This Saturday, Australians will have their say in the historic Voice to Parliament referendum. It will be the first referendum since 1999, when Australians rejected the choice to become a republic. Unlike a non-binding plebiscite, such as the vote for marriage equality in 2017, a referendum proposes to change the Constitution. Like a regular election, all eligible Australians aged 18 and over are required to vote.
A successful result for the Voice would mean recognition of First Nations people in the Constitution by creating an independent and permanent representative body to advise policymakers on matters affecting the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It is an advisory body only, and will not have legislative power.
Here’s everything you need to know before going to the polls on Saturday.
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What is the Voice?
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice would enshrine recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution, and establish an advisory group of First Nations representatives to give independent advice to parliament on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, such as health, education and housing, in the hope it leads to better outcomes. It’s based on recommendations from the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which came out of a long consultative process with Indigenous groups. More than 80 per cent of First Nations people support it, according to polls.
It’s important to note that the Voice would be an advisory body only, and the government would be under no obligation to act on its advice. The referendum would only establish that a Voice should exist. Politicians would decide how it operates (with guidance from this comprehensive proposal by professors Tom Calma and Marcia Langton.
There are currently 110 advisory bodies that provide advice and guidance to the government, including the National Blood Borne Virus and Sexually Transmissible Infections Surveillance Subcommittee and the Foods for Early Childhood Reference Group, according to the ABC. The Voice would work in a similar way.
Why are we voting on it?
Australia’s Constitution can only be changed by a successful referendum.
First Nations people have called for the Voice to be included in the Constitution so that it can’t be removed by incoming governments, which has happened to previous Indigenous advisory bodies. Once it’s enshrined in the Constitution – a document that already recognises lighthouses, coinage and Queen Victoria, but not Australia’s First Peoples, as the AFL’s executive general manager of inclusion and social policy Tanya Hosch reminded us – the Voice can only be removed via another referendum, not a future government.
Who would make up the advisory board?
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders would elect 24 members to the national Voice: two from each state and territory (16), five from remote communities, two from the Torres Strait, and one representing Torres Strait Islanders living on the mainland. The national Voice would be gender-balanced; those elected would serve four-year terms and a maximum two terms. The body’s two full-time co-chairs would be elected by the national Voice members themselves.
Where can I vote?
More than 7000 voting centres will be open across the country this Saturday, October 14, from 8am to 6pm local time. If you can’t get to a polling booth on Saturday and haven’t sent a postal vote or already voted at an early voting centre, there will also be places open on Friday October 13. Find your nearest polling booth on the AEC website.
When you’re voting:
The ballot paper will ask voters to write “Yes” or “No” in response to this question: “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?”
It’s important you write out the word “Yes” or “No”. Don’t put a tick or a cross on your ballot paper. Some people have been wondering whether an exclamation mark would render their vote invalid. The AEC tells Broadsheet that expressions such as an exclamation mark are unlikely to affect whether a vote can be counted, but it’s better to be safe. “If the intention of the voter is clear, the vote will be counted. The voting instructions are simple and we encourage everyone to simply write yes or no in full. Nothing else.”
Some people may be considering wearing their vote on their sleeve at the polling booth. It’s important to note that campaigning isn’t allowed inside polling venues, or within six metres of the entrance, and merch such as T-shirts and pins could be considered campaign materials. AEC advice is to avoid any potential issue by not wearing campaign material at the polls, or to bring along another piece of clothing to cover it up.
The full AEC advice on displaying campaign materials at polling places is online here.
When will we know the results?
A double majority is needed to pass a referendum. That means a majority of Australian voters and a majority of voters in a majority of states – at least four – need to support the change. If either of these requirements is not met, the referendum fails. The word “states” is key here. The ACT and the NT are territories, so the votes of their residents will count towards the national total only – not towards the six states’ tally.
Results will be updated on the AEC’s Tally Room website on Saturday from 6pm AEDT. A link to the site will be available on the AEC’s website on referendum night. All votes cast on the day will be counted that night, as will a majority of pre-poll votes and some postal votes (the AEC has to wait 13 days after the referendum for all postal votes to arrive). So there may not be a definitive result on Saturday if the margin is close. Time differences also need to be taken into consideration – in WA, polling places will close at 6pm AWST (9pm AEDT).
If you still need to catch up, here are some great links explaining exactly what the vote means:
Voice to Parliament explained: the answers to your most-asked questions about the referendum