This page has been developed to provide information on the Society’s position to The Voice and Constitutional Recognition of Australia’s First Nations peoples. It contains answers to common questions, background information and suggested reading.

In summary, the Society’s position aligns with that of the Catholic Church – we support the Uluru Statement from the Heart including Constitutional Recognition and The Voice to Parliament.

Since 2007, successive Prime Ministers promised to significantly advance reconciliation and recognition of Australia’s First Nations peoples.  The parliamentary history on Constitutional Recognition is long, with a referendum being supported back in 2015 by then Chair of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, the Hon. Ken Wyatt AM MP.

The upcoming referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament will be an historic event. There will be much discussion and debate, and both sides will put forward their arguments. There will be diverse opinions and no doubt disagreements. As a democratic society, people are free to form their own views and inform themselves of the issues.

Please read below for more information on how the Society determines its policy positions and its long history of supporting Constitutional Recognition.

Question: What is the Society’s position on Constitutional Recognition?

Answer: The Society has a long history of advocating in support of Constitutional Recognition. Our position is not new.

In 2000, the Society developed Seeking a Shared Spirit, a social justice paper in support of Indigenous Reconciliation following on from Pope John Paul II's apology to Australia's First Nations peoples. The Society supported Constitutional Recognition in 2013 in response to the 2012 Constitutional Recognition Bill. This support was reiterated in 2014, in response to the 2014 Senate Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. In 2021, the Society’s position on The Voice was outlined in response to the Australian Government’s Indigenous voice co-design interim report. And in 2022, the Society outlined its position in our  Federal Election Statement, A Fairer Australia.

In addition to being informed by National Council Social Justice Advisory Committee (NCSJAC) and National Council, the Society welcomed the Fifth Catholic Church Plenary Council of Australia’s First Decree, Reconciliation: Healing Wounds, Receiving Gifts, which endorses the Uluru Statement and commits to walk with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in working towards recognition, reconciliation and justice.

The Society’s position aligns with the views of the National Council Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC) and the Australian Catholic Bishops Council (ACBC), who both endorse the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

The Society’s position, along with further information on First Nations Reconciliation, has also recently been outlined in our regular publication (The Record) and supporting media releases. 

Q: How does the Society determine its policy and advocacy positions?

Answer: We are a membership-based organisation.  Our members come from diverse walks of life.  With over 45,000 members, processes have been put in place to obtain feedback and reach agreement on policy and advocacy matters, from the conference level up. National Council consists of each State and Territory President and meets at least four time per year to discuss the Society’s operations and directions including governance, finance, risk and, importantly, advocacy.

On advocacy matters, National Council is advised by its NCSJAC and the Vincentian Refugee Network. The NCSJAC comprises social justice representatives from the states and territories and meets at least three times per year. Social justice representatives are a conduit for information sharing on all social policy matters, from conferences to regional and state councils up. They raise issues of concern in their jurisdictions and provide evidence-based advice to National Council that reflects the membership’s views, Vincentian values and principles of Catholic Social Teaching.

Q: Why should the Society advocate in this area? It’s at risk of becoming divisive and party political?

Answer: Advocacy is enshrined in our governing document, The Rule.

The Society helps the poor and disadvantaged speak for themselves. When they cannot, the Society must speak on behalf of those who are ignored. (Part I, #7.5)

And further in our Vision

The St Vincent de Paul Society aspires to be recognized as a caring Catholic charity offering “a hand up” to people in need.  We do this by respecting their dignity, sharing our hope, and encouraging them to take control of their own destiny.

And because we believe that the joy and the hope, the grief and the anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joys and the hope, the grief and the anguish of the followers of Christ as well. (Gaudium et Spes)

This path of being the voice of the voiceless is not always easy. Sometimes it means taking a stand and going against the flow.

Q: The Society is supposed to be apolitical. Why is it expressing an opinion on The Voice and Constitutional Recognition of Australia’s First Nations Peoples?

Answer: For almost 170 years, the Society has helped people in need in our community. Everything we do is informed by our Values of Commitment, Compassion, Respect, Integrity, Empathy, Courage and Advocacy.

As a registered charity we are apolitical however, this does not mean we cannot speak out and express a view. Legally, we can advocate on matters that align with our charitable purpose, which is to serve those in need. We have done this for many years, across a range of social policy areas, including those that impact on First Nations Peoples. And many of the people we assist identify as First Nations Peoples.

The purpose of our advocacy includes challenging the causes of human injustice. Although we are not a First Nations organisation, we are committed to walking with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in working towards recognition, reconciliation and justice.

Q: What would Frederic Ozanam do?

Answer: During the lifetime of Frederic Ozanam (the founder of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul) he experienced a world in which the challenges of war, poverty, suffering, and politics openly questioned the validity of Christianity itself.

In the age of post-revolutionary France and the Napoleonic wars, France had developed a strongly anti-religious intellectualism that viewed Catholicism with contempt.

As a brilliant university student and academic, Ozanam debated non-religious scholars. He faced strong intellectual opposition to his arguments. This criticism was not merely about Ozanam’s own personal commitment to the gospels. This criticism questioned Catholicism itself arguing it offered nothing to society, particularly the poor. For Ozanam, he rejected these criticisms. He was not only prepared to argue his case, he would establish the Society and actively help the poor and vulnerable of Paris.

