A person votes (file image)
Nothing like the voice proposal has previously been taken to a referendum. Image by Richard Wainwright/AAP PHOTOS

Voice failure at 1999 referendum is historical fiction

Mikele Syron August 31, 2023

The proposed Indigenous voice was previously rejected at the 1999 referendum.


False. The 1999 referendums were about a proposed republic and a preamble to the constitution. Neither involved an Indigenous voice.

A Facebook post claims the proposed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament previously failed at the 1999 referendum.

This is false. The 1999 referendum sought to alter the Australian Constitution to allow the establishment of a republic, replacing the British monarch as head of state, and to add a preamble “honouring” Indigenous people as the “nation’s first people”.

Experts told AAP FactCheck neither of the proposed alterations to the constitution involved a voice to parliament.

The concept of an Indigenous voice was not formed until almost two decades later in May 2017, through the Uluru Statement From The Heart.

A screenshot of the Facebook post.
 The is no truth to the 1999 claim, experts told AAP FactCheck. 

The claim was made in a post (screenshot here) on August 20.

“Did you know that the ‘Voice to parliament’ failed in the 1999 referendum,” it states.

The proposed preamble wording (page 32) included “honouring Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, the nation’s first people, for their deep kinship with their lands and for their ancient and continuing cultures which enrich the life of our country”.

Then-prime minister John Howard wrote the preamble’s first draft (page 6) with poet Les Murray. It was slightly amended before the referendum in November 1999.

Prime Minister John Howard in 1999 (file image)
 John Howard wrote the first draft of the failed preamble. 

Frank Bongiorno, a history professor at the Australian National University, said the 1999 referendum had no relation to a voice to parliament.

John Warhurst, a political science professor at ANU agreed, labelled the claim “clearly false”.

“The two 1999 referendums were about the republic and the preamble,” Emeritus Professor Warhurst said. “It is absolutely clear.” 

Mark McKenna, a history professor at The University of Sydney, said the claim was “demonstrably false”.

“The voice to parliament was not put to the people in the 1999 referendum,” Professor McKenna told AAP FactCheck.

“The idea of the voice to parliament did not exist at the time, and did not emerge until 2017.

“The proposed preamble did not recommend or include an Indigenous voice to parliament.”

Professor Mark McKenna (file image)
 Mark McKenna says claims the voice proposal failed in 1999 are false. 

Benjamin Jones, a history lecturer at Central Queensland University, said the preamble and the proposed voice are very different.

“Nothing even remotely similar to the First Nations voice to parliament has ever been taken to a referendum,” Dr Jones told AAP FactCheck

“If (the 1999 preamble question) passed, there would have been symbolic recognition of First Nations in the constitution.

“This is a completely different proposal to the voice which would create a First Nation body to offer advice to the executive government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”

The Verdict

The claim the Indigenous voice was rejected at the 1999 referendum is false. 

History and political experts told AAP FactCheck the referendum made no mention of a voice to parliament, which did not emerge until 2017 through the Uluru Statement From The Heart.

The referendum in 1999 asked two questions on whether to become a republic and include a preamble to the constitution honouring Indigenous people.

False – The claim is inaccurate.

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