SA Voice ‘exciting opportunity’ post referendum failure

Jacob Shteyman |

Crowds at Adelaide’s parliament house when laws enshrining an SA Voice passed in March 2023.
Crowds at Adelaide’s parliament house when laws enshrining an SA Voice passed in March 2023.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander electors head to the polls on Saturday to vote in Australia’s first ever elections for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

Despite the failure of the 2023 referendum to enshrine a Voice to Parliament in the federal constitution, South Australia has ploughed ahead with its plans for a democratically elected Indigenous advisory body to the state government.

Dale Agius, South Australia’s inaugural Commissioner for First Nations Voice, believes there is still a strong appetite for the body.

“I think numbers support that Aboriginal communities do want a mechanism to engage with decision makers, to have better guided advice, to have more positive impacts with their programs, initiatives and policies,” he told AAP.

“This is an exciting opportunity because quite often Aboriginal communities have to sit back and wait to see what governments do with their affairs.

“This flips that approach to say, well, let’s speak to Aboriginal communities and let their representatives lead the changes that need to happen in their communities.”

Cheering crowds gathered outside parliament house in Adelaide when legislation enshrining the SA Voice passed the House of Assembly in March 2023.

The bill sets out six regional voices across the state, with 46 representatives to be directly elected by their local communities.

Each local voice will have two presiding members, one female and one male, who will chair local meetings and act as their region’s representatives in a 12-person state voice.

It will be the role of that state voice to directly advocate the concerns and ideas of the communities to parliament.

The state voice will deliver an annual address to parliament, express views on draft legislation that affect First Nations people, provide reports to parliament on matters of interest and be able to meet directly with department heads.

It will have no right to veto legislation nor prevent government from undertaking any of its duties.

But that hasn’t stopped detractors from criticising the model.

The SA Liberals opposed the bill to create a state voice, labelling it rushed and defective, while One Nation MLC Sarah Game moved to repeal the legislation in parliament, citing the state’s emphatic rejection of the federal voice.

SA had the second highest ‘no’ vote in the country, with only Queensland exceeding the 64 per cent of South Australians who voted against the referendum.

Mr Agius says the 113 candidates who have nominated for the 46 local voice positions is a great result and “flies in the face of the outcome of the referendum”.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people … are willing to put themselves out there on the chopping block, to say that this is still important to them and to their communities,” he said.

“So I’m very, very honoured and very respectful to those candidates who have put themselves forward.”

Cheryl Axleby
Cheryl Axleby says a Voice to the SA parliament will highlight realities in Indigenous communities. (Roy Vandervegt/AAP PHOTOS)

Narungga woman Cheryl Axleby is vying for a spot on the Central region voice, which covers the Adelaide metropolitan area and represents the highest population of First Nations people.

As a co-chair of Indigenous justice advocacy group Change the Record, she has had an up-close view of the challenges faced by the community.

The cost of living, inadequate housing and homelessness, high incarceration rates, over-representation of Aboriginal kids being removed from their families have yet to be addressed, despite decades of promises from successive governments.

“I think this is a great opportunity to unpack that,” she said.

“For the South Australian parliament going forward, we get the opportunity to highlight to them what the realities are in our communities with a direct voice to them.”

Counting of votes in the election will begin on Monday.