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The Australian Referendum: The Voice and its Rejection

On the 14th of October, after a long period of determined propaganda from both sides of the vote, voters in Australia decided to rejected the formation of a representative “Indigenous Voice to Parliament” body, which was destined to discuss issues and matters pertaining to Aboriginal Australians and the Torres Strait Islanders in addition to representing their outlooks, with a majority of 60,65% voting “No”. If it had been accepted, it would’ve led the authorization of the Australian government, led by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, to form said assembly by consulting with lawmakers and First Nations community leaders. Nevertheless, the unforeseen decision came to be, leaving “Yes” politicians in dismay, as the campaign had appeared to have the upper hand in terms of support from political figures, notable people and institutions.




The roots of the movement to form this assembly lay in a statement written during the 2017 National Constitutional Convention, known as the “Uluru Statement from the Heart”. By this statement, indigenous community leaders put forward their thoughts and the ordeals they’ve faced, pressing on the ancestral tie between the land and the natives who had lived on it for centuries. From this point, the statement calls for the Australian government to form two brand-new institutions to aid efforts of historical reconciliation and national unity; the aforementioned “First Nations Voice” and the Makarrata Commission, with the latter being a body to oversee research and agreements with the government on past mistreatments of First Nations.


As the official question of a referendum was declared in late March, opposing political campaigning ensued. The Australian Labor Party which controls the government, led by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, voiced their support for the Voice and the Uluru Statement, with Albanese proclaiming it would be a “moment of national unity” for the country, and that it could “make the greatest country on Earth just a little bit greater”. The Labour proclamation was also backed by Aboriginal community leaders, with Uncle Colin Walker, one of the most prominent leaders, saying that “we are going for Yes.”




On the other side of the spectrum, the Opposition, led by the former governing coalition of the Liberal Party and The Nationals, declared their support against the Voice and the Uluru Statement. The Leader of the Opposition and the Liberal Party, Peter Dutton, declared the Coalition’s stance against the Voice in favour of “No”, asserting that the assembly would not accurately represent Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders properly and that it would create a “Canberra voice” catering to the ideals of academics. After countering the “Yes” vote, Dutton proposed a symbolic recognition of First Nations in the constitution, and the creation of a framework of regional voices set up by parliamentary decisions instead of a national one. Nonetheless, indigenous leaders and proponents of the Voice said that these proposals had already been done and rejected by native Australians. Prof. Megan Davis, co-chair of the Uluru Statement platform, tweeted that Aboriginals outright reject symbolic recognition and that the Coalition “doesn’t understand” the needs of First Nations.


Although it may seem as if this effort to seek acknowledgement of the ordeals Aboriginals may have faced is not by any terms the first call to action in modern Australian history, in 1995, a governmental inquiry was launched on past wrongdoings of the colonial British and the successing Australian government on Aboriginal Australians, with the report being released two years later. Labeled the “Bringing Them Home” report, it ensured the establishment of a “National Sorry Day” by the authors and supporters of the report, with the first ever being held a year after, on 26 May 1998. The National Sorry Day called Australians to acknowledge the mistreatments faced by Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, and called for an official statement doing so. An official statement was finally released on 13th of February 2008, when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, also a Labor politician, formally apologized on behalf of the government to families who’d been mistreated by governmental authorities, known as the “Stolen Generations”.




With the roots of the Uluru Statement from the Heart also coming from the report, the referendum was seen as a clear sign of the unity of Australians and respecting native First Nations who’d lived on the island for centuries. Nevertheless, the referendum’s unexpected failure ensued, with all states voting on behalf of “No”, except for the Australian Capital Territory which houses the nation’s capital, Canberra. Notably, the highest percentage of “Yes” votes came from Melbourne, and majorities of “Yes” were prevalent in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth as well, signifying that large and metropolitan cities were in favour of historic change and Aboriginal representation, with the surprising exception of Adelaide.


After the results of the referendum had come clear, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese tried to enforce the hope of his campaign by saying that “it was not the end of the road” and not the end of their efforts, suggesting that the issues have not withered away and “neither have the people of good heart”. Prof. Chelsea Watego, a professor of indigenous health and a South Sea Islander, criticised the Prime Minister’s response, claiming he had not used this moment to point out the “truth now about who we are as a nation”.




While the results of the referendum may have resulted in dismay and a loss of hope in some, and the sense of national pride and preservation in others, the failed referendum on the formation of the Voice is a clear sign that, speaking as of now, Australia needs a substantial amount of time to consider change and total acknowledgement of past mistreatments as a viable choice to guarantee national unity and respect between the native Aboriginals and Islanders and settler Australians, most of whom are of European origin.


Sources

  1. Reconciliation Australia, The Voice to Parliament

  2. ABC (Australia), Anthony Albanese calls for unity after Australians resoundingly vote down Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum https://abc.net.au/article/102977398

  3. The Guardian, Voice referendum can still be a ‘moment of national unity’, says Albanese https://theguardian.com/australia-news/2023/oct/06/voice-referendum-can-still-be-a-moment-of-national-unity-says-albanese

  4. ABC (Australia), Indigenous Australians look to the future after Voice referendum defeat https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-10-15/indigenous-people-react-to-voice-defeat/102977518

  5. The Guardian, Peter Dutton and the voice: what the Liberal party has got wrong about indigenous recognition https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2023/apr/07/peter-dutton-and-the-voice-what-the-liberal-party-has-got-wrong-about-indigenous-recognition

  6. Uluru Statement from the Heart, Read the Statement, https://ulurustatement.org/the-statement/view-the-statement/

  7. National Museum Australia, National Apology https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/national-apology

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