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Fishing for a better future: the Voice's influence on Indigenous participation in fisheries

This week Australians will vote in one of the most significant decisions in their country’s constitutional history: the Voice Referendum. This referendum has sparked a profound and heavily polarising debate across Australia, with each side proposing arguments to support either a yes or no vote. While many see it as a crucial step towards rectifying historical injustices and empowering Australia’s First Peoples, others express concerns about its potential negative implications such as a fragmented system of governance. Ahead of the vote, this week’s blog post will explore the origin of the Voice, what it aims to achieve and how it could serve to increase Indigenous participation in fisheries. Drawing inspiration from international examples, we will highlight the different mechanisms used to promote constitutional representation of Indigenous people around the world.

What is the Voice?

The Voice refers to an initiative aimed at addressing the longstanding issue of Indigenous representation in Australian politics and decision-making processes. This concept emerged from the Uluru Statement of the Heart; a statement crafted by Indigenous leaders during the National Constitutional Convention in 2017. As one of three core components of the Statement (Voice, Treaty, Truth), the voice calls for the establishment of a constitutionally enshrined body representing the interests and voices of Australia’s Indigenous peoples. The goal of the voice is to provide these people with a formal platform to influence policies and decisions that affect their lives. In doing so, it aims to foster a more inclusive and equitable political landscape in Australia.

How might the Voice increase participation of Indigenous people in fisheries?

  1. Recognition of indigenous rights: the Voice could advocate for Indigenous peoples’ rights to more freely access and manage their sea country and resources.

  2. Co-management agreements: the Voice could facilitate the establishment of co-management agreements between Indigenous communities and government bodies. These agreements could outline the roles, responsibilities, and decision-making powers of Indigenous groups in fisheries management.

  3. Consultation: the Voice could increase the opportunities for meaningful consultation with Indigenous communities during the development of fisheries legislation/policy and other important decision-making processes.

  4. Protection of traditional practices: the Voice could safeguard the rights of Indigenous peoples to continue their traditional fishing practices.

  5. Capacity building: the Voice could support capacity building initiatives which facilitate Indigenous participation in fisheries. This might include training programmes and educational opportunities.

  6. Dispute resolution: the Voice could help establish mechanisms for the resolution of fisheries-related disputes between Indigenous communities and government bodies or other stakeholders.

The First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria: a success story

We can look to Victoria for an example of how an independent and democratically elected body can improve the representation and political power of Australia’s Indigenous people. Established in 2019, the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria is a representative body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Victoria. The primary role of the Assembly is to negotiate treaties with the Victorian government on behalf of the state’s Indigenous peoples. These treaties aim to address historical injustices, promote self-determination, and recognise indigenous rights and interests in a range of areas including land rights, cultural heritage, and economic development.

The Assembly provides tangible evidence of how an Indigenous representative body, such as the proposed Voice to Parliament, can be successful in practice. It demonstrates the significant contribution a body can make in the advocacy for Indigenous rights, self-determination, and reconciliation.

Indigenous-Focused Constitutional Mechanisms: New Zealand

Constitutional representation of Māori has been vital to the recognition of their rights and interests. The lack of entrenched constitution in New Zealand has provided institutional flexibility to allow the evolution of constitutional design and increased representation of Māori over time. The constitutional representation of Māori has been guaranteed through a number of different mechanisms including reserved legislative seats, the delegation of a consultative and advisory body (The Māori Council) and the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. The Treaty has been particularly successful in facilitating the participation of Māori in fisheries management. It recognises both the commercial and customary rights of Maori and includes a provision for their customary use and input into the management of fisheries.

Indigenous-Focused Constitutional Mechanisms: Norway

Norway is home to a minority Indigenous Sámi population. In 1987 the Sámi Act was enacted to safeguard and develop the Sámi language, culture and way of life. Through this Act, the Sámi parliament (the Sameting) was established to oversee any matter affecting the Sámi people (e.g., cultural heritage, health and social welfare, and land ownership rights). Rather than being entrenched in Norway’s constitutions (the same way the Voice might be following a yes vote), it is instead legislated. The Sameting has provided Sámi people with the ability to offer input into the development of legislation and policies which affect them. Using this influence, legislation has been amended to better reflect their interests.

The Voice represents a unique opportunity for Australia to pursue a path that enables Indigenous voices to be heard, valued, and empowered. Ultimately the referendum extends far beyond a simple yes or no vote. It represents a chance to create a future where Indigenous peoples have the opportunity to shape the policies and decisions that affect their lives. In doing so it strives to create a nation which embraces unity, diversity, and equality.

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