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The “Voice” Referendum (and why it’s not as complicated as it seems)

Fun facts, not-so-fun facts, terminology tips, and “The Australian Constitution made simple”: The “Voice” Referendum (and why it’s not as complicated as it seems)

By Richard Whitington

Table of Contents

Chapter One: what’s a referendum?

Here you’ll find some simple background and explanations.

How to avoid an informal vote!

Referendums or Referenda?

Amazing number of first-time referendum voters!

What does a Referendum ask you to vote on?

Who can/must vote in a Referendum?

But you must be enrolled to vote!

Chapter Two: The Voice Referendum.

A Two Step Process.

The actual wording of The Voice Referendum:

When will it be held?

Chapter Three: the three branches of “government”

A plain-words explanation of the Parliament, the Executive and the Judiciary.

Chapter Four: words you’re going to hear (probably a lot) during the Referendum debate.

Deciphering: Constitution, Representations, Constituents, Government, Parliament, House of Representatives, Senate, Chamber, House, MP, MHRs, Legislature/Legislation, Amendments, Law, Cabinet, Ministers/Ministry, Executive, Bills, Acts, Lobbying, Private Member’s Bill, Judiciary, Coalition, and more.

Chapter Five: the challenging facts about referendums in Australia.

The quirky history of referendums – winners and losers, and changing our minds (with some “Did you knows?”).

Chapter Six: counting the Indigenous vote.

Brief account of the slow progress on Indigenous peoples’ entitlements.

Chapter Seven: let’s recall what we’re dealing with here, and ask ourselves how this ever happened.

A confronting reminder of how little progress we’ve made.

Chapter Eight: how do other countries treat their indigenous minorities?

From Scandinavia to South America to New Zealand.

Chapter Nine: myths, misconceptions and malice.

Debunking the illogical and misleading objections to “Yes”.

Chapter Ten: dates worth remembering and events easily forgotten.

First Fleet, Myall Creek, some landmarks in progress, and many in shame.

If you want to dive deeper…

Links to other sites & resources.


Chapter One: what’s a referendum?

Here you’ll find some simple background and explanations.

Few of us have the time or the need to learn the workings of Government (let alone the Constitution!) and the often-mysterious language involved.

But we’re expected to be experts when a referendum comes along!

Rather more importantly, if you read nothing else here, remember this:

How to avoid an informal vote!

The ballot paper for a referendum has just one box on it and you must write Yes or No in it. If you put a tick or a cross in it, let alone a number (1), your vote will be invalid.

Here’s a sample ballot paper:



Referendums or Referenda?

The old-school plural of Referendum is “Referenda”. We’re going with “Referendums”, with apologies to the purists.

Amazing number of first-time referendum voters!

The 24-year gap between the last referendum (1999), and this year’s, is by far the longest there’s ever been (the previous longest was the 16 years from 1951 to 1967).

Meaning, that in 2023, nobody under 42 years of age has ever voted in a referendum (i.e., only people now aged 42 or above, were of voting age when the last referendum was held, in 1999). So, this year, more than 40 per cent of those enrolled will be voting in a referendum for the first time. The design of the ballot paper, and how to answer the question, might be a surprise to some seven million Alert your friends, and children!

What does a Referendum ask you to vote on?

Referendums relate only to proposed changes to Australia’s Constitution. The Constitution is the ultimate set of rules which dictates what powers are available to the Australian Commonwealth Government (in our Federal system, the States handle all the other laws). Using the powers allowed by the Constitution, the Australian Government makes laws (legislation), by passing them through Parliament, and making orders and regulations. Laws, regulations and orders are administered through various arms of the Public Service (which form part of “the Executive” – more on that later), overseen by Ministers.

Laws and regulations can be challenged through the court system (the Judiciary) and often are, occasionally on the grounds that they do not align with what the authors of the Constitution intended.

The Australian Constitution can only be altered by a Referendum. A Referendum passes only if:

  1. A majority of voters in at least four of our six states (i.e., a majority of the states) vote “Yes”, AND
  2. A majority of all voters in Australia (including voters who live in the Territories of the NT and ACT), overall, vote “Yes”.

It’s entirely possible, mathematically, for a majority of Australian voters to vote “Yes”, but only a minority of states (three or fewer) to vote “Yes”. Equally, it’s mathematically possible for a majority of states to vote “Yes”, without a majority being gained, nationally, among the total voting population. In either scenario, the Referendum fails to pass.

We’ll have more on the history of Referendums, and how difficult they are to win!

Who can/must vote in a Referendum?

Like an election, it’s compulsory for all enrolled voters to fill out a ballot paper which, in a Referendum, asks a “Yes” or “No” question.

Voting is conducted at polling booths, just as it is at elections. If you are eligible and can’t make it to a polling booth on Referendum Day, you may apply for a postal vote. Or vote before Referendum Day (usually up to ten days ahead) at special “Pre-Poll” booths. If you’re not near your usual polling booth on Referendum Day, you can vote “Absentee” at any polling booth outside your own electorate.

If you’ll be overseas on Referendum Day, you’ll need to carefully research your voting options (usually a postal vote).

The Australian Electoral Commission will provide more information on all this, closer to the “Yes” Day (Referendum) and we’ll update this page accordingly.

But you must be enrolled to vote!

And you can do that, right now:

If you’ve turned 18 since the last Federal Election (21 May 2022), or have simply never enrolled, you can do it here: Enrol to vote or update your details – Australian Electoral Commission (

And here’s a tricky one: Provisional voting! That’s a vote you’re allowed to cast if your name can’t be found on the electoral roll, or when your name has been marked off the list, as having voted already.

In short, it’s a vote you can cast pending resolution of a dispute about whether you were eligible, or if someone else has cheated and voted in your name. It’s a rare occurrence, but in a tight contest, it might make a difference. If you know people who might be affected by this – let them know their right to assert their entitlement to vote.


Chapter Two: The Voice Referendum

A Two Step Process

The proposal to have a “Voice” for Indigenous people involves two steps (the Referendum is just the first of them):

  1. Seek approval, from all Australian voters, for the Constitution to include a permanent mechanism (The Voice) to assist Indigenous people to express their views to the Australian Government; that’s the Referendum question.
  2. Then, if that’s approved at the Referendum, the elected Parliamentarians have the job of designing how The Voice will be organised and operate.

It’s also easy to overlook the fact that our Government, through the Parliament, already can easily set up structures and processes to listen to Indigenous people. But currently, on a whim, Governments can also just as easily abolish those structures and processes, as they have – three times – in the past: the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (1977), the National Aboriginal Conference (1985) and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (2004).

The point of The Voice referendum is to say to any and every Commonwealth Government, into the future: “The Constitution of our nation now requires you to establish and keep a mechanism – something – which is obliged to listen to Indigenous viewpoints and convey those to the Government on matters which directly impact Indigenous people.”

In plain, simple language, it’s also saying to the Government, forever: “The design of the mechanism is up to you, assuming you can convince a majority of the elected members of Parliament; but if you stray too far from what the Constitution intends, you’ll be challenged in front of the “Judiciary” – the High Court of Australia”. Writing this into the Constitution is also saying to the Government and the Parliament: “You’re required to have something permanent; you can’t keep creating organisations and agencies to represent Indigenous people only to abolish them later, leaving nothing in their place.”

The actual wording of The Voice Referendum:

After detailed consultation with the Referendum Working Group (which was established by a previous Coalition Government), Prime Minister Albanese announced the proposed referendum question on 23 March 2023. The Bill was introduced to parliament on 30 March 2023, and passed the Senate on 19 June 2023.

The question is:

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? [Write Yes or No in the box]

Introducing the Bill to Parliament on 23 March 2023, the government proposed that if the referendum passes, the Constitution will have this added to it:

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.

