All six Australian states voted ‘No’ to a plan to change the more-than-a-century-old constitution to grant greater rights to Indigenous people in the country. The ‘Voice to Australia’ referendum was initiated by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to empower these communities and reduce inequalities they face in education, health, and poverty.
A plan to enshrine an Indigenous voice to parliament in Australia’s 122-year-old constitution and address centuries of abuse and neglect has been overwhelmingly rejected in a referendum on Saturday.
Conceived by Indigenous leaders to address growing disparities in their communities, the so-called ‘Voice to Parliament’ proposal to create an advocacy committee to offer advice to parliament on policies that directly affect Indigenous Australians was rejected by more than 60% of voters and across all six states.
Albanese’s Labor Party, the left-wing Greens Party, some independent lawmakers as well as several religious, ethno-religious, and welfare groups all supported the referendum, which has sparked reflections on Australia’s colonial legacy.
Despite having inhabited the land for about 50,000 to 65,000 years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, two distinct cultural groups that make up Australia’s 983,700 Indigenous peoples – or nearly 3.8% of the entire population, are not mentioned in the constitution and are by most measures the most disadvantaged ethnic minority in the country.
Indigenous populations plummeted following the arrival of British colonisers in 1788, who dispossessed them of their lands, forced them to work in slave-like conditions, and brought new diseases, though their marginalisation continues to this day.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders track well below national averages on most socio-economic indicators and are often victims of violence and imprisonment. Life expectancy among them is about eight years lower than non-Indigenous people, who have one of the world’s highest life expectancies, and a suicide rate twice the national average.
Saturday’s vote is a major setback to the country’s efforts for reconciliation with its First Peoples. It was not the result Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who has championed the referendum, had hoped for.
“For many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, this campaign has been a heavy weight to carry and this result will be very hard to bear,” Albanese said following Saturday’s vote. “So many remarkable Indigenous Australians have put their heart and soul into this cause, not just over the past few weeks and months but through decades, indeed lifetimes of advocacy.”
Leading No campaigner Warren Mundine told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the referendum should never have been called, arguing it was “built on a lie that Aboriginal people do not have a voice.”
On Saturday, Albanese said his government remains committed to improving the lives of Australia’s Indigenous people and would seek “a new way forward.”
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