any circumstances in which this will not be put to a vote? The answer to that is no. Because to not put this to a vote, to not put this to a vote, is to concede defeat. You only win when you run on the field and engage. And let me tell you, my Government is engaged. We're all in.


Ultimately, though, there will be differences of opinion and I respect people's right to have a different opinion and to say "no". That is their democratic right. But I would ask for there to be a debate based upon the facts, not based upon scare campaigns which have no basis, not based upon nonsense, and not based upon issues that aren't respectful.


The people who stand with me on this stage, I regard as a great privilege to be standing with giants of Australia. I don't know, if I had their experience in life, that I could be as generous and as modest in my request. I would like to think that I would be, but you can't stand in other people's shoes. This is a modest request. I say to Australia, don't miss it. Don't miss it. This is a real opportunity to take up the generous invitation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. This is about the heart, but it's also about the head.


If you think things have been working up to now, look at the closing the gap issue. If you want to look at the best programs for Indigenous Australians that have been successful, they have all been characterised by having that sense of ownership. They're the things that have worked. They're the things that will work in the future. This is not about symbolism. This is about recognition, something that's far more important, but it's also about making a practical difference which we have, we have, a responsibility to do.

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Electorate Office

334a Marrickville Rd
Marrickville NSW 2204

Phone: 02 9564 3588

Parliament House Office

Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600

Phone: 02 6277 7700

Phone: (02) 9564 3588
Fax: (02) 9564 1734

We acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which our offices stand and we pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging. We acknowledge the sorrow of the Stolen Generations and the impacts of colonisation on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We also recognise the resilience, strength and pride of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

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