As noted earlier, it’s a two-step process: first, a change to the Constitution which gives the Parliament the power to design how The Voice will work; second, our elected representatives, by a majority, agree on the mechanics for implementation.

When will it be held?

The date hasn’t been set, yet! But most likely it will be the second Saturday in October, the 14th. The first Saturday in October (October 7) probably wouldn’t work because we’d all be recovering from various footy grand finals held on the previous weekend (and a public holiday, in several states). Any later than Saturday 14 October and we’d be too close to the Melbourne Cup for anyone to concentrate. Neither Grand Finals nor the Melbourne Cup are mentioned in the Constitution, surprisingly.


Chapter Three: the three branches of “government”

A plain-words explanation of the Parliament, the Executive and the Judiciary

Don’t feel bad if you don’t “get” where power resides and how it is exercised in Australia’s system of government. Not many of us have the need, the time or the interest to dwell on the subject. But, when it comes to holding a referendum on changing “who has power over what”, suddenly we’re expected to become constitutional experts.

Democracies, like Australia, generally have three arms of government: the Parliament, the Executive and the Judiciary. There are variations – country to country – in how the arrangements work, and which of the three is ultimately the most powerful. And there are differences in vocabulary and terminology in describing them!

Whatever language we use, the arrangements in Australia are set out in a Constitution, a document which says who is responsible for what. In our case, one of its main purposes was to define and describe the powers that Australia’s six existing colonies/States would hand over to the Commonwealth of Australia at Federation (when we became a nation) in 1901.

It’s important to understand that, in Australia, ultimate power lies with the people, voting at elections or occasionally, in referendums (to alter the Constitution). Every three years we elect some of our fellow citizens to the Australian Parliament (sometimes referred to as the Legislature) – ordinary people: 151 members of the House of Representatives and 76 Senators. Those parliamentarians, representing the voters, have the power to adopt, or block, or amend anything the Government proposes. The Parliament, and only the Parliament, makes laws.

The laws Parliament makes must comply with the Constitution, which can only be altered if a majority of all Australian voters, and a majority of voters in at least four of our six states, agree to that (vote “Yes”). We’re a timid lot – after all six states agreed to become one nation, and did so in 1901, we’ve said “Yes” to changing the Constitution only eight times, out of the 44 times we’ve been asked to!

The things the Parliament (OK, the Legislature) considers are usually proposed by the so-called Executive of the Government. In Australia, the Executive is created by the Prime Minister, the leader of the party that has the support of a majority in the House of Representatives (often called “the Lower House”, as distinct from the Senate or “Upper House”). The Prime Minister appoints about 30 Ministers from those elected to either house of Parliament (usually from the ranks of his or her own party). Each of them is then responsible for at least one department. These employ public servants (the Public Service – more for the vocabulary) to implement and administer the government’s policies. Well known departments include Treasury, Defence, Social Services, Education, Health, Environment, the Arts etc.

Each of those departments, or government “agencies” (crikey, another word) has a boss. Sometimes it’s a Secretary, sometimes a Director General, sometimes a Chief, sometimes just a “Head of”.

In Australia, the most senior of the Ministers, drawn from elected members of parliament, and appointed by the Prime Minister, form a Cabinet (another word!) and the Cabinet is at the core of Executive Government. Cabinet proposes laws and regulations, and the parliament approves or rejects them. The responsibility for implementing those laws and regulations, as enacted by Parliament (by both the House of Representatives and the Senate) passes down through Ministers, to their department heads, to the lowest levels of the public service.

But wait, have we forgotten about the Judiciary, the third arm of our system of government? Let’s demystify that – it’s the courts. In Australia, the highest of them is, not surprisingly, the High Court. In our States the highest court is the “Supreme Court”, but they do not interpret the Australian Constitution, only the laws of their particular State.

The most significant function of the High Court is to decide, if asked to settle an argument, on whether a law, passed by the parliament, elected by the people, actually complies with what (the High Court thinks) the Constitution intended. Irritating as we might think it is for seven people (the High Court judges) to over-rule what 227 members of parliament might have agreed to, it’s an accepted safety check. The Constitution included this role for a permanent “umpire”.

Maybe much more importantly, Australia has heaps of other lower-level branches of what might be called the judiciary: courts and tribunals which rule on the “legality” and fairness of decisions taken by governments and implemented through the public service – everything from employment and pay disputes, through to entitlements to welfare benefits, and how much tax you owe. It’s all far from perfect, of course, but there’s a system in place that every day deals with disagreements between the government and the people government is meant to serve.


Chapter Four: words you’re going to hear (probably a lot) during the Referendum debate.

Deciphering: Constitution, Representations, Constituents, Government, Parliament, House of Representatives, Senate, Chamber, House, MP, MHRs, Legislature/Legislation, Amendments, Law, Cabinet, Ministers/Ministry, Executive, Bills, Acts, Lobbying, Private Member’s Bill, Judiciary, Coalition, and more.

The Australian Parliament consists of the House of Representatives (151 members) and the Senate (76 members). Sometimes they are known as the “lower house” (the House of Reps, or just the “Reps”) and “the upper house” (the Senate – which is also sometimes called “the House of Review”). All of these parliamentarians can be referred to as MPs (short for Member of Parliament, not Military Police). MPs in the lower house are sometimes called MHRs – Members of the House of Representatives. Senators are just, well, Senators.

Each of the rooms in which these Houses meet is also sometimes called “the chamber”. The lower house chamber and the upper house chamber are not to be confused with the toilets in an English mansion. Even though parliamentarians are described as “sitting” in parliament, or as a “sitting” member.

Nor is the House of Review a place where you see a university student stage show.

The building which accommodates both these chambers, is Parliament House! Although in England they call it the Houses of Parliament, or the Palace of Westminster.

Our parliament is also referred to as “the Legislature”, because it’s the place, and the only place, where legislation is passed. More on that later but, for now, keep in mind that legislation is really just another word for “law”. That is, only parliament can make laws. Read on…

Government is formed in Australia when the man or woman who is supported by a majority of the 151 members of the House of Reps, goes to the Governor General (who represents King Charles III of England) and asks to be sworn in as Prime Minister. Whether the Prime Minister, and his/her party, has majority support in the Senate, has nothing to do with this.

[For more than 80 years our Prime Minister has been either the Leader of the Australian Labor Party, or the Leader of the Liberal Party (supported by the National Party, in a partnership known as the Coalition).]

The PM then appoints Ministers, to supervise the various functions of government. These Ministers are selected (usually by the PM; sometimes by a vote of the parliamentary party the PM leads) from the ranks of parliamentarians in both othe two houses. That is, in Australia, before they are eligible to serve as a Minister, a person must first be elected to either House of Parliament, as a direct representative of the people. This is one of many safeguards in our system of government, ultimately giving voters more power than anyone else, over who runs the place.

All the ministers, together, are known as the Ministry, but the most senior of them form the Cabinet. The ministry is nothing to do with a collection of priests in a religious order; and the Cabinet is not a cupboard.

The terminology here is loosely applied. The junior ministers, who aren’t in the Cabinet, are sometime referred to as “the outer ministry”. The senior ministers, who are actually in Cabinet, are sometimes known as the “inner cabinet”.

Laws are made in Australia when the Cabinet agrees to bring a proposed law (legislation) to Parliament, for Parliament’s approval. At first, this is called a Bill. To become law, the Bill must be approved, separately, by a majority of the House of Reps, and a majority in the Senate. Sometimes a Bill is amended, along the way, as it is debated. This happens less commonly in the House of Reps, because the Government usually commands a majority there (although not necessarily on every single issue); amendments to Bills are made more frequently in the Senate because the Government hardly ever has a majority there.

