In a significant setback for reconciliation efforts with Australia’s Indigenous people, a national referendum proposing to recognise Indigenous people in the constitution has been decisively rejected.
The referendum called for altering the constitution to establish an Indigenous advisory body, known as the “Voice to Parliament.”
With nearly 70% of the vote counted, the “No” vote led “Yes” by 60% to 40%. To succeed, a referendum requires the support of at least four of Australia’s six states, along with a national majority. However, it’s projected that the majority of voters in all six states voted against altering the 122-year-old constitution.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese expressed disappointment with the outcome but emphasised the need to find a new path forward for reconciliation. He stated, “Our nation’s road to reconciliation has often been hard going. Tonight is not the end of the road and is certainly not the end of our efforts to bring people together.”
The “Voice to Parliament” was proposed in the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, a document created by Indigenous leaders to outline a roadmap for reconciliation. Despite Indigenous citizens comprising 3.8% of Australia’s population and their long history in the country, they are not mentioned in the constitution and face significant socio-economic disadvantages.
Supporters of the proposal believed that incorporating an Indigenous Voice into the constitution would help unite Australia and lead to a new era for Indigenous people. However, there was division even within Indigenous communities, with some viewing the proposal as a distraction from achieving practical outcomes.
Referendums are challenging to pass in Australia, with only eight out of 44 succeeding since the country’s founding in 1901. This marks the first referendum in almost a quarter of a century, with the previous one rejecting a proposal to become a republic.
While a 1967 referendum to count Indigenous people as part of the Australian population was successful, this year’s referendum faced a lack of unified support, with leaders of major conservative parties campaigning against it.
The defeat is seen as a significant setback for Prime Minister Albanese, who has been a proponent of the Voice to Parliament. It has also raised concerns about misinformation campaigns on social media, which falsely suggested that the Voice would become a third chamber of parliament and could lead to disputes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.
Albanese criticised certain sections of the media for steering the referendum debate away from its core issues, adding that discussions often focused on topics not related to the ballot paper.