Australia Rejects Indigenous Voice to Parliament in Constitutional Referendum

Australia Rejects Indigenous Voice to Parliament in Constitutional Referendum
Yes campaigners react to the failed referendum in Sydney. Australia has rejected a proposal to recognise Indigenous people in the constitution and create a First Nations advisory body. Photograph: Jenny Evans/Getty Images

On Saturday, Australian voters decisively rejected a referendum aimed at recognizing an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, with projections revealing a 57 per cent opposition according to early counting. The referendum needed majorities in at least four of the six states, as well as a national majority to pass, yet faced defeat notably in New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania, and South Australia.

A polling place volunteer, left, assists a woman at a polling place in Redfern as Australians cast their final votes in Sydney, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023, in their first referendum in a generation that aims to tackle Indigenous disadvantage by enshrining in the constitution a new advocacy committee. The prospect of an Indigenous Voice to Parliament has bitterly divided Australia’s Indigenous minority as well as the wider community. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

A Long Struggle for Indigenous Representation

The Indigenous Voice to Parliament sought to establish an advocacy committee to provide advice on policies affecting Indigenous people, identified as Australia’s most disadvantaged ethnic minority. Advocates such as Tanya Hosch and Tom Mayo expressed their devastation at the result, pinpointing a challenging “No” campaign and alleging dishonest tactics. Hosch noted, “There’s going to be a lot of pain, and hurt and dismay, and we’re going to need to take a moment to absorb that message and what it says.”

The Indigenous population, making up 3.8% of the nation and facing significant challenges in health and socio-economic disparities, seemed on the brink of gaining a historic platform.

A woman drops her ballot into a box in Redfern as Australians cast their final Indigenous Voice referendum votes in Sydney. (Rick Rycroft/The Associated Press)

Divisions and Dissent

However, the path to the referendum was not smooth. Bipartisan support, often deemed crucial for constitutional change in Australia, was notably absent. Indigenous leaders themselves were divided on the idea, and the proposal faced an uphill battle with fluctuating public opinion. Early in the year, there was majority support before it began waning as the “No” campaign gained momentum.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese urged Australians to demonstrate “kindness” and emphasized unity in the aftermath of the referendum, stating, “This moment of disagreement does not define us. And it will not divide us.” His government had initially supported the idea, which had been a key promise when the Labor Party returned to power in 2022 after years of conservative rule.

Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese meets yes campaigners Wollongong, NSW on Saturday. Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

The Impact of the Rejection

Amidst the rejection, Indigenous Australians continue to grapple with a multitude of challenges. They face an average life expectancy that’s 8.6 years shorter for men and 7.8 years shorter for women compared to other Australians, a suicide rate twice the national average, and comparatively poorer outcomes in health, education, and infant mortality.

A significant aspect of the proposal was its ambition to engrave the advisory body’s existence in the constitution, thus preventing its removal by future governments. The referendum question left the specifics of how the advisory body would function and its exact structure to be determined post-approval. This vagueness, which was intentionally designed learning from the failure of the 1999 referendum, was seized upon by the opposition as a point of contention, leading to the campaign slogan of “if you don’t know, vote no”.

Voters line up at a polling centre at St Kilda primary school, in Melbourne. Photograph: Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images

Reconciliation and Future Pathways

The failure of the referendum brings with it more than just disappointment for advocates. It’s seen as a setback in the longstanding struggle to progress reconciliation and recognition in modern Australia, with some critics and activists from the far left and Indigenous communities calling for more comprehensive reconciliation measures, such as a treaty with Aboriginal Australians.