This is a subject for another lesson, another day, about how the Senate is elected and how the Constitution provides for each State to have the same number of Senators regardless of the huge variations in population between the States. Suffice to say the Senate is another safeguard in our Constitution. It was included to ensure big states don’t have a dominant advantage over smaller states.

Once a Bill has been approved (amended or not) by both houses, it becomes an Act – it becomes the law from a specified date (well, once King Charles’s representative, the Governor General, has OK’d it – which is called “giving Royal Assent”).

Much of parliament’s work actually involves making amendments to existing legislation, when the government wants to change a law, for whatever reason. This can range from the highly significant, to minor tinkering.

For completeness, sometimes legislation is introduced to parliament as a Private Member’s Bill. This is not a Bill introduced in private, but by an MP, from any party (in the House of Reps, or the Senate), who is not a Minister. It’s rare, and even more rare for private members’ bills to be passed by the parliament.

In deciding how they will vote, on anything, MPs are meant to take into account the views of their constituents – that’s us, the people who voted the MPs into parliament. The process of voters presenting an argument to an MP is called making representations. This can happen anywhere, like the sideline of a Saturday afternoon footy game, or by letter and e-mail, by phone call, or – more formally – to committees of parliament which are set up to enquire into or recommend policies on a wide range of subjects.

Representations can be made by individuals, or by bodies representing particular interests, or organisations – business councils, trade unions, religious groups and many more. People or organisations that are paid to do this on behalf of others are called lobbyists. In addition, many individual organisations do their own direct lobbying.

So that deals with Parliament, the Cabinet and legislation. Let’s move on to what is known as the Executive. The (inner) Cabinet – the PM and the senior ministers – form the pinnacle of the Executive. It’s a bit like the Board of a company (or the local RSL club).

In general, every minister has a department – sometimes several – and each department has a “Head” reporting to the minister. These departmental heads also sit near the top of the Executive structure; in Australia, strictly speaking, that structure runs all the way down to the lowest levels of the public service.

Critics of the proposed wording of the Voice argue that, in providing for indigenous people to make representations to “the Executive”, lower levels of the public service will become bogged down in disputes with indigenous people who claim to have “the constitution” on their side. More on that later.

It’s important to keep in mind that the actual design and functions of The Voice will only be determined by the Parliament, after the Referendum succeeds.

There is no point agonising about these details until after the Referendum is passed. The fact is that various alternative models will be proposed for the Voice, for the Australian Parliament to consider and vote on. Whatever structure and roles are given by Parliament to The Voice it will be no different to other existing structures within our government, which are all subject to various forms and degrees of accountability.

And all are subject to challenge, at a variety of levels – whether it be to the constitutional validity of legislation or administrative actions relating to the way representations are made to, or responded to, by executive government. These challenges are heard and adjudicated by the judiciary, from the High Court down to bodies like the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (and many more!).

The fact is that the role proposed for The Voice is no different to that of others which operate in the existing structures of our government.

The broad guidelines for how all this operates, and particularly what power is available to the various arms of government, are written in the Constitution. The constitution was agreed to by the six Australian states, prior to them joining together to become a single nation, back on 1 January 1901. The only way the Constitution can be changed is by a referendum. From the 44 attempts to change the Constitution, since it was fist adopted, only eight have succeeded.


Chapter Five: the challenging facts about referendums in Australia

The quirky history of referendums – winners and losers, and changing our minds (with some “Did you knows?”)

Since Australia became a nation, in 1901, there have been 44 Referendum questions put to voters, on a range of issues, seeking approval to change the Constitution. In only eight cases did the “Yes” vote prevail (it was a “No”, to the other 36 questions).

Let’s put aside the 18 questions asked from 1906 to 1937 (three of which won a “Yes”), being longer ago than most of us can remember.

Modern referendums:

Since the start of World War 2, Australians have voted in referendums on 11 occasions (first in 1944, most recently in 1999). Let’s call 1944 to 1999 the “modern era” (even though 1999 is also longer ago than some of us can remember). In this period, voters were asked a total of 26 questions. They said “Yes” to only five of them.

Which party has more success sponsoring referendums?

During those 55 years, nine of the 26 questions were asked while the Liberal/National Coalition was in power. Four of the nine scored a “Yes”, gaining a majority in four of the six states, and a majority among the Australian population, as a whole (these are the two requirements for a referendum to pass). Not bad, by referendum standards, when you consider only eight of 44 questions have passed, since we became a nation in 1901.

The other 17 questions, from 1944 to 1999, were put up while Labor was in power. Only one received a “Yes”, and that was back in 1946.

So, on this analysis, the Liberals are four out of nine; Labor only one from 17.

Occasionally we’ve changed our minds, over time.

In 1974 the Labor government put up a referendum to allow electors in Territories (the ACT and the NT), joining those in the States, to vote in… well, referendums. It lost. In 1977 the Liberal Government put up the same question; it passed.

In 1944, Labor ran a referendum which sought to give the Commonwealth power, for a period of five years, to legislate on 14 specific matters, including the rehabilitation of ex-servicemen, national health, family allowances and ‘the people of the Aboriginal race’. Nope, it lost.

But in 1967, when the Liberal government put up the question to enable the Commonwealth to enact laws for Aboriginal people (and to remove the prohibition against including Aboriginal people in population counts in the Commonwealth or a State), it passed, by the biggest majority of any referendum (90 per cent in favour!).

Is timing everything?

Three of the 11 “referendum days” between 1944 and 1999 occurred on the same day as federal elections, with nine questions being asked, in total. Only one of them was passed. The other 17 questions were asked on eight referendum days which were held separately from federal elections: four of the 17 questions were approved.

What does all that tell us?

Bottom line:

  1. Liberal governments have had more success getting their referendum questions passed (including when they ask the same or similar question to one defeated earlier, when it was put up by Labor).
  2. Referendums held separately from an election day (as The Voice referendum will be) have a much greater chance of winning than those held on the same day as an election. At stand-alone referendums we clearly vote a little more generously for “Yes”, and seem to overcome our irritation at having to turn up to a polling booth, yet again.

We tend to agree, broadly, regardless of where we live – but not always!

Even though they needed only four out of the six states (along with a majority of all Australian voters), every one of the five successful referendums in the modern era has won a majority in every state. You need to go back to 1910 to find the only successful referendum which wasn’t supported by every state (NSW held out, voting NO, to no avail).

There has never been a referendum where a majority of states (four out of six) voted in favour but a majority of the national population voted “No”. However there have been five referendums lost despite a majority of Australians voting “Yes”, the most remarkable being in 1977, when we were asked to change the Constitution to ensure that Senate elections are held at the same time as House of Representatives elections. Despite more than 62 per cent of us approving, three states (Queensland, WA and Tasmania) said “No”, thus defeating the referendum.

Nonetheless, the House of Reps and Senate have been elected on the same day, ever since, demonstrating that in many instances, governments can adopt what they see as the will of the people, or their own interests, even if matter isn’t enshrined in the Constitution.

Losing, big time

The darkest day in referendum history was 31 May 1913, when six referendum questions were put, on the same day as a federal election. All six failed, despite three states (Queensland, WA and SA) voting in favour of every question. It needed (but didn’t get) four states in favour and, in any event, the national total in favour was stuck on 49 per cent, to all six questions. The 1913 Referendum was put up by the Labor Government of the time, which was defeated at the election on the same day!

Doing “OK”

The best day for referendums was in 1977, when Malcolm Fraser’s Coalition Government put up four questions, with three of them being passed – all of them with more than 70 per cent of the total, and every state, voting Yes. Even the question which “lost” was supported by 62 per cent of Australians – but three states had a majority “No”. Go figure.

