Australian politicians are struggling to identify a clear next step for First Nations people following last week’s defeat of the Voice to Parliament referendum, leaving policy toward the nation’s most marginalized population in limbo.
(Bloomberg) — Australian politicians are struggling to identify a clear next step for First Nations people following last week’s defeat of the Voice to Parliament referendum, leaving policy toward the nation’s most marginalized population in limbo.
Caucus meetings of the ruling center-left Labor party and the opposition center-right Coalition this week featured only limited discussion on the way forward. Behind closed doors, both sides commended their own members’ performances during the referendum debate. Labor’s Indigenous lawmakers received a round of applause from their colleagues in recognition of their campaign efforts.
Australians overwhelmingly rejected a proposal pushed by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to write Indigenous citizens into the constitution in a national vote on Oct. 14. The result effectively ended a push for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advisory body to the Parliament.
Australia’s First Nations people suffer from shorter life expectancy, lower wages and higher incarceration rates than the rest of the population. Indigenous leaders who pushed for the Voice announced a week of silence last Saturday to mourn the result.
“We will not rest long,” a statement issued by Indigenous leaders said. “Fly our flags low. Talk not of recognition and reconciliation. Only of justice and the rights of our people in our own country.”
Among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who voted against the referendum, there were growing calls for a treaty, presumably between the government and the country’s original inhabitants. Indigenous Australians have been on the land for at least 65,000 years.
A treaty isn’t a new idea. Former Labor prime minister Bob Hawke pledged one in 1988 — the bicentenary of British colonization — to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. It failed to gain much traction as the then-conservative opposition rejected the idea.
There remain many unanswered questions around what a treaty between the Australian government and Indigenous people would look like, including who would sign it and what it would include. For example, some First Nations people have called for reparations or land rights to be part of a treaty, proposals no government would be likely to agree to.
But many members of the Blak Sovereign Movement, which has argued for greater rights for Indigenous Australians, do endorse a treaty. The group opposed the Voice because they didn’t want their people enshrined in the constitution, arguing that it eroded their sovereignty as a people who had never accepted colonization.
Taylah Gray, an Indigenous lawyer and Wiradjuri woman, said she voted against the Voice because her people deserved more, adding the verdict of the referendum showed that Australia would “never accept people like us.”
“We deserve so much better than this and we have the right to say make a better offer. Treaty now,” she said.
Albanese has said he will wait to decide on the next steps until the week of silence has concluded.
However, when pressed on his previous support for a treaty with Indigenous Australians, Albanese struggled to make clear whether his government would push forward with its election pledge, as well as a commission to investigate the history of colonization.
The opposition parties, which also opposed Saturday’s Voice referendum, have proposed a review of spending on Indigenous Australian government programs, as well as a high-level investigation into child sexual abuse in First Nations communities.
But, almost immediately after the referendum, Liberal leader Peter Dutton began to back away from his earlier promise of another referendum to write Indigenous Australians into the constitution.
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