Today, Australians are invited to participate in a historic referendum – the first of its kind in twenty-four years – that will determine whether or not Indigenous people be acknowledged in the constitution of the country by being granted a voice to parliament.
The vote is the most crucial step in a historic campaign that has spanned several decades and sought to recognize Australia’s Indigenous people in the country’s constitution. It is the culmination of a process that has been going on for the past six years, ever since the Uluru statement from the heart was given to the people of Australia. That statement called for a constitutionally enshrined voice, a committee of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people to give advice on policies that affect First Nations Australians. This committee will now be established.
Both proponents of the Voice and the government of Albanese believe that such a mechanism would be able to assist address the alarming gaps in life outcomes that exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. They believe that having a voice could help reduce disparities in important measures such as life expectancy, suicide rates, and incarceration rates.
The yes campaign is attempting to portray the referendum as a unifying and beneficial event for the country, yet the campaign has exposed severe differences, unhappiness, and prejudice in both Australian culture and Australian politics. All significant published polling points to the historic referendum being on track for a heavy defeat on Saturday, with many voters still unclear as to what the voice would do and central opponents, such as the leader of the opposition, Peter Dutton, criticizing the government for not announcing more details about how the voice would operate.
Dean Parkin, the director of the Yes23 campaign, said on the eve of the referendum that a “yes vote is all upside, it’s a positive gain for the Australian nation.” The historic referendum will take place tomorrow.
When you think about this tomorrow, when you are going about your everyday routine, realize that you have nothing to fear and nothing to lose since you are in a position where neither of those things is true.
“I think there’s a lot of regret in terms of the division that’s been created, the money that’s been expended, and the fact that there was going to be no practical outcome that was going to be delivered for Indigenous Australians,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of regret in terms of the money that’s been expended.”
The Uluru discussions, which were held across the country with Indigenous communities between 2016 and 2017, were the source of the calls for a voice to be heard. Malcolm Turnbull, who served as Prime Minister of Australia at the time and was a Liberal, initiated the Referendum Council process that led to the discussions.
Constitutional recognition of the Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people, who are not formally acknowledged in the founding document, had been on the national agenda for many years, but a simple symbolic preamble – as suggested by another former prime minister, John Howard – was not widely supported by Indigenous people. This is because the Constitution does not formally recognize Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Instead, a proposal for meaningful acknowledgement of Indigenous people through the mechanism of the voice was devised and offered during the Uluru discussions.
“It was the governments of Australia that came to us [people of the First Nations] and said, ‘We want to recognize you…'” What shape do you want your recognition to take?'” questioned Professor Megan Davis, a Cobble Cobble lady who is also the co-chair of the Uluru Dialogue.
“We have responded, and we want to be identified through our voice,” they said. Davis referred to this as the “empowerment of First Nations people in the constitution” while describing the voice.
The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, had thought that the initiative would receive widespread support from across the parliament. Previous experience has shown that it is impossible to win a referendum without the backing of both political parties.
However, it was met with opposition by the Nationals even before the final constitutional text was released. This was in no small part owing to the lobbying of colleagues that was done by the leader of the no campaign, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price.
The support started to deteriorate. Our nation’s political leaders have been involved in a vitriolic and angry argument ever since Dutton’s Liberals made the decision to openly oppose the vote. With a few noteworthy exceptions, the political leaders have mostly been divided along party lines.
The voice first garnered support from a large majority of voters in the electorate in the previous year. However, after a formal campaign that lasted for six weeks, support began to dwindle. According to the most recent information provided by the poll tracker at the Guardian Australia, the majority of Australians plan on voting “no,” while the “yes” camp only has an estimated 41.6% support nationally.
They argue that vast numbers of Australians are indecisive and are still to make up their minds, therefore they say they are not focusing on polls despite the fact that key yes campaigners and federal government ministers insist they are not focusing on polls.
Parkin stated that the yes campaign would keep working to advocate for the voice “every minute between now and when the polls close to get every single yes vote we possibly can.”
The voice has been a central focus of Albanese and his administration’s policymaking. Before the election in May 2022, when he was the leader of the opposition, he began each of his public addresses by reiterating his commitment to the Uluru statement from the heart “in full” while also making an acknowledgment of country.
Despite Dutton’s erroneous allegations on 2GB that Albanese never addressed the voice during the historic election campaign, the Prime Minister and his frontbench consistently underlined the commitment to a constitutionally established voice both during that time and in the years leading up to the election.
Albanese’s address at the Labor campaign launch in Perth, his speech at the National Press Club just three days before the 21 May election, press conferences, his closing the gap declaration in August 2021, and party policy platform materials all made notable use to the voice during the campaign.
“There is room for improvement. On Friday, Albanese stated that responding with “No” gets us nowhere.
Beginning at six o’clock on Saturday evening, historic votes will begin to be counted. It is currently impossible to predict what the outcome of the night will be.
In the case that the question is answered in the affirmative, the design of the voice will be finalized by the parliament, and there will be a fresh round of consultations with Indigenous Australians regarding the specifics of the voice, such as how its members will be elected and how they would provide input to the government.
It was suggested by Parkin that if the yes vote was given, Australia would “wake up to a new nation, a united Australia, and one that has done a profound good for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.” He added that this would be “just the beginning of the very hard work of getting out there and making sure that the voice is established.”
Albanese has stated that enacting legislation for a version of the historic voice that is not included in the constitution is not an option in the case that the vote is “no.” It is not obvious what alternative action the government would take to address the disadvantage faced by Indigenous people.
Dutton has expressed his hope that, in the event of a “no” vote, “the country can come together quickly and to provide support to those communities, but also for the government to get back to some of the core issues, including cost of living, that a lot of families right across the country are suffering from at the moment.”