Maybe we like “one thing at a time, please”

There have been five occasions on which we’ve been asked just one question at a referendum – for two “Yes’s” and three “No’s”. This is actually a pretty good stat for “Yes” hopefuls – a 40 per cent success rate, when just one question is asked. This compares to the 15 per cent success rate for Yes (only six out of 39), when more than one question is asked at a referendum. This year’s referendum involves just one question. Whether SportsBet or their equivalents know of these odds is another matter….

Here’s some more, for trivia buffs…

  1. The eight successful referendums recorded national Yes votes of between 54.39% and 90.77%. Seven were supported by all six states; one was 5-1 (NSW said No). In case you’re wondering, the second highest “Yes” vote, ever (after the 1967 90 per cent, to recognise Aboriginals), was 80 per cent in favour of setting a retirement age for judges in the High Court. Slightly ironic, that we became nearly as excited about seeing off seven ageing white people, before they died on the job, as we did about teenage Aboriginal kids dying in police cells.
  2. Five referendums failed, despite receiving national Yes votes of more than 50%: between 50.30% and 62.22%. Three of them had three states against; two of them had four states against. Only one of them ranked within the eight which passed, in terms of national support. That is, if sufficient states had voted in favour, four of these five would occupy the bottom of the Yes “league ladder” of successful referendums. Those four were only a tad over 50 per cent of the national vote so, maybe, it’s reasonable that they didn’t get up.
  3. Nine referendums have attracted Yes votes of less than 40%. Seven of them had all states opposed; two of them were 1 Yes – 5 No.
  4. The other 22 referendums had Yes votes between 40.25% and 49.78%. The majority of them had three states against, some had four against.

Bottom line:

  • Nine of 44 referendums questions were rejected by more than 60 per cent of voters. Wow! Who drafted those questions?
  • Thirteen of 44 referendums won more than 50 per cent of the national vote, but five of those failed because insufficient states said “Yes”.

NSW: the biggest state, but the most “disappointed”…

Among the 26 referendum questions asked, from 1944 to 1999, there are nine on which NSW has voted “Yes”, but the referendum was not carried (insufficient other states, or minority of the national population, supporting).

Indeed, in our modern era, every state has voted “Yes”, once or more, only to see the referendum defeated: NSW (nine times, as mentioned), Western Australia and Victoria (four each), South Australia (two), Queensland, and Tasmania, once each.

How many people are eligible to vote?

Here, in millions (round figures), are the latest number of enrolled voters in each state and territory (with their percentage of the total national enrolment, in brackets).

NSW: 5.6 (31.3)

Vic: 4.5 (25.1)

Qld: 3.7 (20.7)

WA: 1.9 (10.6)

SA: 1.3 (7.3)

Tas: 0.4 (2.2)

ACT: 0.3 (1.7)

NT: 0.2 (1.1)

Total: 17.9m (100%)

Can you figure the maths – all the possible combinations which could lead to success (or failure) for a referendum question? Remember, four of the six states, and a majority of the total (meaning nearly nine million people need to vote “Yes”, for a start).

Consider this: If just 51% of voters in each of Tasmania, SA, WA and Queensland say NO, the referendum fails, regardless of how it’s supported in NSW and Victoria (or the ACT and NT). It means that around 20 per cent of our total voting population (3.7m out of nearly 18m) can thwart the wishes of 30 per cent (or more). It protects smaller states, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But it’s the reality.

But while you’re figuring that out, don’t forget to enrol to vote at the referendum: Enrol to vote or update your details – Australian Electoral Commission (


Chapter Six: counting the Indigenous vote.

Brief account of the slow progress on Indigenous peoples’ entitlements.

For the first 60 years after Australia became a nation (1901), Indigenous Australians didn’t even have a guaranteed right to vote, and most didn’t.

It wasn’t until 1962 that the Commonwealth Electoral Act granted all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the option to enrol and vote in federal elections. It took until 1965 for the last of our States to remove the barriers which prevented Indigenous Australians from enrolling!

After the Commonwealth kindly granted permission for Indigenous Australians to enrol, it took till 1984 for them to be required to do so, like everybody else. It’s less than 40 years since Indigenous Australians were “given” the same legal voting obligations as other Australians.

Between 1962 and 1984 there were 13 Federal elections (counting four separate elections for the Senate), and five referendums (with a total of 14 questions put).

We’ll never know how many Indigenous people – what percentage of them – exercised their right to enrol and vote after 1962 – especially ahead of the 1967 Referendum, which asked if Indigenous Australians could be counted in the population.

At the last Census (remember, we count Indigenous people, now) 3.2 per cent of people said they identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. In most elections, if 3.2 per cent of voters changed their allegiance from one side to the other – let’s say from the government to the opposition – the government would be defeated.

Small as it seems, the same percentage – 3.2 – could have a significant impact on the result of a referendum.


Chapter Seven: let’s recall what we’re dealing with here, and ask ourselves how this ever happened.

A confronting reminder of how little progress we’ve made.

Until Australians voted overwhelmingly in the 1967 referendum to amend it, our Constitution gave the Commonwealth the power to make laws with respect to “the people of any race other than the Aboriginal race in any State; for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws.”

In plain English what that really meant was that, until 1967, only the States could make laws affecting aboriginal people. And it reminds us, meanwhile, that the Commonwealth had always had the power to make laws about people of any other race. And they did, “deeming it necessary”, for instance, with the White Australia Policy, prohibiting coloured people from anywhere – India, Asia, Africa, the Pacific Islands – from coming here and “stealing our jobs”. The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 lasted until 1966!

Perhaps the worst example of early racism, until it was removed from the Constitution in the 1967 referendum, was this: “In reckoning the numbers of people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted.

Hopefully, voting Yes to The Voice will be seen by all Australians, particularly those of non-European heritage, as an opportunity – another step – to repair Australia’s somewhat extraordinary history of racial discrimination. Yes, it’s a history we share with many, many other countries. But we’ve now become one of the most multi-cultural, and multi-racial nations on earth. Another good reason to spread the joy.


Chapter Eight: how do other countries treat their indigenous minorities?

From Scandinavia to South America to New Zealand

There’s hardly a country on the planet that hasn’t been invaded and colonised by people of another race (or culture/nationality), with the original inhabitants becoming a small minority of the population. In Norway, Sweden and Finland, for instance, there are indigenous legislatures (parliaments) which acknowledge the tiny minority of those who were dispossessed. Interestingly, these countries are always in the top of the pop charts of the “happiest countries on earth”.

In New Zealand, there are seven seats in parliament which can be occupied only by Māori (providing way more power than anything proposed by The Voice). Again, in South America (in places like Columbia for instance), where the Spanish basically wiped out the native Indians, and imported black slaves from Africa, there are now seats allocated to those racial minorities. Canada is considering a similar approach, to provide its indigenous population with specific seats in parliament.

The Voice isn’t proposing any of these things. It just proposes a method, which will be permanent, for indigenous people to tap the Government on the shoulder and say “Hey, listen to us, on this”.


Chapter Nine: myths, misconceptions and malice.

Debunking the illogical and misleading objections to “Yes”

Here are just some of the arguments you’ll hear about The Voice:

“The Voice isn’t supported by all Indigenous people.”

Of course, it isn’t. Why should we expect it to be? Whatever their circumstances or background, people reach their own views and it’s unlikely 100 per cent of them will ever be in unanimous agreement. People of Indigenous descent can be just as radical or just as conservative as anyone else and, like some other Australians, will vote “No” because a Voice is too radical, or too conservative for their taste.

“Not my Voice”, you’ll hear some Indigenous Australians say. Fair enough.

But it is a nonsense to suggest that the Voice should be rejected by the rest of us because it isn’t supported by 100 per cent of Indigenous people.

“A “Yes” vote will introduce “race” to the Constitution”

Over the years, our Constitution has included several references to “race”. From the outset in 1901, the Constitution empowered the Parliament to make laws with respect to the people of any race. That provision is still there and is reflected notably in legislation like the Land Rights Act of 1976 and the Native Title Act of 1993, laws made specifically for Indigenous people.

