By Praveen Menon
AREYONGA, Australia (Reuters) – In this dusty corner of the Outback, Tarna Andrews sat in the local schoolyard and rolled off a catalogue of problems afflicting her largely Indigenous community: Lack of jobs. Inadequate health services. Spotty internet.
Andrews has spent 38 years teaching in this tiny settlement, where dogs roam red-dirt streets some 220 km from the nearest large town, Alice Springs.
On this cloudless afternoon, she was looking for answers but coming up short. Would Australia’s Oct. 14 referendum on Indigenous issues, if successful, mean better housing, jobs, medical care and other improvements in Areyonga, known locally as Utju, where many live hand-to-mouth?
“We don’t see people coming from the government, coming and talking about what we need,” Andrews, who is Indigenous, said in an interview. “If I vote, is the government going to listen to me?”
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In just over a week, Australians will vote on whether to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the constitution and enshrine in it an advisory body called the Voice to Parliament that would give non-binding advice to lawmakers on matters concerning the continent’s first inhabitants. Polls show it is headed for likely defeat.
The Voice had its genesis in the Uluru Statement From the Heart, a 2017 document setting out a roadmap for Indigenous relations with wider Australia. Its last paragraph says First Nations people “seek to be heard”.
But six years later, more than two dozen people in Areyonga and elsewhere in the Indigenous heartland of Australia’s Northern Territory revealed in interviews with Reuters last month how the Voice is struggling to connect with some of the people it is primarily designed to help.
While only two were outright opposed, most cited a lack of information about the Voice within their communities and confusion about its purpose. Several said they had not heard of it.
Even those like Andrews who indicated they would vote for the change questioned whether it would address their practical, day-to-day struggles, from crumbling houses to a lack of paved roads.
“It’s a really tough question for Aboriginal people,” said Sarah Gallagher, a 48-year-old Indigenous healthcare worker who was undecided. “People should come to our community and explain to us about the vote.”
Surveys show nationwide support for the Voice declining from around 60% earlier this year to around 40%, with voters prioritising economic issues instead. Experts have partly attributed the slump to misinformation, along with a lacklustre “Yes” campaign and conservative opposition.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, whose centre-left Labor government supports the proposal, has described it as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to help close a glaring gap in socioeconomic outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. He has resisted calls to offer more detail, saying the design of the Voice would be determined by parliament through legislation.
“People say to me, ‘What is the Voice about?’ It’s about recognition and listening so as to get better results. That’s all it’s about,” Albanese said during a visit to the Northern Territory in August.
The lack of specificity has been a refrain of the Voice’s detractors, fuelling fears on the right about its intentions. In this climate of uncertainty, with polls showing many voters undecided, the campaign against the Voice has prospered with a message of “If you don’t know, vote No”.
Unlike New Zealand, Canada and the U.S., Australia has no treaty with its Indigenous people, who make up about 3.8% of the population. Under government policies they suffered dispossession of their homelands and forced separation of children from their parents until well into the 20th century. Many live in poverty and experience lower life expectancy, high incarceration rates and poor educational outcomes.
‘I CAN’T READ’
About 100 km east of Areyonga, the town of Hermannsburg is more developed, with better internet services, a paved access road and a trickle of tourists who come to visit the home of the late artist Albert Namatjira.
Some residents were similarly lukewarm on the Voice.
On the porch of the house he shares with 15 relatives, Patrick Oliver, 70, told Reuters he only heard about the concept two months earlier and wanted to know how it could help the community of about 600.
“Things like the Land Rights Act, will that change with the Voice? That’s something I have been wondering about,” he said, referring to laws allowing Indigenous Australians to claim rights to land based on traditional occupation.
Across the street, several burned-out cars lay abandoned, a monument to the town’s challenges.
“There are no jobs here anymore … kids are running wild,” Oliver said.
Nearby, Conrad Ratara said officials needed to come to Hermannsburg to explain both sides of the debate.
Like Oliver, Ratara still intended to vote yes. Yet all he had received to date, he said, was a piece of paper about the referendum.
“But I can’t read,” said Ratara, 61. He said he feared the vote may be lost because many people simply don’t understand it.
Reaching out to Aboriginal Australia can be challenging, as communities are scattered over vast distances and speak more than 150 languages.
Les Turner, CEO of the Central Land Council, which is leading the “Yes” campaign in the area, said there had been 72 information sessions about the Voice across the southern Northern Territory, with around 2,300 attendees.
“But they are calling for us to go back again and have meetings,” Turner said in an interview in Alice Springs.
He acknowledged it was hard to reach everyone. Still, he said, “it’s also upon all Australians to find out what the referendum is about and what it means for this country in terms of a better future for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”.
A council spokeswoman said about 40 people attended a session in Hermannsburg on Aug. 23, and that the council facilitated further meetings in Areyonga in late September, after Reuters’ visit.
Referendums are difficult to pass in Australia, requiring majorities nationwide and in four of the six states. Votes from the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory count toward only the former. No referendum has succeeded without bipartisan support, a fact not lost on Albanese, who acknowledged the difficulty when, in April, the opposition conservatives said they would campaign against the proposal.
Some Indigenous people who oppose the Voice, like Lidia Thorpe, an independent senator for Victoria, say it doesn’t go far enough and should involve a treaty.
But the most prominent “No” figure is Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, a conservative senator for the Northern Territory, who has said the proposal lacks detail, would be ineffective and divide Australians by race.
In a speech in Canberra last month, Price said Albanese “owes the Australian people a clear, concise, realistic demonstration of how his Voice will deliver the outcomes that all good Australians want for our marginalised”.
Kathy Coulthard, an Aboriginal artist in Alice Springs, said the Voice would lead to “European and Indigenous Australians fighting against each other to get their say”.
“I am leaning more towards No now, but I am still undecided,” she added.
Alice Springs catapulted to prominence in the past year after crime rates soared, with some residents blaming Aboriginal youths for property damage and assaults fuelled by drugs and alcohol. Authorities reinstated liquor restrictions in response.
The government has said the Voice would help address such issues by consulting communities to find solutions.
Visiting Alice Springs last month, Reuters saw “Yes” campaign posters on walls in the town centre and in government office complexes. The “No” campaign had no visible presence.
Nationwide “Yes” rallies on Sept. 17 drew several hundred, mostly white, supporters to an oval next to the dry Todd River.
“I see the Voice to Parliament being not only about constitutional recognition, which we rightly deserve, but also being a mechanism to get out of the mess that we are in,” said Natasha McCormack, who stood atop a pickup truck and read out the Uluru Statement From the Heart to a cheering crowd.
“Some people are a bit afraid of it, but as Albanese said, it’s a very modest request.”
Bill Yan, a conservative lawmaker in the Northern Territory’s legislature, said the failure to provide more information had “created a lot of confusion and a lot of divide”.
Back in Hermannsburg, Oliver was pondering what would happen if the referendum failed.
“I don’t know what a No vote would mean for us,” he said. “(Things) might stay the same.”
(Reporting by Praveen Menon; additional reporting by Jill Gralow; editing by David Crawshaw)