In summary

Analysis for The Conversation by Politics and International Relations Professor Michael Leach

One of the claims advanced by the “no” campaign in the upcoming referendum on the Voice to Parliament is that “there is no comparable constitutional body like this anywhere in the world”.

Yet across the globe there are many political institutions that seek to guarantee Indigenous peoples are heard.

Broadly speaking, they fall into four different categories:

  • Reserved parliamentary seats

  • Devolved self-governance

  • Traditional authority councils and

  • Indigenous advisory bodies (the proposed Voice fits in this category).

Surprisingly, the current debate on the Voice to Parliament seems to have missed the fact Torres Strait Islanders have effectively had an elected voice to both federal and state governments for almost 30 years.

Besides being a form of devolved self-governance, the Torres Strait Regional Authority is empowered to “advise the federal minister for Indigenous affairs on matters relating to Torres Strait Islanders”.

In fact, the proposed Voice to Parliament is one of the more modest proposals for Indigenous governance systems around the world.

Reserved seats

Several countries have reserved seats for Indigenous peoples, as a voice within the parliament itself. This is different to the Voice, which proposes an external advisory body to the Australian parliament.

In New Zealand, Māori currently have seven reserved seats in their parliament of 120. Māori voters can choose to enrol to vote for reserved seats, or the general roll. Māori MPs can also be elected on the general roll.

The Treaty of Waitangi is considered a key part of New Zealand’s unwritten constitution.

Because of this, Māori representation is guaranteed - although the questions of whether reserved seats are politically or constitutionally guaranteed is a vexed and technical one.

In Asia, Taiwan provides a clear example of constitutionally enshrined Indigenous representation. Taiwan is a settler colonial society, with a Han Chinese majority, and numerous Austronesian language-speaking First Nations people, with a similar population proportion to Australia, at 3%. Taiwan has had reserved seats for Indigenous peoples since the 1970s. The current allocation of six seats was entrenched in the most recent round of constitutional amendments in 2005.

In Latin America, Bolivia has reserved seven of its 130 parliamentary seats for Indigenous peoples. The US state of Maine has had First Nations representation of two members since the 19th century. These members are able to contribute to debates, albeit without voting rights.

Indigenous self-governance

Devolved self-governance involves the delegation of certain government powers to Indigenous communities themselves.

Notably, Australia’s own Torres Strait Regional Authority falls in this category. Its 20 representatives, elected every four years, are tasked to “formulate, coordinate and implement programs for Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal people living within the region”.

Established in 1994, this authority survived the abolition of ATSIC in the Howard era in 2005. It has produced a regional economic development strategy, fisheries and environmental management policies, and advocated for better regional infrastructure.

Another key example of delegated self-government is Canada’s Nunavut Parliament of the Inuit people. This parliament has powers covering the administration of justice, education and local taxation. A number of First Nations in Canada have some transferred powers of self-governance.

The Sámi parliaments in Scandinavia are often cited as examples of Indigenous self-governance. These are the arguably the closest to Australia’s proposed Voice, as they have largely consultative roles. They advise national governments on issues of cultural maintenance, language and native land title. For example, the Sámi parliament of Norway is the “prime dialogue partner” for the Norwegian government in relation to Indigenous policy.

Both the reserved seats model and Indigenous self-governance model offer more substantial powers than those proposed for Australia’s Voice to Parliament.

The proposed Voice would not create a devolved decision-making body, nor a voice directly inside parliament. It would simply be an advisory body to the Australian parliament and key departments.

The model of devolved self-governance is more practicable where there are concentrated regional majorities of Indigenous peoples. Creating Indigenous representation is more challenging when minority populations geographically spread out.

This helps explain why the particular model of the Voice was proposed by the Uluru statement.

Traditional authority councils

The third model is exemplified by several Pacific nations. Since independence, several Melanesian states have created Voice-style institutions to give traditional or customary authorities a voice to the government.

Examples include the Great Council of Chiefs in Fiji, which was temporarily abolished under former Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, but has now been restored. This institution appointed the president of Fiji, and several senators.

Vanuatu’s Malvatumauri is a body without formal powers in the parliamentary system, but which must be consulted about issues that affect traditional governance, including land title issues.

In New Caledonia, which has a large European settler population, the Customary Senate must be consulted on any bill concerning Indigenous Kanak identity or customary lands.

All these traditional authority councils advise the modern state on traditional affairs, but do not represent a particularly strong parallel with the Voice, and were developed for majority Indigenous societies.

Indigenous advisory bodies

Closer parallels to the Voice lie in other First Nations institutions in Canada and Taiwan. Taiwan’s Council of Indigenous Peoples has existed since 1996, and has its own minister in the government, effectively institutionalising a voice within the executive. It has played a key role in attempts to revitalise Indigenous languages.

Canada also has an Indigenous Advisory Committee to advise government on policy, with representatives from the three Indigenous groupings: First Nations, Inuit and Métis.

The Waitangi tribunal is also parallel, representing a “permanent commission of inquiry” on issues relating to potential breaches of the treaty, though without a veto power. The proposed Voice would strongly parallel these international examples.

One question that follows, is why Aboriginal people from the mainland should not enjoy the same rights as Torres Strait Islander people, who have had a form of voice to government via elected representatives for nearly 30 years. The Torres Strait Regional Authority itself strongly supports the current Voice proposal, not least because of the large number of Torres Strait islanders who live on the mainland.

How, then, should we evaluate the “no” campaign’s claim there are no other constitutional bodies like this anywhere in the world? The statement lacks the clarity of information that would inform Australians in voting.

If the claim is that there is no institution exactly like the proposed Voice, then this is technically true. But this is primarily because the Voice is a modest proposal compared with most international examples. Even so, similar institutions can be found in our region and beyond, including those established through constitutional amendment.

If the claim is that there is no comparable form of Indigenous representation anywhere else in the world, the “no” campaign’s claim is clearly inaccurate.

The key point is that all these countries have bodies to ensure Indigenous voices are heard, and Australia currently does not.

The Voice has parallels in many countries with Indigenous populations, and Australia’s proposal is a very modest one by comparison.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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