“The Voice will be a “Canberra” voice.”

It is twisted logic to say, as some have said, that The Voice will be a “Canberra” voice. The opposite is true: unlike the armies of high paid lobbyists who currently populate the rarefied air of our national capital (around 2,000 of them!), the people elected to The Voice will be drawn from all regions across Australia, with specific provision for age and gender balance. The current model proposes two members from each state, the Northern Territory, ACT and Torres Strait. The organisational details and specific roles for The Voice will be determined by a vote of the parliament after the Referendum passes.

“The Voice singles out Indigenous Australians, but there are many other disadvantaged minorities. Why favour one minority over others?”

Because, for nearly 200 years after Europeans arrived here, and for nearly 70 years after we became a nation, we didn’t even recognise the existence of First Australians. Despite efforts in more recent times to understand and address the needs of Indigenous Australians – to “close the gap” – they continue to experience some of the worst outcomes in life expectancy (61 per cent of indigenous Australians don’t make it to age 65; only 17 per cent of other Australian die before they’re 65), incarceration rates (12 times more likely to be jailed), child imprisonment rates (26 times more likely to be jailed!), deaths in custody, domestic violence, child abuse, education levels, unemployment, housing and alcoholism.

No other “minority” – racial, gender, regional, country of origin, religious – has figures anywhere near so appalling.

Regardless of whether these statistical realities are a direct or indirect result of the trauma indigenous peoples suffered, as their “birth rights” were systematically eroded, the problems demand that we do something significant, something extra, something permanent.

The greatest diversion of all: “race”. It’s not about race, it’s simply about who was here first.

We’re being sucked into an argument over whether The Voice is about race – the aboriginal race – and whether The Voice somehow gives privileges to people of aboriginal descent which the rest of us don’t enjoy.

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that the people inhabiting our continent for 65,000 years before Europeans took it over, just 235 years ago, were blue-skinned, or orange, or green. Or, why not, “white”? Imagine that! But regardless of their colour – their race – they’d lived here happily enough, surviving, looking after the land, healthy, having kids, having fun, talking to each other in languages they could understand, respecting cultural traditions and geographic boundaries between their various territories.

In fact, anthropologists have even noted that by living sustainably on this continent, the Aboriginals had a very satisfactory standard of living!! Their version of “civilisation” might be different to ours, but who’s to say it was inferior? A lot of Australians are descendant from places overseas that haven’t had a perfect record in peaceful co-existence, equality, welfare or tolerance of differences.

Who knows if Captain James Cook was a political progressive, but he drew this comparison between Australian aboriginal society, and that of his homeland, in Europe:

“… the Natives of New Holland may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in a tranquillity which is not disturbed by the inequality of the condition.”

The point we overlook is that they were here before us. It doesn’t matter what colour they are, or the quality/nature of their civilisation. “We” took the place off them, without a word of “sorry”, without a Treaty, without any compensation. Indeed, for a very long time, without much recognition that the people who lived here first even existed! To “justify” dispossessing them, the new-comers relied on the fiction of “terra nullius”: nobody’s land. This legal myth was not dispelled until 1992 when the High Court granted Aboriginals (some limited) land rights, in the Mabo case.

So, ultimately, this is nothing to do with race, colour or culture. It’s simply to do with who was here first – time, thousands of years versus hundreds – who occupied the place, who owned it?

The Voice is simply a very long overdue way to give the people who were here first the one thing they’ve asked for: to be heard on issues that affect them.

“The conditions experienced by indigenous communities are of their own making.”

This argument says that changing the Constitution won’t stop drunkenness, lawlessness, general indolence etc. amongst Aboriginal communities in Alice Springs, let alone places more remote. Changing the Constitution probably won’t fix those problems, where they occur, elsewhere in Australia, either, among non-indigenous people of many other cultural and racial backgrounds.

But the descendants of our First People aren’t the same as everyone else. Many of them are afflicted, maybe defined, by the extraordinary discrimination which was inflicted on their forebears (and, still, on many of them, now). The Voice is an easy way to oblige our lawmakers to begin to listen, and keep on listening, to ideas from First Nations people, on how to remedy, going forward, the consequences of what was done to them in the past, often through violence on the out-of-sight frontiers of early settlement.

“The referendum question lacks detail; we aren’t being told what we’re voting for.”

Yes we are! We’re just being asked if we want to enshrine something in the Constitution that allows and requires our elected Parliament to establish some kind of structure, a mechanism, which takes account of Indigenous views. From there, after the Referendum is passed, it’s up to the Parliament to approve the design of how views will be sought, processed and accepted, on what issues, and how to monitor the outcomes – how The Voice will be organised and operate.

The current Government has already foreshadowed some aspects of its approach – for instance, a body with a broad, elected, representative base. But whatever this Government’s ideas, they must be approved by the Parliament. Voting Yes in the Referendum doesn’t ask you to approve a design, nor does it give the Government approval to implement a specific model.

It simply says to the Government: “The Constitution now demands that you set up, and keep, a means for Indigenous voices to be heard.”

Our Constitution might look long and complicated, but it never contains the detail that is now being demanded by the opponents of the YES vote.

The proposed change to the Constitution simply gives the power to our Parliament, our elected representatives, by a majority, to design how The Voice will work.

More on “Where’s the detail? I don’t know what I’m being asked to vote for.”

Referendum questions rarely contain much detail. Long as it is, the Constitution doesn’t, either. The Constitution merely spells out the powers which we give to the Australian Government. It’s up to Parliament, the people we vote in, every three years or so, to design how it applies the powers given to it by the Constitution.

When our Parliament agrees to hold a Referendum (indeed, to give itself more powers, under the Constitution) it usually proposes two things:

  1. The broad “Yes” or “No” question which will be on the ballot paper in the Referendum;
  2. The actual words which will be used to alter the Constitution, if the Referendum succeeds.

The actual words to be added to the Constitution generally do not appear on the ballot paper on Referendum Day. Maybe they should! Rather, the Government embarks on a communications campaign, ahead of the Referendum, to make the words available to those interested. At the same time, they provide the arguments put forward by supporters of the Referendum, and those opposed to it. These days, that communications campaign can include mail-outs, media advertisements, and social media posts.

But it remains true, that when you’re standing in a polling booth, with a pencil in your hand, deciding on writing YES or NO in the box, these are the only words you’ll see:

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? Yes or No?

If you want to know the precise wording to be added to the Constitution, you’ll need to read up before you vote. Here it is:

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.

Read it a few times over. Is it really as remotely scary as some people make out? Read the very first line: it’s just asking us to do something we’ve never managed to do – recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia.

The addition to the wording of the Constitution merely creates The Voice. It doesn’t compel anyone to do what The Voice might ask for. It leaves our elected Parliament to decide what it will do with the advice it receives from The Voice.

“They might be our first nations people, but they are not one, united nation.”

Of course they’re not. Why should we expect them to be? What does it matter if they have different priorities, different concerns, depending on their circumstances, their experience, and where they come from? There’s no logic in arguing that The Voice won’t be legitimate unless it can prove it speaks with the unanimous support of every indigenous person or community, from every corner of the continent.

What organisation, what institution, what corporation – democratically elected, or otherwise – can claim to represent all its stakeholders, that they are all in complete agreement? It’s a nonsense to suggest such a standard be applied to The Voice before it can be taken seriously.

“We should have Truth and a Treaty before a Voice.”

Which should come first? And what do Truth and Treaty mean? More on the meaning of Truth and Treaty in a moment.

In simple terms, The Voice gives Indigenous Australians a guaranteed and permanent line of communication to the Australian Government. That’s what the upcoming Referendum is about.

