Proposed Indigenous Voice to Parliament will not confer “special rights” to one race of people

Proposed Indigenous Voice to Parliament will not confer “special rights” to one race of people

What was claimed

The verdict

The Indigenous Voice to Parliament will provide “special rights” to one race of people in Australia.

False. Legal and constitutional experts say the proposed Voice to Parliament will not provide anyone with “special rights”, but rather provide an opportunity to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to make representations to parliament on matters that impact them.

By Renee Davidson

Conservative lobby group Advance Australia has launched a series of Facebook ads campaigning against the government’s plans to hold a referendum on the Voice to Parliament before July 2024. 

The Prime Minister Anthony Albanese promised in a speech on July 30, 2022 to hold a referendum to enshrine in the constitution a Voice to Parliament, a body to advise on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

Mr Albanese said the Voice would be “an unflinching source of advice and accountability. Not a third chamber, not a rolling veto, not a blank cheque. But a body with the perspective and the power and the platform to tell the government and the parliament the truth about what is working and what is not.”

Since December 1, 2022, Advance Australia has placed 98 ads on Facebook related to the proposed Voice to Parliament – all contain the claim that the Voice will provide “special rights” to one race of people. The claim has been rejected by leading Australian legal and constitutional experts. 

In the Facebook ads, Advance Australia begins with the statement: “Did you know Anthony Albanese wants to change the Australian Constitution to cement identity politics into this founding document?”

The ads state the Prime Minister’s plan to hold a referendum on the Voice to Parliament.

The ads go on to claim: “That means our nation will be divided by race. So in Australia, we’ll have one race of people with special rights and privileges handed to them with all the power of the Constitution.” 

The ads contain a link to an Advance Australia open letter to the prime minister and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton. Although Advance Australia urges readers to sign the letter, stating that it is “urgent”, the letter does not call on Mr Albanese or Mr Dutton to take any action other than “to keep Australians united”.

Advance Australia asks those wanting to add their signatures for their phone numbers and home addresses - personal information that is not required by parliament for an e-petition – and to agree to receive texts and email updates from Advance Australia.

Leading legal and constitutional experts have rejected the claim that the proposed Voice to Parliament will provide “special rights” to one race of people. 

Professor Anne Twomey, a member of the Constitutional Expert Group that provides the government with legal support on constitutional matters relating to the referendum, told RMIT FactLab that “the proposed constitutional amendment does not confer any special rights”.

Professor Twomey added: “It just requires the establishment of a body with the function of making representations to parliament.”

She said that any individual or organisation can make representations to parliament by way of petitions, which are tabled in parliament, or by making representations to their local member of parliament. 

Bodies with collective interests, such as unions, community groups, charities and business organisations, can also make submissions to parliamentary committees to point out problems or propose changes to bills being debated in parliament, she said.

“People with similar interests often band together in groups in their hope that their collective voice will be more influential than their individual submissions,” she said. “The Voice would be one such group.”

Professor Twomey likened the Voice to other statutory bodies that can make representations to parliament through reports, reviews or recommendations, such as the Australian Law Reform Commission, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Productivity Commission. 

“The fact that the majority of people appointed to those bodies are lawyers and economists cannot be treated as giving members of those bodies ‘special rights’ and discriminating against doctors and plumbers,” she said. 

The reason particular professionals dominate those bodies is due to their expertise and relevant experience, she said.

“The same can be said of a group of Indigenous Australians who have expertise and experience in how laws directed towards them are likely to affect them,” she said.

Professor Twomey said it was up to parliament to decide how the Voice would be composed and what its powers, procedures and other functions would be. 

In an article published on December 14 in The Conversation, a website that publishes commentary, research and analysis from Australian universities and the CSIRO, Professor Twomey wrote that the Constitutional Expert Group were “unanimously of the view” that the Voice would not confer “special rights” to anyone. 

The expert group comprises leading legal and constitutional experts, including Professor Greg Craven GCSG, Professor Megan Davis, Mr Kenneth Hayne KC, Mr Noel Pearson, Professor Cheryl Saunders, Professor Anne Twomey, Scientia Professor George Williams and Professor Asmi Wood. It is chaired by the Attorney-General of Australia, Mark Dreyfus. 

In their advice to the First Nations Referendum Working Group, the constitutional experts said the Voice would not change or take away any rights of non-Indigenous people. A summary of their advice was published in a communique on December 13 by the Referendum Working Group.

“The Voice does not confer ‘rights’, much less ‘special rights’, on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,” the communique states. “Nor would the Voice change or take away any right, power or privilege of anyone who is not Indigenous.”

RMIT FactLab also consulted a legal expert outside of the Constitutional Expert Group - Professor Gabrielle Appleby of the Law Faculty at the University New South Wales. 

Professor Appleby agreed that the Voice to Parliament would not provide “special rights” to one race of people. 

“The Voice does not itself grant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people rights, such as land rights or cultural rights, which are still granted, amended and even repealed by the parliament, as with all other laws,” Professor Appleby said.

The Voice provides an additional opportunity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people input in the decision-making processes of government and parliament, she said.

“It does not change or reduce the rights of any other Australian,” she said.

According to META Ad Library data, the 98 Facebook ads have received more than 2.2 million impressions. The data also shows that Queenslanders aged over 65 were those most commonly targeted by the ads. The estimated total spend on Advance Australia’s Facebook ads relating to the Voice from December 1 to December 23 was in the range of $18,300 to $22,592. 

This is the second time that RMIT FactLab has found misleading information in Facebook ads run by Advance Australia. During the 2022 federal election, FactLab analysed Facebook ads run by Advance Australia and found many to contain misleading information about would-be ACT senator David Pocock. 

In May 2022, the Australian Electoral Commission found Advance Australia in breach of the electoral act for publishing misleading information about Senator Pocock and federal Member for Warringah Zali Steggall.

Thumbnail photo: Women sing at the closing ceremony of talks that resulted in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Credit ABC News: Stephanie Zillman.


The verdict

False. The proposed Voice to Parliament will not provide “special rights” to anyone, nor will it change or reduce the rights of non-Indigenous people, according to leading legal and constitutional experts. The proposed Voice provides Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with an opportunity to make representations to the parliament and the executive on matters that impact them.


23 December 2022


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