Australia holds historic Indigenous rights referendum

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(NEW YORK) — Australia is voting in a landmark referendum to decide whether it will permanently recognize Indigenous Australians in the Constitution and set up a body to advise on policies impacting their communities.

More than 17.6 million Australians are called on to cast their ballots in the compulsory vote on Oct. 14.

The proposal would see an advisory body elected by and made up of Indigenous Australians. It would have no veto power to make laws but would be able to directly consult parliament and the government.

“For as long as this continent has been colonized, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been fighting to assert and reassert the right to determine their own futures in this place,” said Sana Nakata, Principal Research Fellow at the Indigenous Education and Research Centre at James Cook University.

“So this vote has been a long time in the making. It won’t come again,” said Professor Nakata.

Views towards “the voice” are mixed, even within Indigenous communities where some are skeptical about how much change it could actually bring about; however, polling shows 80% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians support it.

“Like in any community, not all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people agree, “ said Professor Nakata. “There are prominent Aboriginal people arguing against the Voice to Parliament process on conservative grounds, and others who argue against the Voice to Parliament out of preference for treaty or to demand greater law-making power than the Voice enables.”

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is campaigning for a “yes” vote, although government opposition and the right National party are mostly arguing against.

Generally, the “no” side is leading the opinion polls.

Either way, there’s no doubt the referendum is igniting fierce debate in Australia over where the country is as a nation on reconciliation and forcing Australia to confront ghosts of the past.

Indigenous Australians remain one of the most disadvantaged groups in Australia, with low life expectancy, high rates of suicide and some of the highest incarceration rates in the world.

“Yes” advocates say that official recognition by way of a constitutional change is a step towards reconciling the pain of the past and closing the gap between indigenous Australians and the rest of the population.

They argue it will drive practical progress in the hardships faced by indigenous Aussies in areas such as health and infant mortality, education and employment.

However, those in the “no” camp say such an advisory body would create additional layers of bureaucracy, potentially leading to filibustering or ineffectiveness. They also say the proposal is too vague.

Professor Nakata disagrees that it will impede on government or parliamentary efficiency, saying, “all in all, the Voice offers an opportunity to hold the existing bureaucracy more accountable to the communities that they govern and does so in a way that allows ‘the Voice’ to determine for itself what are priority issues to guide its work.”

For the proposal to pass, there needs to be a double majority — which means both a majority of Aussie voters and at least four out of six states need the majority vote.

Other countries have enshrined the rights of Indigenous people, including Canada which recognizes the rights of its Indigenous people under the Constitution Act 1982.

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