Many Australians, Indigenous and others, perfectly reasonably, are seeking Truth, as well, and a Treaty. Or a Treaty, and Truth. Wait, which should come first, and should Truth and/or a Treaty come before a Voice? The simple reality is this: the way things have worked out, right now, we’re having a vote on whether there should be a Voice.

Some people say they’ll vote “No” to a Voice, because we should have had a Treaty and/or Truth first. If the Voice referendum is defeated, it is almost certain that Truth and a Treaty will never win, ever. Consider the irony of supporters of putting Truth and Treaty before Voice, contributing to the Voice failing and, thus, guaranteeing the certain failure of Truth and Treaty.

Of course, the chances of Truth and Treaty, in some form, becoming a reality will be hugely enhanced if the Voice is overwhelmingly approved, with a huge Yes vote.

If you want to consider whether Truth and Treaty should take precedence over Voice, consider the relative complications of actually bringing each of them to fruition.

Truth requires the Government to establish the equivalent of a judicial enquiry – a bit like a Royal Commission – where people can tell their stories of the injustices inflicted on them and their forebears, the lasting harm it caused; and others can confess to (or sometimes attempt to dispute) the culpability of their forebears. It’s a process which in other parts of the world has proven enormously beneficial in contributing to the national consciousness, healing, the understanding, especially of younger and future generations, of how and why things were and are.

The pursuit of Truth can be legislated by Parliament. It doesn’t require a referendum to change the Constitution. It can be the focus of a campaign ahead of the next federal election, to force one or other or both of the major parties to commit to setting up the process for Truth. Who knows? If this year’s referendum passes, the current government might commit to Truth in the immediate aftermath. If The Voice referendum doesn’t pass, the idea of Truth will be set back, perhaps forever.

The political problem any government must wrestle with is whether Truth will unleash claims for compensation and recompense – hard dollars – to be paid by taxpayers, among others; and maybe even criminal charges against people who were never charged at the time of their crimes.

Let’s go ahead and vote Yes to The Voice, while politicians figure out that one.

What about a Treaty?

In most respects, the same goes for a Treaty, or Makarrata, to use the Indigenous word. This involves Australians of today saying to Indigenous Australians: “Let’s make a deal where you allow us to take your land, as we’ve already done, over the last 235 years.” To be serious, it would be a powerful gesture. But it’s complicated. It might require another referendum, to change our constitution. It would also certainly involve the contentious matter of compensation: in a treaty, one side offers something (usually “surrender”), and the other side offers something in return (compensation/benefit/reward).

While the 97 per cent of us who aren’t Indigenous argue about what we should provide to the other three per cent, let’s at least say “Yes” to a Voice. Recognising Indigenous Australians in the Constitution, by voting “Yes” to The Voice, is, in any event, one small step towards a Treaty (you can’t make a treaty with people without first acknowledging their existence).

A “Yes” to The Voice will be no guarantee, at all, that we’ll have Truth and Treaty soon after. Just as voting “No” to a Voice, because you want Truth and Treaty first, is absolutely no guarantee that defeating the Voice will give us Truth or a Treaty.

“The Voice will divide Australians.”

Who among us will it divide? The 97 per cent of us who don’t identify as Indigenous? How? The 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart came from a couple of hundred people, hoping to speak on behalf of a small minority of our population (3.2 per cent – less than a million people, out of our total population of more than 26 million), asking us to symbolically embrace each other. It wasn’t a demand; it was an invitation. Saying “No” would be more divisive than saying “Yes”.

“It won’t make a real difference to the lives of ordinary Indigenous Australians.”

How can anyone say that? How do they know? What harm can be done by giving it a try (nothing else seems to have worked very well)?

Seriously, everyone, on either side of this debate, agrees that the best decisions are made when local stakeholders – those affected by them – are consulted and have a significant input. The Voice will enable that, creating a special, permanent channel of dialogue where, right now, none exists.

“Indigenous people will be able to claim “constitutional rights” in disputes with junior public servants.”

This is emerging as the big reason for “NO” advocates to oppose The Voice. They are relying on the “Executive” provision in the proposed wording, which will be added to the Constitution if we vote “Yes” at the Referendum, to suggest that the administration of the public service will become clogged up by Indigenous people arguing their “special rights”.

Let’s not beat around the bush here: the people who want the “Executive” provision removed from the proposed Constitutional amendment are trying to suggest that if a person claiming aboriginal descent walks up to the counter at Centrelink and asks for an increase in their benefits, the Centrelink clerk will be obliged to apply a different set of rules to those which normally apply.

Anyone who’s had any dealing with any government agency (they form part of the Executive) knows nobody makes a call on anything without asking their boss (who usually asks theirs). The Voice won’t change what happens when anyone has a dispute with the public service. But it will guarantee that, in making policies and regulations, the people who make those laws and regulations, will be obliged to listen to what Indigenous people say about them.

Public servants are, well, pretty much just like employees of any other organisation. They have managers, above them, who make decisions; they have policies and regulations which guide their actions and decisions. And, yes, they sometimes get things wrong. When public servants do get things wrong, there are avenues to appeal.

Meanwhile, the most import reason for including the “Executive”:

Allowing The Voice to make representations to “the Executive” simply means The Voice has the right to put a case to Cabinet Ministers and, sure, very senior public servants, on policies and regulations which affect First Australians. In fact, being able to make representations to the Executive, like anyone else, is central to The Voice being effective, allowing it to get its views across early in the policy development process. As explained earlier, legislation to be debated in parliament has already been settled by the Executive Government (i.e. Ministers in Cabinet) before parliamentarians get to see it, and often isn’t then changed much, if at all.

“People who vote Liberal are racists and will vote “NO” in the referendum.” Don’t believe it.

Maybe it depends on your age, but let’s not forget that the most overwhelming “Yes” vote in history, in 1967, was in response to a referendum put up by a Liberal government (on counting indigenous people in our population, and allowing the Commonwealth to make laws for them). At the time, Labor hadn’t been in office for nearly 20 years, and had just suffered (at the 1966 election) the worst result in its history. A huge proportion of Australians voted Liberal in 1966, and an ever huger proportion voted “Yes” in 1967.

Even though the Labor Party is credited with abolishing the White Australia Policy (which they’d created!), it was a Liberal Government (yes, at Labor’s urging) which, in 1966, started the process of changing Australia’s racist immigration regulations (completed by Labor, later).

Liberal Prime Ministers Robert Menzies and Harold Holt share some of the credit, with Labor leader, Gough Whitlam, for the small steps we’ve made. Maybe your mum or dad voted for Menzies or Holt. Or for another Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, who continued Australia’s opposition to apartheid in South Africa, and implemented Whitlam’s Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act in 1976.

In the current parliamentary Liberal Party, there are a significant number of people who said, outright, that they do not go along with their Leader Peter Dutton’s opposition to The Voice – not least because his position is inconsistent with long-established Liberal values and support for uplifting Indigenous people.

“None of us were around when the crimes against Aboriginals were committed. Why should we feel guilty?”

We shouldn’t feel guilty. But we should feel we owe them something – this generation of Indigenous Australians – because we’re the beneficiaries of the crimes our forebears committed against their forebears. Our houses, our office blocks, our schools and universities, our factories, workshops, our farms, our mines, our roads, our sports grounds, our parks, our cities and towns, are all on land that we took from them, without asking and without compensation.

We’re rightly comfortable with the mostly prosperous economy we’ve created. But it’s on stolen land. All we gave to its original owners was a few trinkets, a lot of smallpox, or a bullet to the head. And, to finish it off, we imprisoned them on “reserves” where they were out of our sight and out of mind.

Don’t feel guilty. Just say “Yes” to one thing they’ve asked us for: a seat at the table.

