Australia votes against giving Indigenous peoples a voice to parliament

Trisha D.
4 Min Read

SYDNEY — Australians voted against a constitutional amendment on Saturday that would have recognized the country’s Indigenous peoples and provided them with an advisory body, or “Voice,” to Parliament.

The result had been predicted by polls but nonetheless came as a crushing blow for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, who saw the referendum as an opportunity for Australia to turn the page on its colonial and racist past.

The Voice, deliberately drafted as a “modest proposal,” would have advised Parliament on issues relating to Indigenous peoples, such as housing, health care and employment, but would not have had veto power.

Instead, the opposition appeared to have successfully stirred fears over the proposal’s consequences with the slogan “If you don’t know, vote no” and claims that it was divisive, as well as targeted social media posts that were sometimes misleading or false.

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The defeat was also a setback for the center-left Labor government and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who made the referendum a priority after winning office last year.

Referendums are difficult to pass Down Under, however. They require a so-called “double majority” — a majority of the nationwide vote and a majority within at least four of Australia’s six states.

Local media called the results at around 7:30 p.m. in Sydney — before the polls had even closed in some parts of the country — because three states had already solidly voted No: New South Wales, Tasmania and South Australia.

The Yes campaign appeared unlikely to prevail in any state.

Initially, polls showed roughly two-thirds of Australians supported the idea of an Indigenous “Voice to Parliament.” But after a poor performance in the 2022 election, leaders of the conservative coalition saw an opportunity to dent Albanese’s popularity and regain momentum, according to analysts.

“It was really done and dusted from that point,” said Paul Williams, a political scientist at Griffith University in Brisbane.

Williams also pointed to a difficult economic climate.

“When people can’t pay their rent or find a place to live or schedule their operation or they have to choose between feeding their kids and getting their medication, they are not terribly interested in helping other people who might be lower on the ladder,” he said.

Indigenous people have lived in Australia for around 65,000 years but suffered greatly with the arrival of the British in 1788.

Australia’s Indigenous population plummeted under colonial rule due to imported diseases and massacres committed by White settlers that lasted well into the 20th century. From the mid-1800s to the 1970s, federal and state governments systematically removed Indigenous children from their families to assimilate them; they are now known as the Stolen Generations.

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Unlike other nations the British colonized, such as the United States, Canada and New Zealand, Australia has never recognized the sovereignty of its First Nations people with a treaty.

Although the country has begun to reckon with this racist history, including providing some reparations, it has struggled to reduce the disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, known as “closing the gap.”

Indigenous Australians have fought for greater rights for decades. It wasn’t until after a successful 1967 referendum that they were officially counted and legislated for by the federal government.

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