The case was simple, Ozanam argued that words were not enough.

For the gospel ideals of faith, hope, love, and compassion to inspire a more just society good works had to be a true demonstration of solidarity with the poor and vulnerable. From its inception, the Society has been a lay Catholic movement aiming to create a more equal and compassionate social order, by promoting the culture of life and the civilisation of love.

The Society has a long history of not only assisting the poor, but supporting people seeking asylum, victims of domestic violence, the homeless, those with addictions, providing housing, helping the unemployed and advocating for Indigenous Australians. Such positions are consistent with Ozanam’s founding principles and with Catholic Social Teaching. We believe in human dignity, the common good, a preferential option for those who are disadvantaged and in our responsibility for each other. We strive for social conditions that ensure everyone can realise their full potential.

Perhaps most importantly and relevant to this matter, is our belief in subsidiarity – respect for personal dignity and the importance of those most affected by a decision or policy having input to it. This is surely at the heart of the Voice, providing an avenue for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at the grassroots level to provide real and practical advice to inform and drive real change. 

In supporting the Voice to Parliament, the Society is inspired by Ozanam’s Catholic solidarity with citizens who are vulnerable, and his desire for a more compassionate society.

Q: What are the stages of the referendum?


Stage 1 - Develop the question – the first step is to determine the question that will be put to the parliament and then the Australian people

Stage 2 - A Bill is passed by parliament – once the question is decided, both houses of parliament vote on the proposition that the question be put to the Australian people. A referendum will only be held of the proposal is passed in both houses.

Stage 3 - Case committees are formed – after parliament votes, a majority of Members of the House of Representatives and Senators who voted for the proposal and a majority of those who voted against it are divided into the ‘Yes committee’ and the ‘No committee’. These committee are responsible for activities supporting a vote for or against the proposed alteration to the Constitution.

Stage 4 - A Writ is issued and information provided to voters – the Governor General issues the Writ for the referendum. ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ cases proposed by the committees are lodged with the Electoral Commissioner four weeks after passage of the Bill. These cases, along with a statement showing the proposed materials, must be posted to every voter on the electoral roll, no later than 14 days before polling day.

Stage 5 - Double majority required - at the referendum the proposed alteration must be approved by a ‘double majority’, that is a national majority of voters in the states and territories and a majority of voters in a majority of the states (i.e. at least four out of six states).

What we know so far (March 2023)

  • All State Premiers and Territory Chief Ministers have signed a Statement of Intent, signalling their commitment to ‘work collaboratively to support a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament.’ They have also endorsed the principles for the Voice put forward by the Referendum Working Group.
  • A coalition of national religious and ethno-religious organisations has sent a joint open letter to all federal parliamentarians calling on them to cooperate across political divides in support of the upcoming Voice referendum. The national organisations represent Christian, Hindi, Sikh, Muslim, Buddhism and Jewish communities, supportive of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
  • In 2017, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates signed the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a petition calling on the Australian Government to implement “Voice, Treaty and Truth”.
  • “Voice” refers to a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament, an advisory body to Government on policies and laws that impact the lives of Indigenous Australians. Constitutionally enshrining the Voice would provide recognition to Indigenous people and fill a gap in the Australian Constitution (Prof Twomey)
  • The Australian Government has established:
    • a First Nations Referendum Working Group to provide advice to the Government on how best to ensure a successful Referendum and focus on the key questions that need to be considered including timing, refining the proposed constitutional amendment and question and providing information on the Voice. The Group’s latest communique is accessible here.
    • a First Nations Referendum Engagement Group to provide advice about building community understanding, awareness and support for the Referendum. The Group’s latest communique is accessible here.
    • a Constitutional Expert Group to provide legal support on constitutional matters relating to the referendum including advice on the draft referendum question and constitutional amendments proposed by the Prime Minister
  • The most recent report on what The Voice might look like is contained in the Australian Government’s 2021 Indigenous Voice Co‑design Process Report. However, the model of the Voice will be determined by the Parliament after the referendum, and after consultations. The Referendum Working Group has agreed broad and inclusive consultation with First Nations peoples and communities is critical to ensure the final Voice model reflects the views of First Nations communities.
  • While the referendum will establish the Voice, Parliament will still need to legislate the structure of how the body will operate. The referendum will enshrine the process but not the substance of the Voice to Parliament (Assoc Prof Ron Levy)
  • The Voice to Parliament will not have any veto or judiciary powers and will not be a third chamber. Parliament will still have control over decision making. (Prof Calma) The purpose of the Voice is to allow Aboriginal voices to be consulted on matters that affect them. Members will be chosen by First Nations people.

Further reading

  • The NSW Society has developed several fact sheets on topics related to Reconciliation, including the Uluru Statement From The Heart.
  • Watch the short video from Bishop Mark Coleridge on behalf of the Australian Catholic Bishops in support of the Uluru Statement From The Heart.
  • Read the Uluru Statement from the Heart and learn about Voice, Treaty and Makaratta (truth-telling) and the aspirations of the leaders who met to develop the statement in 2017.
  • Our publication The Record (back issues) contain many articles covering the Society’s activities supporting Constitutional Recognition, the Uluru Statement from The Heart and The Voice to Parliament.
  • More information can be found on the NSW Society's Social Justice Network webpage.