As the Sydney Morning Herald said on 10 June 2023:

Some may question the need to apologise for history. We acknowledge that today’s generation is not responsible for the sins of earlier ones, yet we can help heal old harms nonetheless. We also respectfully argue that the capacity to recognise a past wrong is a sign of a strong future.

When a committee of Indigenous elders and non-Indigenous locals set about building a memorial at the Myall Creek massacre (see below) site in the late 1990s, they wrote a fitting statement that rings just as true today: “If we and our descendants are to live in peace in Australia then we have to tell and acknowledge that truth of our history. It is not that all of our history is bad, but the bad must be acknowledged along with the good, if we are to have any integrity.”

“The Voice would make Government unworkable.”

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on 6 June 2023 that at least six Liberal/National Coalition MPs had misrepresented evidence given to a parliamentary enquiry by former Chief Justice of the High Court, Robert French. The MPs claimed that French’s evidence was that if a duty to consult The Voice was built into the proposed laws, that would “make government unworkable”.

In fact, both French, and another former High Court judge, Kenneth Hayne, had dismissed concerns about whether The Voice would impede the functioning of government. French told the committee inquiry that the duty to consult would be constructed by parliament and if “for some reason or other, that became unworkable, the parliament could amend the law accordingly”.


Chapter Ten: dates worth remembering and events easily forgotten.

First Fleet, Myall Creek, some landmarks in progress, and many in shame.

13 May 1787

The 11 ships of the First Fleet leave Portsmouth, England, bound for Botany Bay. In January 1788 they took a brief look at Botany Bay, then left and sailed a few miles north to Sydney Cove, landing there on 26 January.

10 June 1838

The Myall Creek Massacre. 28 members of the Wirrayaraay clan of the Kamilaroi nation – mostly women and children – were rounded up and murdered by white settlers in northern NSW. It wasn’t the first, nor the last such atrocity but, 50 years after Europeans arrived here, it was the first to result in the white perpetrators being charged and convicted. Seven of them were hanged, six months later (18 December 1838).

The last known massacre of Indigenous people, in the so-called “Frontier Wars”, was in the Northern Territory, in 1928 (less than 100 years ago!). It was still going on, 90 years after Myall Creek.

9 May 1901

Australia’s first Parliament opens in Melbourne.

9 May 1927

Parliament opens in the new national capital, Canberra.

19 August 1944

A referendum asks Australians to alter the Constitution to give the Commonwealth Government power to legislate on 14 specific matters, including the rehabilitation of ex-servicemen, national health, family allowances and ‘the people of the Aboriginal race’. Only 46 per cent of voters (and a majority in only two states – WA and SA) supported it; meaning it failed. Eighty years later, we’d be forgiven for wondering why.

27 May 1967

We agreed in a referendum to count indigenous people when tallying our population, and to allow the Commonwealth to make laws affecting them. The biggest majority “Yes” vote, ever: 90 per cent, nationally; and every state supported it, overwhelmingly.

26 January 1972

Aboriginal Tent Embassy set up across the road from Old Parliament House (now the Museum of Australian Democracy) in Canberra. It’s still there: the longest continuous protest for Indigenous land rights in the world!

11 June 1975

The Racial Discrimination Act is passed by the Whitlam government. The Act makes racial discrimination in certain contexts unlawful in Australia, and also overrides state and territory legislation to the extent of any inconsistency.

16 December 1976

The Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 comes into effect. It was first proposed by the Whitlam Labor government and then implemented after the 1975 election by the Fraser Coalition Government. It provides the basis upon which Aboriginal Australian people in the Northern Territory can claim rights to land based on traditional occupation. It was the first law by any Australian government that legally recognised the Aboriginal system of land ownership, and legislated the concept of inalienable freehold title.

9 May 1988

Our new and current Parliament House opens in Canberra.

3 June 1992

The “Mabo” decision. The High Court of Australia ruled that a group of Torres Strait Islanders, led by Eddie Mabo, were the owners of Mer (Murray Island).

In acknowledging the traditional rights of the Meriam people to their land, the court also held that native title existed for all Indigenous people.

This landmark decision gave rise to native title legislation the following year and dispatched to legal fiction the idea of “terra nullius” (that nobody owned Australia before Europeans claimed it).

10 December 1992

Sixteen years before Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generations, Prime Minister, Paul Keating, gives the most powerful, truth-telling apology in Australian history. He says, of non-indigenous Australians: “It was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice, and our failure to imagine these things being done to us.”

19 December 1993

Following the High Court’s “Mabo” decision, the Native Title Act comes into effect, backdated to 1 July 1993. The interpretation and implementation of native title (Indigenous ownership of the land they never ceded) remains subject to legislative changes and judicial interpretations. Most notably, in the so-called Wik case in 1996, the High Court ruled that ownership can “co-exist”. The legal arguments continue. The Voice has nothing to do with these: it does not relate in any way to High Court decisions on land claims.

6 November 1999

Australia voted in a referendum on whether we wanted to remain attached to the British Monarchy, or become a Republic, with an Australian as Head of State (regardless of their religious affiliation). We decided to stay legally hitched Great Britain, where only a Protestant can be King.

Most forgotten of all is that the 1999 “Republic” referendum had a second question, about inserting a “preamble” in the constitution. Unlike the first question on the ballot paper, which specified a model of how a Republic might work, the “preamble” question provided no specifics, none whatever, on what the preamble would say.

This, despite our Liberal/National Coalition-dominated Parliament at the time, ahead of the referendum, approving a text for the proposed preamble, which included:

“We the Australian people commit ourselves to this Constitution…. proud that our national unity has been forged by Australians from many ancestries…. honouring Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, the nation’s first people, for their deep kinship with their lands and for their ancient and continuing cultures which enrich the life of our country…”

But the Government, having accepted those words, chose not to share them with voters in the polling booth, at the time and place voters were making their choice. Provided with no detail or explanation, on the day, more than 60 percent of Australians said “No” to the “preamble” question.

Maybe, most people who voted “No” hadn’t read the words, in the letterbox drop pamphlet from the government, at the time.

28 May 2000

Some 250,000 people walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, in “The Bridge Walk for Reconciliation”. This, and similar events around Australia in the weeks following, have been described as the biggest demonstration of public support for a cause that has ever taken place in Australia.

16 March 2005

Having been established by the Hawke Government in 1990, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) was abolished 15 years later, in 2005, by the Howard Government, with the support of the Labor Party. The Bill to abolish ATSIC was introduced to Parliament the previous May (on 24 May 2004, in fact: the anniversary of Queen Victoria’s birthday, Empire Day as it used to be known).

ATSIC was last century’s equivalent of a Voice (flawed as its administration might have been). A review of ATSIC had been set up by the Howard government and recommended some changes, not its abolition.

ATSIC’s fate reminds us that Parliaments can change and tinker with anything they like. But if something is enshrined in the Constitution, the spirit of it is there, probably forever. If something is in the Constitution, any Government of the day can make all sorts of administrative and funding rearrangements, but they can’t obliterate it all together (or they’ll have the High Court to answer to!).

13 September 2007

114 nations in the United Nations General Assembly voted to adopt the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). It was a monumental recognition of indigenous people in the post-colonial world, containing some 40 substantive rights with obligations of signatory states to protect and implement those rights.

On that day, a month and 11 days ahead of Liberal PM John Howard losing the federal election and his own seat (on 24 November 2007), Australia was one of only four nations which voted against the Declaration, quibbling with the detail, claiming it raised customary law above national law (whatever that means).

In 2009 the Rudd Labor Government changed Australia’s position and supported the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

13 February 2008

The Liberal Party’s current leader, Peter Dutton, walked out on Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generations, saying an apology would fix nothing. He’s the only remaining member of parliament to have boycotted the apology. He now claims to regret his stance, saying, in effect, he misread the mood at the time. He’s now leading the argument for a “No” vote on the Voice. Once again, saying a Voice will fix nothing. Has he misread the mood, again?

