Big Issues

Karla Grant On What Australia Can Learn From Norway’s Voice To Parliament

karla grant norway voice to parliament reindeer herder

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On October 14 2023, Australia will vote in a historic referendum to decide whether the Constitution should be changed to enshrine an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. A point of contention in the debate has been around what the Voice will actually look like. Other nations across the globe have implemented similar structures we can look to as points of reference, inspiration, and wisdom. 

Ahead of our referendum, Karla Grant, proud western Arrernte woman and Walkley award-winning host of Living Black, went to Norway for SBS’ Dateline to immerse herself with the Sámi people. On the trip, she heard more about the Sámi Indigenous Parliament and what Australia can learn from it. “The Sámi people used to be just a picture on a postcard but they’re so much more than that. Now [because of the Sámi Parliament] they’re not just pictures on a postcard anymore, they have a rich culture and history [that’s celebrated],” Karla says. “That should be the same in Australia.” 

While it’s only now becoming something of a possibility here in Australia, the Indigenous people of Norway have had their own Parliament for more than 30 years. The Sámi Parliament was established through an Act of Parliament back in 1987 — not through the Constitution as is proposed here — after a controversial plan to build a dam on Sámi lands saw leaders create a democratically elected body that could advise the Norwegian government on Indigenous issues. 

There are a few similarities and differences when looking at the Sámi Parliament and the Voice to Parliament proposed here. One main difference is that the Sámi Parliament receives funding, which its officials can distribute to different projects in the interest of preserving, celebrating, and revitalising Sámi culture. There are 39 elected representatives from seven constituencies in the Sámi Parliament, too, with a President overseeing the Parliament. Elections are held every four years and people can only vote if they have proven their Sámi heritage. 

The Power Of Language Learning

Toward the end of the Dateline piece, I couldn’t help but feel a bit emotional when Karla was talking about how language learning has been lost here in Australia in Indigenous communities. I feel that loss very deeply as the great-grandchild of a Stolen Generation survivor who never got to properly learn his culture or pass it down. Teaching young ones language is something that the Sámi people now have a chance to do because of the Norway Voice to Parliament. In fact, because of the Parliament, Sámi is now the official second language of Norway, meaning it is protected and able to be formally taught to children. 

In Norway, Karla met Matti, a former bodybuilder and security guard who retrained through a Sámi Parliament initiative to become a kindergarten teacher, after he saw his Sámi language being lost. Now, he’s able to teach not only his own children their language but other children, too. Like Australia, Norway had historically implemented laws which restricted Sámi people from speaking their language or practising their culture, so for Matti to be one of the many helping rebuild that connection to culture is inspiring. 

“[Matti’s family] were getting emotional with me because I said to his wife, ‘You must be so proud of Matti teaching the language to your children and to pass it on to future generations’ and she started to get teary eyed,” Karla tells me. “It just shows the importance for them to speak their own language.” 

It’s interesting to watch how widespread colonisation has impacted the Sámi people, echoing what we’ve witnessed here in Australia. “They suffer the impacts of colonisation the same as ours. Not being able to speak their language, practise their culture, and they were persecuted for thousands of years,” Karla says. “What people said to me was that you almost didn’t want to be Sámi [hundreds of years ago] because you were treated very, very poorly. I related to that straightaway because we’ve been treated badly, obviously, because of colonisation, massacres, dispossession of our land, not being able to speak our language or practise our culture, and all those government policies that were imposed on us.”

Young People Are Leading The Fight

It’s no secret that young people have been on the frontlines fighting against a variety of injustices. Karla says it was encouraging to see so many young people in Australia and Norway taking a stand. “I think that’s really good to see because we can be reassured that the next generation of our people are going to be up there still fighting for our rights. It’s really encouraging to see.”

Gen Z has been accused of being too angry, but Karla, for one, appreciates the energy. “They’re very forthright which is good because it reminds me of when I was younger seeing Uncle Charlie Perkins and Marcia Langton out there on the streets fighting for us,” she says. “For a while you didn’t really see that sort of thing happening, for some reason. Now we can see the fire in people’s belly again. There’s been a resurgence.” 

What Can The Australian Voice To Parliament Learn From Norway? 

Three decades later, Australia can learn a lot from the Sámi Parliament. Although the Voice to Parliament might not be perfect at the beginning, Karla thinks it’s an important next step. “It’s not going to be an easy road and it may not be the model that everyone wants, but if the majority of Australia votes Yes on the 14th of October, there’s a lot more work to come afterwards,” she says. “[From] deciding on the model, how it’s going to work, what the representation is, what the membership is going to look like, how many people will be voted in, how is all of that going to happen?” 

In the Dateline episode, Karla explains that although the Sámi people have made progress in language and culture revitalisation, they’ve also struggled when it comes to dealing with and being heard on environmental issues. That Sámi people actually have an avenue to raise these issues and give them space in public consciousness, though, still feels like somewhat of a win. If the Voice to Parliament here achieves nothing else, perhaps it’ll bring about similar awareness.

Despite potential hurdles, Karla still thinks that the underlying principle of the Voice to Parliament is about “basic human rights”. “This isn’t about First Nations people having more than anyone else, because there has been a lot of criticism [of that nature],” she says. “We’ve seen Peter Dutton say it’s going to have an Orwellian effect where one group of people are going to have more than others in society. That’s some of the misinformation that’s going around and that’s not true. We’re not going to get more than everyone else because we’re already pushed down the bottom of the rung. We’re the most disadvantaged group of people in the country. We have the highest rates of incarceration in the world. How can we get more than anyone else? It’s giving us the rights that we should have.”

“All Australians,” Karla adds, “should be proud of our Indigenous heritage and [like Norway] recognise that. We’re much stronger as a nation if we embrace it.”

The Sámi Voice episode of Dateline premieres on Tuesday 19 September at 9.30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand and in October on NITV.

Ky is a proud Kamilaroi and Dharug person and writer at Junkee. Follow them on Instagram or on X.

Image credit: Supplied