In what can be seen as a major setback to the country’s efforts for reconciliation with its First Peoples, Australia on Saturday decisively rejected a proposal to recognize Indigenous people in the constitution.
Australians had to vote “Yes” or “No” in the referendum, the first in almost a quarter of a century, on the question of whether to alter the constitution to recognize Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people through the creation of an Indigenous advisory body, the “Voice to Parliament” altering the 122-year-old constitution.
Nationwide, with almost 70% of the vote counted, the “No” vote led “Yes” 60% to 40%.
A successful referendum requires a ‘double majority,” meaning it needed both a majority of the national vote, as well as majorities in four of Australia’s six states.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese acknowledged it was not the outcome he had hoped for but said the country would have to seek a new way forward for reconciliation.
According to Reuters, Australia’s Indigenous citizens, who make up 3.8% of the country’s 26 million population, have inhabited the land for about 60,000 years but are not mentioned in the constitution and are, by most socio-economic measures, the most disadvantaged people in the country.
Supporters of the proposal believed entrenching an Indigenous Voice into the constitution would unite Australia and usher in a new era with its Indigenous people.
The political opposition has criticised the measure, saying it is divisive, would be ineffective, and would slow government decision-making.
The BBC reported that ‘No’ leaders were criticised over their appeal to undecided voters with a “Don’t know? Vote no” message, and accused of running a campaign based on misinformation about the effects of the plan.
Referendums are difficult to pass in Australia, with only eight of 44 succeeding since the country’s founding in 1901. This is the first referendum in Australia since voters rejected a proposal to become a republic almost a quarter of a century ago.
In 1967, a referendum to count Indigenous people as part of the Australian population was a resounding success with bipartisan political support.
This year’s referendum, however, has not garnered unified support, with leaders of the major conservative parties campaigning for a “No” vote.
No referendum has passed in Australia without bipartisan backing.
The Voice has been a key feature of Prime Minister Albanese’s term in office, and a referendum loss would stand out, political analysts say, as his biggest setback since coming to power in May last year.
Opposition leader Peter Dutton criticised Albanese for holding a referendum “that Australia did not need to have”.
According to The Guardian, the vote occurred 235 years on from British settlement, 61 years after Aboriginal Australians were granted the right to vote, and 15 years since a landmark prime ministerial apology for harm caused by decades of government policies including the forced removal of children from Indigenous families.
The 2023 Australian Indigenous Voice referendum was held on 14 October 2023. Voters were asked if they approved an alteration to the Australian Constitution that would recognise Indigenous Australians in the document through prescribing a body called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice that “may make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”.
The referendum was the culmination of years of campaigning by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders and their allies. It was seen as an opportunity to create a new era of partnership between Indigenous Australians and the Australian Government, and to give Indigenous Australians a greater say in decisions that affect their lives.
The referendum was narrowly defeated, with 57.7% of voters voting against it. This was a disappointing result for many, but it is important to note that it was a close vote, and that there was a strong majority in favor of the Voice in some parts of the country.
The defeat of the referendum does not mean that the fight for Indigenous self-determination is over. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders have vowed to continue their campaign for a Voice, and they have said that they will work with the Australian Government to find other ways to strengthen Indigenous representation and participation in decision-making.
The Australia referendum was a significant moment in the history of Indigenous Australians and the Australian nation. It was a reminder of the importance of Indigenous self-determination, and it showed that there is a growing public appetite for change.
It is hoped that the referendum will ultimately lead to a more just and equitable future for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
(Disclaimer: This news article was written by Mokokchung Times with inputs from agencies.)