It was back in July last year when Prime Minister Anthony Albanese proposed a set of words to be added to the constitution to enshrine an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. For it to come into effect, Australia would need to vote in favour in a referendum.
"We should consider asking our fellow Australians something as simple as: 'Do you support an alteration to the constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice?' the PM said at the time at Garma festival in Arnhem Land.
His speech came five years after the First Nations' National Constitutional Convention in 2017, where over 200 Indigenous delegates met at Uluru and devised a 440-word statement, now known as the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
The statement encompasses three key principles: Voice, Treaty and Truth — the Voice element being the one Albanese referred to in his speech.
On March 23, 2023, a revised wording of the question for the referendum was announced: "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?"
With more discussions recently taking place amongst government officials, activists and community members, here is a rundown of what we know so far about the proposed Voice and referendum.
What is the Voice and how would it work?
The Voice would be a permanent body representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, advising government on Indigenous policy.
Parliament and government would need to consult the Voice on matters relating to the social, spiritual and economic wellbeing of First Nations peoples, including employment, housing, community development, native title, heritage protection and the NDIS.
Any formal advice tabled by the Voice to Parliament would be considered by a parliamentary committee, though it would be non-justiciable, meaning there could not be a court challenge and no law could be invalidated based on the consultation.
These aspects have been informed by the Indigenous Voice Co-design Report, which was produced by Professor Dr Marcia Langton AO and Professor Tom Calma AO. They led a Senior Advisory Group put together by then-Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt in 2019.
In their report, Langton and Calma recommended the national Voice have 24 members — two members from each state, the Northern Territory, ACT and Torres Strait, another five members representing remote areas, and an additional member representing the population of Torres Strait Islanders living on the mainland.
The structure would be gender-balanced and members would serve four-year terms.
What will change in the constitution?
The PM has proposed to add three sentences to the constitution:
1. There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
2. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to parliament and the executive government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
3. The parliament shall, subject to this constitution, have power to make laws with respect to the composition, functions, powers and procedures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
When will the referendum be held?
While the date of the referendum is yet to be confirmed, authors of the Uluru Statement from the Heart have pushed for a referendum on two possible dates: 27 May 2023 (the anniversary of the 1967 referendum) and 27 January 2024 (the day after 'Australia Day').
What will Australians be asked in the referendum?
"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?"
What are people saying about the Voice to Parliament?
Co-Chairs of the Uluru Dialogue — Pat Anderson AO and Professor Megan Davis — welcomed Albanese's announcement in July of the draft referendum question and constitutional amendment wording, which was based on a submission made by them and a team of legal experts from the University of New South Wales Indigenous Law Centre.
"As the Uluru Dialogue, the group who have been working tirelessly on this movement for more than a decade, we are encouraged that we are moving in the right direction, and that tangible progress is finally underway for First Peoples," Davis said in a statement shared with Refinery29 Australia at the time.
"History is Calling and has been calling for this referendum for years. The Voice will improve the lives of not just First Peoples, but for future generations and all Australians," Anderson added.
"Our aim is to make sure when the referendum is called, the Australian public is ready and armed with the information they need to make an informed and conscious decision, voting 'yes' for Voice."
However, the proposal of a Voice has also faced some opposition. Last month, the federal Nationals said they will not support an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.
"We felt that locking [the Voice] into the constitution also locks in future generations if it’s not successful," said federal Nationals leader, David Littleproud.
Northern Territory Senator Jacinta Price has also been critical of the Voice, saying it could be the government's way of "handballing" off the harder issues.
"The more I think about this idea of a Voice, the more I feel like it’s the government’s opportunity to handball the difficult Indigenous issues," she told Sky News.
"If they [the Voice] come back with something that we like, we might tick it off, otherwise, we don’t need to take that advice anyway."