7 December 2015

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Leader of the opposition Bill Shorten jointly appoint a 16-member Referendum Council to advise the government on steps towards a referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution. The Council travelled around the country and met with over 1,200 people, culminating in the First Nations National Constitutional Convention, held over four days in May 2017, near Uluru in Central Australia.

26 May 2017

Delegates to the First Nations National Constitutional Convention issue the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It calls for a constitutionally entrenched First Nations Voice to Parliament. The Turnbull government, with little consideration, rejects the call for a Voice to Parliament.

23 March 2023

Having won the May 2022 election, the Albanese Government honours its commitment and introduces The Voice Referendum Bill to the House of Representatives. It passes the House of Reps on 31 May 2023, 121 votes to 25.

19 June 2023

The Senate passes the Referendum Bill, without amending it, 52-19. A date for Referendum Day will now be set. There’s no turning back!

Combining the votes in the House of Representatives and the Senate, going ahead with the Referendum was supported by 173 MPs, with 44 against the Bill. But it’s important to note that not all those who supported holding a Referendum will be campaigning for a “Yes” vote.


If you want to dive deeper…

Links to other sites & resources

For more on many of these issues, or if you want to get involved, please visit:

Yes 23

Voice to Parliament – Reconciliation Australia

Home – Uluru Statement from the Heart

Together, Yes – First Nations Voice to parliament (

The Voice

Or get hold of this great book by Thomas Mayo and Kerry O’Brien: “The Voice to Parliament Handbook”, published by Hardie Grant. On-line retailers:

(Abbeys delivers anywhere in Australia for $9.90 ($7.90 NSW & ACT).

The Voice to Parliament Handbook eBook:

Non-Kindles eReaders (ePub):

Kindle eReaders:

Too much reading? You can watch this 13-minute video from the ABC, on YouTube:



Or this recent SBS (NITV) show covering the arguments for and against the Voice to Parliament proposal:

And if you want to practice casting your vote (remember, writing Yes or No): Completing a referendum ballot paper – Australian Electoral Commission (


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  1. Robert Dodgson

    This is great.

    If I could give one suggestion, not to denigrate in any way, a FAQ fomet might be more accesible to people like me who want quick answers. Even if the FAQs number in the hundreds it would be easier to flick through.

    thanks for laying it all out

  2. wam

    A great read, Richard, with one exception.
    The voice means that Aboriginal people will be charged with having an input into laws that affect the Aboriginal people of Australia.
    Should the voice form an opinion(s), we will know of their decisions.
    But the canberra polititians do not have to listen or even hear the outcomes of the voice. However should they ignore the advice there may be consequences?
    We were shocked that the millions of migrants who came after the war were counted as Australians but Aboriginal people were not. Even then 20% of Sandgropers voted no followed by South Australia 13% the Qld and Tas.
    My assessment of the people in my sphere, darwin, is up to 40% are racially affected and may vote no. The Aboriginal “no” people, in this assessment, have been influence by an article that is beyond my skill to copy or share but alleges labor has been moving since beasley to use the UN and the republic to take back Aboriginal land rights.
    This post is from the same Aboriginal woman who posted the ‘Labor land grab’ but I could copy:
    “Thomas Mayo sits on the board of Australians for Indigenous Constitutional Recognition and is a leading proponent for the proposed Indigenous Voice to Parliament.
    He also has a track record of anti-Australian rhetoric and separatism.
    Yet he has much support from senior Yes campaigners, including Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who says the Voice is only a modest proposal anyway.
    Do you need more incentive to vote No?
    The no vote will target WA Qld Tas and SA with the hope to get 3 no states
    I hope the pricks fail????

  3. Alasdair

    I agree with Robert Dodgson’s comment that “This is great”. In terms of dispossession, past wrongs etc, it’s worth realizing that the Myall Creek massacre was just one of many – as indeed the article itself points out. To get a better idea of the scope of the so-called “frontier wars”, check out the Colonial Frontier Massacres map at
    In one instance, a starving people (whose own hunting area had been destroyed by the white settlers), were fed “rations” that “contained about as much strychnine as anything else, and not one of the mob escaped.” This resulted in the deaths of over 100 men, women, and children. According to the same account: “As a rule, however, few people are ambitious of indulging in such wholesale slaughter, and, when the Blacks are troublesome, it is generally considered sufficient punishment to go out and shoot one or two.”

    If we don’t feel guilty as such, we should certainly feel something – sadness, grief perhaps?

    The article also speaks eloquently about “who was here first”, and compares thousands of years against hundreds. Again, it’s worth considering that Aboriginal history stretches back – it’s now believed – some 100,000 years if not more, making Aboriginal culture the world’s longest maintained culture by orders of magnitude. To get some idea of this immense duration: if you think of 100000 years as one calendar year, then the Egyptian pyramids were built on December 14. The First Fleet arrived about 2am on December 31.

  4. GL

    On a side note: I see Gladys, up to her neck in the corruption, gets away with it with basically a slap on the wrist and being told she was a naughty person. Surprise, surprise.

  5. Canguro

    GL, gotta larf… the memories of Morrison and Berejiklian side-eying each other during the Covid crisis and beyond, the leaks from insiders about how she loathed the then PM, his no doubt mutual feeling for her, both of them as crooked as a shepherd’s hook, both of them as corrupt as the other, both of them the best their respective parties could offer the electorate. You just can’t make this stuff up… truth stranger than fiction.

    Could be an advertising panel to emerge out of all of this, something along the lines of …

    Feeling unhealthy? Who should you turn to, when you can’t trust anyone else? Try Liberals, for those with unmanageable cataracts and glue ears, tied tongues and crippled senses. Liberals, you know they care (for themselves).

  6. New England Cocky

    @ Alasdair: There is considerable research done at UTS (?) about massacres of Aborigines, and a large number of local area books based on local research sources like the station logs kept by graziers recording their activities. The genocidal actions were ”overlooked” by colonial administrators in NSW while Tasmania, Queensland, Northern Territory and parts of Western Australia pursued genocide as an implicit but unspoken government policy.

  7. Alasdair

    Yes indeed, New England Cocky – in fact the map to which I linked is at the University of Newcastle; it is part of a large research effort spearheaded by (Emeritus) Prof Lyndall Ryan. They point out clearly the difficulties of this research, given that many massacres weren’t recorded (for obvious reasons), and the map is deliberately inexact, partly because the precise location is impossible to determine. I think all of this history is worth knowing.

  8. Harry Lime

    Wouldn’t matter how you lay it out,Skull Dutton is not having a bar of it,far more important to have a political win,any win,no matter the cost,and this is the turd that is Australia’s alternative Prime Minister.Going on his comments today,his desperation is palpable.Not long now,boofhead…you’ll be able to run along and count your money.By the way , don’t happen to own a cat,do you?

  9. Canguro

    Harry Lime, at first I thought the question you asked Richard may have been referring to the length of his essay and whether the cat contributed by walking across the keyboard but then the penny farthing dropped and a different perspective emerged. I’m guessing it’s only ancients such as ourselves who still carry the residuals of those early learnings. If Dick does, indeed, demonstrate dedicated attachment to a moggy, and if there were, by some fluke of infinitesimal probability a familial relationship to its antecedent, we’re looking at around 40 generations of previous pussies.

    Not out of the question, but unlikely to be verified.

  10. Harry Lime

    Be a waste of time to try asking any tomcats,Canguro,they don’t leave forwarding addresses,Glad some one picked up on my feeble attempt at humour.Used to be refreshingly referred to as Cat Whittington and his Dick, back in the olden days.Stream of consciousness and all that.

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