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 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.
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.
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”.
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.