Australia is poised to reject a proposal to establish an Indigenous advisory body to Parliament at a national referendum, in a blow to the standing of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s center-left government.
(Bloomberg) — Australia is poised to reject a proposal to establish an Indigenous advisory body to Parliament at a national referendum, in a blow to the standing of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s center-left government.
Australians will vote Saturday on whether to incorporate the advisory body, or Voice to Parliament, into the constitution. But with just over 24 hours until the ballot, all major opinion polls point to its emphatic rejection, although some late surveys have registered a slight uptick in support for the proposal.
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to acknowledge that we need to do better,” Albanese said Thursday in Western Australia, where he was campaigning to boost support for the Voice.
A rejection of the proposed change to the constitution to give Indigenous representatives some say on policies that affect their communities shows the challenge Australia faces in reconciling with its First Peoples. The result will also drain some of the political capital Albanese built up after he returned the Labor party to power in May 2022 following nine years in opposition.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are some of the most disadvantaged people in Australia, often living in conditions more similar to a developing nation than one of the richest countries in the world. Making up 3.8% of the nation’s 26 million population, they are more likely to earn less, go to prison and die earlier.
The Voice was originally proposed by a group of Indigenous elders after a gathering in 2017, as a way to improve consultation for the original inhabitants of Australia on matters impacting them. That could include housing, health and legal protections. It wouldn’t have veto power.
Shortly before his 2022 election victory, Albanese picked up the proposal, saying the referendum on the Voice would be a moment of unity for the country. Instead, the campaign has descended into division and allegations of racism.
Although in the short term a loss will be a major rebuff for Albanese, his longer term electoral prospects might not be affected, said Michelle Grattan, a professorial fellow at the University of Canberra. Still, the prime minister could see more internal pushback on his proposals as a result of the referendum defeat, due to losing “a bit of authority among his own colleagues,” Grattan said.
Any amendments to Australia’s constitution require a national vote and a double majority to pass — a majority of votes in favor of change and a majority of support in four of the six states. Voting in a referendum is compulsory in Australia, as it is with general elections.
Like many constitutional clauses, there is no specific detail on how the proposal will operate if approved — that would be up to the Parliament to decide.
Indigenous leaders say they have seen a rise in abuse directed at their communities during the campaign. Disinformation on the Voice has revolved around the threat of land grabs and remuneration for Indigenous Australians, neither of which are part of the proposal.
While initial polls in early 2023 found widespread support for the Voice, that rapidly eroded as conservative parties came out against it. The most common arguments to vote “no” are that there is insufficient detail — if you don’t understand it, don’t vote for it — and that it would divide Australians by race.
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