The key arguments against the Voice to Parliament aren’t supported by contemporary examples in Norway and New Zealand, where consultation with indigenous communities has led to more effective policy. By Andrew Wear.

Successful uses of a Voice overseas

Sámediggi Sametingt covered in snow.
Sámediggi Sametingt, the site of Sami parliament in Karasjok, Norway.
Credit: Denis Caviglia / Flickr

In the small Norwegian town of Karasjok, a cone-shaped building stands out among the trees and snow. It’s constructed in the striking form of a lavvu, the temporary dwelling used by the Sámi, the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia.

The building is the Sámi parliament; the Sámi ‘Voice’. It is where representatives of Norway’s 50,000-strong Sámi population come together to deal with all matters concerning their community.

Maja Kristine Jåma grew up in a reindeer-herding community in the southern reaches of Sápmi, the traditional territory of the Sámi people. She was elected to the Sámi parliament at the age of just 28, after working as a teacher and campaigning against development on reindeer grazing lands.

Jåma tells The Saturday Paper the role of the Sámi parliament is to “secure and develop Sámi culture, livelihood and society”. To do so, it has “access to talk with the government and the national parliament”, which has a “duty to consult regarding important questions that affect the Sámi people”.

Established in 1989, the Sámi parliament consists of 39 representatives elected every four years by those on the Sámi electoral roll. It is not a parliament in the Westminster sense, as it has no legislative function, though over the years it has gained some limited responsibilities, in areas such as the Sámi language, culture and education.

The Sámi parliament was born out of conflicts in the late 1970s and early ’80s over the construction of a hydroelectric dam that threatened to inundate a Sámi village.

“From the Sámi side, self-determination drove the establishment of the Sámi parliament,” Mattias Åhrén tells The Saturday Paper. Åhrén is also Sámi, and a professor of indigenous human rights and Sámi law.

“From the government side, they wished to have an institution that they could deal with on Sámi matters. They needed a counterparty to consult with.”

Over more than 30 years, the Sámi parliament has contributed to a shift in thinking about the Sámi people.

“Now you hear the voice of the Sámi in Norwegian debates like you never would have before,” says Mikkel Eskil Mikkelsen, another member of the Sámi parliament.

“The Sámi voice now has more leverage.”

In May this year, the Norwegian parliament voted overwhelmingly to amend the constitution to recognise the Sámi people as indigenous to Norway. It was not controversial.

“I was waiting for a debate but actually it was quite clear,” Jåma says. “We have been working for many years to get this acknowledgement as an indigenous people, a clear statement in the law that we are indigenous. No one can question that now.”

Norway’s Sámi parliament clearly demonstrates the misrepresentation inherent in the Australian “No” campaign’s claim that there is no comparable body to the Voice anywhere in the world. Other countries do have mechanisms similar to the proposed Voice to Parliament. Sámi parliaments also exist in Sweden and Finland.

And Norway’s Sámi parliament has not – as the “No” campaign fears – divided the country.

“Giving a voice to indigenous people does not create division,” says Sigrun Wiggen Prestbakmo, the state secretary responsible for Sámi affairs in the Norwegian government. “Rather, it contributes to more dialogue and understanding.”

Nor has it opened the door for “radical changes”.

“Of course, the role of the Sámi parliament is to do political work, improve the situation of Sámis,” says Åhrén. “But there have been no radical developments. It has not been a stepping stone for revolution or anything like that.”

Closer to home, New Zealand’s Māori population has not so much a Voice to Parliament, as a voice in parliament.

Two electoral rolls exist in New Zealand – the general roll and the Māori roll. Māori can choose which roll to go on and are divided roughly evenly between the two. Those on the Māori roll are able to vote in one of the seven Māori seats in the New Zealand parliament.

The role of Māori members of parliament is shaped by New Zealand’s founding document, the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. It allowed the British Crown to govern its own settlements, while confirming Māori authority over their own land, forests, fisheries and other items of Māori significance.

“As a Māori seat holder, you only represent Māori interests,” Meka Whaitiri, member for the North Island Māori seat of Ikaroa-Rāwhiti, tells The Saturday Paper. “You have to uphold the Treaty; you have to be pretty schooled in understanding that significance when you hold the seat.”

The Waitangi Treaty has played an increasingly important role in shaping the way New Zealand is governed, meaning the country is further down the path of reconciliation than Australia is.

“This idea that the Crown’s Treaty obligations need to be upheld is something that’s really permeated across government agencies,” says Maria Bargh, professor of politics and Māori studies at Victoria University of Wellington. “In some ways this has created more of a movement than just those seven Māori electorates alone.”

Speaker of the New Zealand parliament and Māori seat holder Adrian Rurawhe says the impact of Māori seats has been profound. “We’ve had some very significant pieces of legislation – the Treaty settlement processes, the making of the Māori language an official language, and the establishment of the Māori Health Authority. These have all come through almost as a direct result of those Māori seats and Māori representation.”

Merely setting up a consultation mechanism such as the Voice won’t automatically lead to meaningful involvement by indigenous people in policymaking. It requires a preparedness from government to engage deeply.

As Åhrén says, “if you are going to consult seriously with an indigenous people, the process will take longer”.

But the pay-off is significant, with the potential for better and more effective policymaking, says Prestbakmo. In Norway, she says, “the duty to consult has contributed to better decision-making. When consultations are conducted in good faith, they often lead to more informed decisions that are easier to implement.”

“Indigenous groups bring things to the table,” says Bargh. “They bring different knowledge and worldviews, different sets of science.”

The experience of the Sámi parliament shows how engagement with an Indigenous Voice might work in practice. Every year, the Sámi parliament prepares a white paper on Sámi issues that goes to the Norwegian parliament.

“This year it was on education and on the lack of Sámi teachers, teaching materials et cetera,” says Mikkelsen, adding the Norwegian government collaborated on the paper.

While Australia’s “No” campaigners fear the Voice will create two classes of citizens, the people interviewed for this story argued that colonisation had already created two levels of society, with indigenous people missing out.

A Voice to Parliament is “not treating the indigenous population better”, Åhrén says. Rather, “it’s providing equality by treating them differently, because they are different”.

Around the world, forums similar to the Voice are providing a platform for indigenous and non-indigenous people to meet, exchange views and try to reach common ground. As Bargh says, in an international context, Australia’s proposal for a Voice to Parliament “is a fairly modest step forward”.

In the Sámi parliament, Mikkelsen is clear about what is required: “The solution is always to empower indigenous people to deal with the issues they face in their own societies.” 

This is part two of a three-part series on iterations of the Voice: past, present and future.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 26, 2023 as "Voices in harmony".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription