Australians are to decide in a referendum to be held in 2023 if the country’s constitution will be changed to give an institutional voice to the long-suffering Indigenous population.
The government made the announcement on Wednesday, and if successful, it would not only be the first acknowledgement of Indigenous people in the constitution but also rectify their historical exclusion from parliamentary processes.
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The proposed “Voice to Parliament” aims to give Indigenous Australians a greater say in national policy-making, as they battle poorer health, lower incomes and higher barriers to education.
Indigenous Australians are not currently mentioned in the constitution – adopted in 1901 – and any move to change that is politically contentious.
The centre-left Labor government was elected in May and had promised to hold a referendum on the issue, but had shied away from setting a date until now.
Speaking at a folk festival in the state of Queensland later on Wednesday, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will say that the vote will be held “next year”, according to prepared remarks released by his government.
“I also want to reaffirm, proudly and clearly, my government’s determination to enshrine in the Australian constitution an Indigenous Voice to Parliament,” he will say.
The “Voice to Parliament” would establish a constitutionally recognised body – or voice – responsible for advising the government on issues affecting Indigenous Australians.
Albanese argues that the constitutional change would help Australia “come together as a nation and take the hand that First Nations people have extended to us”.
Advocacy group Reconciliation Australia said putting it in the constitution would mean it cannot be “shut down” if a different government had a change of heart in the future.
“Embedding a Voice in the constitution would recognise the special place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia’s history,” the group has said.
Of Australia’s 26 million residents, about 900,000 identify as Indigenous.
The conservative Nationals party, a minor political player, has already announced it will campaign against the Voice.
The centre-right Liberal party, Australia’s main opposition, has yet to take a position.
Critics have called the Voice “another layer of bureaucratic red tape” and have questioned whether it will make any difference in remote Indigenous communities.
Indigenous Australians settled the country an estimated 65,000 years ago, according to the national museum, but have suffered widespread discrimination and oppression since the arrival of British settlers in the late 18th Century.
They were still banned from voting in some Australian states and territories until the 1960s.
The inequalities facing the Indigenous population remain stark. They have life expectancies years shorter than other Australians and are far more likely to die in police custody.
Indigenous Australians make up some two percent of the total population but, according to the Australian Law Reform Commission, constitute 27 percent of the prison population.
There are strong international precedents behind the Voice proposal: Canada and Norway amended their constitutions in the 1980s to better recognise Indigenous residents.