Australians will be asked to vote Yes or No to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
Since the 1980s and ‘90s, constitutional recognition has been a dominant issue within Indigenous affairs. It’s a subject that has been on our minds for a very long time. And it has provoked fierce discussion and debate amongst Indigenous Australians. Some for it and some against.
The most recent attempt to recognise First Nations in the Constitution was in 1999, when a referendum was held for Australia to become a republic. There was an additional question to insert a preamble to the Constitution that would recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the original inhabitants of the land.
As we know, that referendum failed, and constitutional recognition was on hold.
In the meantime, Indigenous Australians have had various forms of representation to the Federal Government over the years including the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), the National Indigenous Council (NIC) and the National Congress of Australia’s First People. All have been abolished by governments at the time and Indigenous Australians have not had a national representative body since.
However, while the existence of a national representative body was missing, constitutional recognition was still on the agenda. And in 2010, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard established an Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition which was tasked with guiding the government on this issue. In 2012, it delivered a report making recommendations on how recognition should take place and options for a successful referendum.
In 2015, the Referendum Council was established, picking up on the work done by the Expert Panel and continuing with extensive consultations around the country through its Regional Dialogues. The culmination of this was the National Constitutional Convention held at Uluru in 2017, where the Uluru Statement from the Heart emerged with the key recommendation to have an Indigenous Voice to Parliament enshrined in our nation’s founding document.
Two hundred and fifty delegates who attended the Convention agreed that substantive constitutional change and structural reform was needed in the form of a Voice, along with a Makarrata Commission for agreement-making and truth-telling.
Towards the end of 2017, then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull rejected the recommendations of the Referendum Council and its proposal for a Voice to Parliament saying it was a big idea but short on detail and that it wouldn’t succeed at a referendum. (He has since given his support for the Voice and the referendum.)
But the process didn’t end after Mr Turnbull’s rejection. In comes Scott Morrison as the new Prime Minister, tasking Ken Wyatt who he appointed as the Minister for Indigenous Australians, to embark on a co-design process for a Voice to Government. The culmination of that process led to what is known as the Calma Langton Report in 2021, which detailed a proposed structure for Local and Regional Voices giving advice to a National Voice to advise government.
In 2022, we witnessed a change in government and the newly elected Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, in his victory speech, committed to the Uluru Statement in full and to hold a referendum within the next 12 months.
We are now at that point where Australians are considering how they will vote when they step into the polling booth in October. Both the Yes and the No campaigns are in full swing and there is a barrage of information to consider over the coming weeks.
As Australians consider what this means for our nation, on the other side of the world the Sámi people, the Indigenous people of Norway, have had their own Parliament for over three decades.
Before the Sámi Parliament was set up in 1989, the Sámi people had their own struggles for representation and recognition. For many years, they had various groups advising the Norwegian Government on Sámi issues. After a controversial plan to construct a dam on Sámi lands, which was met with strong opposition by the Sámi, it was decided that a democratically elected body was needed to advise the government.
Unlike the proposition in Australia, the Sámi Parliament was established through an Act of Parliament in 1987. It also receives funding for various projects which would not be the case for Australia’s Voice to Parliament should it succeed at a referendum. However, the composition of the Sámi Parliament is very similar to the model that is proposed for our Indigenous Voice to Parliament.
The Sámi Parliament has 39 elected representatives from seven constituencies, and it has a President. Elections are held every four years and only those who have proved their Sámi heritage are allowed to vote.
The Sámi Parliament plays a vital role in advising the Norwegian Government on matters concerning the Sámi people. For an outsider looking in, it appears that the Sámi Parliament has made significant progress in revitalising their language and culture. They’ve also undergone a process of truth-telling and reconciliation. The Norwegian Government has also officially recognised the Sámi as the Indigenous people of that land. And Sámi is now the official second language of Norway.
I was fortunate to witness how the Sámi are teaching the language and passing it down to future generations. In the northern town of Tromso, I met Matti a former security guard and bodybuilder who retrained through a Sámi Parliament initiative to become a kindergarten teacher. He is now playing a crucial role in keeping the language alive by teaching infants and his own children to speak Sámi language.
There was a time when the Sámi were not allowed to speak their language or practice their culture. For Matti to be teaching a language that was under threat is something that fills him and his family with immense pride.
The Sámi have had many wins on the surface. But, like First Nations Australians, the Sámi have been impacted by colonisation and the path to being recognised and heard hasn’t been an easy one.
The President of the Sámi Parliament Silje Karine Muotka told me that while it’s been important to have a seat at the decision-making table, the parliament is struggling to be heard on the issue of land rights.
As Norway chases net zero and renewable energy, the Sámi’s ancient tradition of reindeer herding is under threat.
Reindeer are very special to the Sámi and herding them is a thriving traditional practice that has been a part of Sámi life for thousands of years.
I met with reindeer herder Reiulf who is in a battle with a green energy company. Reiulf has over 60 wind turbines on his land, and this is changing the landscape and where his animals can graze during winter. It’s impacting his livelihood and he is unsure whether he can keep his business going. He told me many Sámi reindeer people like himself are struggling.
While Reiulf’s case is at a standstill, another case went all the way to Norway’s Supreme Court. In 2021, two reindeer herders backed by the Sámi Parliament took green energy company Fosen to court. The court ruled that the wind farm be torn down as it violated the cultural rights of the Sámi by infringing their grazing lands.
But despite the verdict and all efforts by the Sámi Parliament, the wind farm remains, and their fight continues.
The Sámi President concedes that the Parliament needs more power and to strengthen its position if it is going to affect real change on issues like land rights.
Considering their history and the position Sámi once held in society, I believe their parliament has made considerable gains for Sámi people. It may not be a perfect model and there are always going to be challenges and criticisms, but it is a unique concept that not many other First Nations people around the globe enjoy.
On reflection since returning from my trip to Norway, the Sámi President Silje Karine Muotka said some very pertinent words that have stuck with me. She reiterated that Indigenous people must be able to voice their opinions and their perspectives must be considered when devising policies and programs that affect us because it is our right as First Nations people to determine our own destiny. She also made an important point about how much power the Voice to Parliament will have and whether it will be able to efficiently address the very real issues faced by First Nations.
In reporting on this issue for the past year and observing the debate, I think there are many questions on people’s minds. If the Referendum is successful and a Voice to Parliament is enshrined in the constitution, how much power will it really have in bringing about positive outcomes for our First Nations people? Is having a Voice to Parliament better than the status quo? And, if the referendum fails, what comes next? How will Indigenous disadvantage be addressed? Either way, what will the outcome say about Australia as a nation and its treatment of First Nations people? It will be a defining moment in our history.
Karla Grant is a Walkley Award-winning journalist, presenter and producer, and one of the most established First Nations reporters on Australian television. The Western Arrernte woman is also the host of the country’s longest-running Indigenous affairs show, Living Black, which recently aired its 30th season on SBS.
This special episode of Dateline, The Sámi Voice, premieres on Tuesday 19 September at 9.30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand and in October on NITV.