In a significant setback to Australia’s long-standing efforts for reconciliation with its Indigenous population, the nation resoundingly rejected a proposal to recognize Indigenous people in the constitution. The referendum, which aimed to create an Indigenous advisory body known as the ‘Voice to Parliament,’ has exposed deep divisions within the country and left many pondering the future of reconciliation. With 45% of the votes counted, the “No” campaign led with 57.35% compared to 42.65% for the “Yes” campaign, with several states, including New South Wales, Tasmania, Queensland, and South Australia, opposing the proposed change.
The Indigenous Constitutional Recognition Referendum was a landmark opportunity for Australia to take a significant step towards acknowledging its First Peoples in its constitution. Indigenous citizens, who have inhabited the land for over 60,000 years, constitute 3.8% of Australia’s population. Yet, they are not mentioned in the country’s 122-year-old constitution, and by most socio-economic measures, they are the most disadvantaged group in the nation.
‘Voice to Parliament’
The proposed ‘Voice to Parliament’ was a key element of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a document crafted by Indigenous leaders in 2017. The ‘Voice’ aimed to establish an Indigenous advisory body that would provide input into government decision-making, giving Indigenous communities a platform to express their concerns and aspirations.
Supporters of the proposal believed that embedding an Indigenous Voice into the constitution would not only recognize the enduring connection of Indigenous people to the land but also usher in a new era of unity and collaboration with Australia’s First Peoples.
Indigenous leader and prominent “Yes” campaigner, Thomas Mayo, expressed his devastation at the outcome. He emphasized the importance of the Voice, stating, “We need a Voice. We need that structural change.” Many Indigenous people shared his sentiment, believing that constitutional recognition would be a step toward addressing long-standing issues and achieving justice.
Reconciliation Efforts at Stake
The rejection of the referendum has sent shockwaves through the nation. Academics and human rights advocates are concerned that this setback could set back reconciliation efforts by years. It also highlights the deep divisions in Australian society when it comes to recognizing Indigenous rights and addressing historical injustices.
Australia has a history of struggling with referendums, with only eight out of 44 succeeding since its founding in 1901. The Indigenous Constitutional Recognition Referendum was the first in nearly a quarter of a century. In 1967, a referendum to count Indigenous people as part of the Australian population was a success, with bipartisan political support. However, the 2023 referendum did not enjoy unified political support, as leaders of the major conservative parties campaigned for a “No” vote.
Critics of the proposed ‘Voice to Parliament’ argue that it is divisive, ineffective, and could slow down government decision-making. They contend that practical and positive outcomes can be achieved through other means, and this particular proposal might not be the most effective path to reconciliation.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s Setback
The referendum result carries significant political implications. The ‘Voice to Parliament’ has been a central feature of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s term in office, and a referendum loss marks a significant setback for his administration, which came to power in May the previous year. The Prime Minister’s commitment to Indigenous recognition has been a notable feature of his leadership.
The rejection of the Indigenous Constitutional Recognition Referendum has left Australia at a crossroads in its journey towards reconciliation with its First Peoples. While this setback is disappointing, it is also an opportunity for the nation to engage in a meaningful dialogue about the path to recognizing Indigenous rights and addressing the profound disparities that exist. As Australia grapples with the aftermath of the referendum, the hope for a future where Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians can come together and build a more inclusive and just society remains alive.