Australia heads to ballot to decide on Indigenous Voice to Parliament

Australia heads to ballot to decide on Indigenous Voice to Parliament

On Saturday, millions of Australians will cast their votes in a landmark referendum, not to determine their next government or Prime Minister but to decide on a significant Constitutional change.

In a nation where voting is compulsory for citizens aged 18 and above, this referendum marks a pivotal moment, with the last such national vote taking place over two decades ago in 1999.

The upcoming referendum poses a singular question to voters: “A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve of this change?”

This critical decision revolves around the establishment of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament, colloquially known as ‘The Voice.’ This proposed advisory body, composed of Indigenous Australians from across the nation, aims to guide the Parliament and executive government on matters concerning Indigenous peoples.

Contrary to misconceptions, ‘The Voice’ would function solely as an advisory entity, lacking the authority to enact laws or override governmental decisions.

As Australians once again step into the voting booths, the nation is poised to shape its Constitutional landscape and take a significant stride toward recognising and amplifying the Voices of its First Peoples.

Why a Referendum?

Australia’s First Peoples have inhabited the continent for millennia, comprising numerous distinct groups with unique cultures, languages, and laws. As the world’s oldest surviving culture, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples contribute significantly to Australia’s identity, constituting 3.8% of the total population.

Despite their profound historical and cultural significance, Australia’s Indigenous communities have grappled with the legacies of colonization, from the dispossession of ancestral lands to disruptions in traditional ways of life. The enduring impact of these challenges is evident today.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people face a disproportionate array of hardships, including higher unemployment rates, poverty, isolation, trauma, discrimination, exposure to violence, legal troubles, and struggles with alcohol and substance abuse. This adversity is compounded for some by impairments resulting in disability.

The forthcoming referendum, centring on the establishment of ‘The Voice,’ is a response to the historical and contemporary challenges faced by Australia’s Indigenous communities. By providing a platform for Indigenous Australians to advise on laws that directly impact them, ‘The Voice’ aims to rectify historical injustices and address the ongoing disparities faced by the First Peoples. It symbolises a commitment to inclusivity and a recognition of the importance of Indigenous perspectives in shaping the nation’s future.

How do Australians feel about the referendum?

The government, led by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, fervently supports ‘The Voice,’ characterising the referendum as a “once-in-a-generation chance to bring our country together and to change it for the better.”

The Voice would be “a committee of Indigenous Australians, chosen by Indigenous Australians, advising government so that we can get a better result for Indigenous Australians”, he said.
But not everyone agrees. The proposal to change the Constitution has sparked intense debates across Australia.

Indigenous Australians have a wide range of opinions on the Voice. While a majority of them are in support of enshrining the Voice, there exists a significant faction advocating for a ‘No’ vote.

Critics argue that ‘The Voice’ might not effectively address the challenges faced by Indigenous Australians and could potentially perpetuate division by constitutionally favouring one group. The ‘progressive No camp’ contends that the advisory body lacks an independent power of veto, asserting that it falls short of creating meaningful change.

Australia’s Opposition leader, Peter Dutton is one of the key figures who opposed the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. While expressing support for the Constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians, Mr. Dutton opposes the idea of a constitutionally enshrined voice in Parliament.

He says he will hold another referendum on the matter if he wins the next election.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese feels that’s “precisely why Indigenous Australians have asked that it be enshrined”.

It needs to be enshrined into the Constitution to withstand changing governments.

“We’re dealing with intergenerational issues. And it won’t be solved in a week, a month, a year. Some of these issues will take a long period,” he said.

“They want that security of that enshrinement so that they won’t put all their effort into something where it can just be gone in a stroke of a pen. It’s also the form of recognition that Indigenous people have asked for.”

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, June Oscar AO, the Voice is a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to unite all Australians’.

In her op-ed for The Guardian, she reflects on the historical lack of proper consultation with Indigenous communities, emphasising the need for transformative change that involves all Australians.

“The decades over which governments have not adequately heard our solutions, I’ve experienced first-hand how ill-informed policy results in neglected housing, employment drying up, and remote community schools being stripped of funding.

“Too many of our people lose hope in these situations, where they feel trapped in circumstances out of their control. It’s painful. I believe all Australians are capable of understanding what it feels like to be in seemingly inescapable pain.

“This is what we’ve got to change for our peoples, and that change relies on all Australians.”
When will we know the results?

For the referendum to pass, it necessitates not only a majority of Australian voters but also a majority of voters in a majority of states, specifically at least four out of six states.

Counting will begin at 6 p.m. on Saturday once the polls close. While certain states may continue polling due to time differences, the initial counting will commence in the southeastern part of Australia. This will unveil a substantial number of votes within the first hour or two, providing an early glimpse into the referendum’s trajectory.

In the event it is not a close race, it will be clear which side has won in a matter of hours.

(Mosiqi Acharya is a journalist with ABC News)

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