Referendum to give indigenous communities a say in the country's parliament is overwhelmingly defeated
Votes are counted at the Australian Electoral Commission in Essendon, a suburb in Melbourne on Oct 14, during Australia's historic indigenous rights referendum. The landmark referendum sought to recognise indigenous people in the 1901 constitution for the first time, and to give them the right to be consulted on matters that affect them. (Photo: AFP)
Australians failed to deliver its indigenous people a Voice to Parliament after a constitution referendum was defeated on Oct. 14, prompting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to call for a week’s silence to reflect on a “devastating” outcome.
At the last count, 60.3 percent of Australians voted no at the national level. Similar results were counted among the six states. Constitutional change requires a double majority — approval at the national level of at least 50 percent and from at least four states.
“For more than six years, we have explained to our nation why the Voice was our great hope to achieve real change for our families and communities,” the Aboriginal Land Council said.
“This is a bitter irony. That people who have only been on this continent for 235 years would refuse to recognize those whose home this land has been for 60,000 and more years is beyond reason,” it said in a statement.
Polls show the wealthy and better-educated were more inclined to vote yes. In Canberra, the Australian Capital Territory voted yes — its results are included in the federal tally — as did the inner suburbs of Melbourne, in the southeast state of Victoria, and in Sydney.
But results among the states were disappointing for the yes camp.
Victoria — the only state at an advanced stage of negotiating a treaty with indigenous people — recorded the best result for the yes campaign with 46 percent of voters supporting constitutional recognition of First Nations and the appointment of an executive body to advise the government.
In northeast Queensland a resounding 68 percent backed the no campaigners who were accused of conducting a massive, divisive misinformation campaign with the backing of conservative right-wing politicians led by opposition leader Peter Dutton.
The Voice emerged from the “Uluru Statement from the Heart” written by delegates to the First Nations National Constitutional Convention, held in 2017 in Central Australia, and according to opinion polls, about 80 percent of indigenous people supported the yes campaign.
They had the backing of major corporations, sporting clubs, and artists. The Catholic, Uniting and Anglican churches, the Australian National Council of Imams, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Sikh, Hindu, and Buddhist leaders also wrote an open letter of support.
A tearful and disappointed prime minister, Anthony Albanese, said the result was not the end of the road for recognition and reconciliation with one million Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders who make up about 3.8 percent of the Australian population.
“This moment of disagreement does not define us and it will not divide us,” he said. “We are not yes voters or no voters, we are all Australians. And it is as Australians, together, that we must take our country beyond this debate without forgetting why we had it in the first place.”
In accepting the result, Albanese also took a veiled swipe at right-wing media organizations, telling an audience of yes supporters that he had kept his word to First Nations in holding the referendum.
“We had a very clear proposition,” he said. “But we’ve had, including outlets represented in this room, discussion about a whole range of things that had nothing to do with what was on the ballot.”
Online Australians of all ethnic backgrounds were branded as racist and Aboriginals who sided with the no campaign were sharply criticized for pursuing their own political interests.
“Much will be asked about the role of racism and prejudice against Indigenous people in this result,” the Aboriginal Land Council said.
“Now is not the time to dissect the reasons for this tragic outcome. Now is the time for silence, to mourn and deeply consider the consequence of this outcome,” it said.
Constitutional reform has a poor track record in Australia. Of 45 referendums held since independence from Britain in 1901, 37 have failed, including the 1999 referendum to decide whether Australia should become a republic and ditch the constitutional monarchy.
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