Australia Rejects Historic Indigenous Referendum, Setting Back Reconciliatory Efforts

On October 14, Australians went to the polls to vote in the country’s first referendum in 25 years. The referendum asked voters if they supported amending the country’s constitution to recognize the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples as the First Peoples of Australia and creating a parliamentary advisory body known as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, or simply “the Voice.”

Sixty-one per cent of voters opposed creating the Voice, with all six states rejecting the proposal.

Failing the First Peoples

The outcome is a blow to the country’s Indigenous reconciliatory efforts. Australia has yet to reach a treaty with its First Peoples and lags behind countries with similar histories, such as Canada and New Zealand, on reconciliatory efforts. Despite comprising 3.8 per cent of Australia’s population and inhabiting the land for more than 60,000 years, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are not explicitly mentioned in the country’s constitution and are among the most systematically disadvantaged in the country.

The proposal was criticized for being poorly framed, with some voters taking a “Don’t know? Vote no” approach. The Voice was seen by some as “toothless,” but its creators — a group of 250 Indigenous leaders — defended the proposal, hoping it was enough of a compromise to make it through a referendum.

Australia’s last referendum on Indigenous rights was in 1967. That year, Australians voted to reform the constitution to officially recognize Indigenous Peoples as part of the Australian population.

A setback for the Albanese government

The referendum was spawned from a reconciliation roadmap — the Uluru Statement from the Heart — that included a call for constitutional reform by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

Implementing the Uluru Statement was a major electoral promise for Australia’s ruling Labour Party, led by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. During its parliamentary sitting week, beginning this week, the government will face questions on how it plans to implement the Uluru Statement as well as its failure to deliver on Indigenous issues.