A Voice to Parliament or a treaty?

What’s the difference, and what should journalists be aware of when reporting on these issues?


Denise Bowden, CEO of Yothu Yindi, signing the Uluru Statement from the Heart, in Central Australia in 2017. Photo: Prachatai (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


Public discussion about enshrining a First Nations Voice to Parliament has existed for several years, with the idea formally beginning at the 2017 National Constitutional Convention. The debate has become central to public political discussions in 2022, with the Australian federal election and the victory of the Australian Labor Party’s Anthony Albanese to the role of Prime Minister. Mr Albanese has signalled the Labor Party’s support for a Voice to Parliament, and in the time since the election he has proposed draft wording for the constitution and a referendum, and consulted Torres Strait leaders on his plan to enshrine the Voice.

Simultaneously, the discussion about establishing a sovereign treaty has also been gaining traction. The Australian Greens have indicated that they are pursuing a treaty – as well as a truth commission – in addition to the Voice to Parliament. Greens Senator and Djab Wurrung, Gunnai Gunditjmara woman Lidia Thorpe says the referendum associated with the Voice to Parliament is a complete waste of money and that for decades it is a treaty for which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been fighting.

Key issues 

But what role will a First Nations Voice to Parliament occupy in Australian politics?

What would a treaty mean, if one were established?

What is the distinction between the two, and how must this distinction be managed when journalists report on these matters?

The call to establish a First Nations Voice to Parliament comes from the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which was made at the 2017 National Constitutional Convention. According to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, The Voice to Parliament would be enshrined in the Constitution and provide real, practical advice to parliament and the government on legislation affecting Indigenous people, and how such laws and policies could be directed to improving the lives of these communities. In the present absence of a systematic process for Indigenous people to substantially contribute to policymaking, a Voice to Parliament would give Indigenous people real agency in making choices that affect their lives. Indigenous people would therefore be included in the lawmaking process, which will help to finally “close the gap that still exists between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Australians”.

Support for a Voice to Parliament has been substantial across society. The Uluru Statement from the Heart was a result of the Referendum Council process, and its formation involved extensive engagement with Indigenous people in the form of 12 First Nations Regional Dialogues. These Dialogues engaged more than 1200 Indigenous delegates on proposals for constitutional change, and led to the First Nations National Constitutional Convention at Uluru in May 2017. Nearly 250 Indigenous representatives collectively formed the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which has gained more than 250 signatories. The Uluru Statement from the Heart states that “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign Nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands, and possessed it under [their] own laws and customs”.

Furthermore, the Uluru Statement declares, this sovereignty “has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown”. The Uluru Statement from the Heart cites the fact that Indigenous people are proportionally the most incarcerated people in the world, and that Indigenous children are separated from their families at “unprecedented rates”. The Uluru Statement calls for the establishment of a Voice to Parliament, enshrined in the Constitution, as a bid for constitutional reform that would empower Indigenous people to “take a rightful place in [their] own country” and make “a better future for [their] children based on justice and self-determination”. The establishment of the Voice to Parliament would be accompanied by a Makarrata Commission in order to “supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about [their] history”.

On the other hand, a treaty would comprise a formal document that outlines an agreement between governments and First Nations people. A treaty would recognise Indigenous sovereignty, and acknowledge the “dispossession and unfinished business” that remain the legacy of Australia’s colonisation. It would also return land, as well as distributing a share of power and a percentage of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). A treaty also holds the possibility of granting power to discrete Aboriginal communities over such matters as local policing, taxation, education, health, housing, road works and land management. A treaty would effectively formalise the right and ability of Indigenous people to determine the course and quality of their own lives.

Differences in goals and strategies

Both the Voice to Parliament and the Treaty are proposed methods for delivering long-sought justice to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, although they are substantially different in their goals and the achievement of such justice. A treaty would accelerate and guarantee the outcomes also sought by proponents of a Voice to Parliament; while a Voice to Parliament could provide advice to parliament regarding issues that affect Indigenous communities, there is no guarantee that this advice will be implemented or acted on.

Supporters of a treaty have criticised the Voice to Parliament for its lack of legislative power. Secretary of the Aboriginal Provisional Government and Palawa leader Michael Mansell has stated that a Voice to Parliament is “aiming too low”, and affirmed the need to strive for political power and “not an advisory body”.Mr  Mansell has also said that unless governments or political parties actively seek such advice, the function of an advisory body would be rendered impracticable. Ms Thorpe has voiced concerns that enshrining a Voice into the Australian Constitution will actually undermine Indigenous sovereignty, citing the declaration of constitutional lawyers that the concept of ‘sovereignty’ is dependent upon the contemporary interpretation of the law.

Additionally, Ms Thorpe has said that she cannot “support constitutionally enshrining a very vague proposal”, a sentiment echoed by Northern Territory Coalition Senator and Warlpiri-Celtic woman Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, who expressed that she “cannot support another federal-funded bureaucracy that doesn’t develop anymore outcomes”, citing “so many models like that get up and fail”. Yamatji man and former leader of the Liberal Party in Western Australia Zak Kirkup has contrasted Australia’s situation to that of New Zealand: while terra nullius was overruled in the Australian High Court in the Mabo decision only 30 years ago, it has been 182 years since Māori chiefs formed and signed the Treaty of Waitangi with the British Crown.

In the months and years ahead, as the Australian government works towards establishing a Voice to Parliament, news reporting will undoubtedly include many stories on this process. The issue has also gained renewed focus in the wake of the death of Queen Elizabeth II, whose legacy is a reminder of the ongoing effects on Indigenous people of living in a country “that had been stolen from them in the name of the Crown”. The ABC’s international affairs analyst and Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi man Stan Grant has questioned the value of a Voice to Parliament, stating that it “falls well short of justice”.

An important part of these stories is the difference between a Voice to Parliament and a treaty, and it is critical that journalists are aware of these differences. In addition to denoting two different approaches to achieving constitutional and legislative justice for Indigenous people, this difference also reflects diverging viewpoints of their respective supporters. Indigenous people, like any other community of people, are not a homogenous group and have many different views and perspectives on the issues that affect their lives, and it is important to capture this diversity in order to present a more truthful, well-rounded narrative about these matters to the general media audience.

Capturing the spectrum of views of Indigenous people is one of a number of considerations that a journalist should make when reporting on Indigenous people and issues. The introductory handbook Reporting on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and Issues is an invaluable resource to consult while writing these news reports. Words matter and language matters. As progress towards enshrining a First Nations Voice in the Constitution, or establishing a treaty unfolds, it is important for journalists who work with words and language to remember that these have the power to change people’s views and lives.

Zach Mackay is a Master of Strategic Communication student at La Trobe University