Australia counts down to landmark vote on Indigenous Voice

The referendum campaign has stirred divisions, with reports of racism and abuse fuelled by rampant misinformation on social media.

People marching in support of the Voice to Parliament. They have a placard with Voice to Parliament written on. an Aboriginal flag
'Yes' has been campaigning hard in the run-up to the vote [William West/AFP]

Sydney, Australia – Australians go to the polls on Saturday in an historic referendum that will determine if Indigenous people are recognised in the country’s constitution through a new parliamentary advisory board.

Victory for the ‘Yes’ campaign will ensure the creation of the Voice to Parliament, which will allow representatives of First Nations communities to provide independent advice to lawmakers on issues that affect them.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were Australia’s first inhabitants, but they have been largely marginalised since colonisation by the British in 1788.

There are now more than 980,000 Indigenous people living in Australia, making up roughly 3.8 percent of the population at the last count in 2021.

First Nations people are the most disadvantaged in Australia, with a life expectancy that is about eight years less than non-Indigenous people. They also suffer from higher rates of suicide and imprisonment and have less access to healthcare services.

Saturday’s referendum was one of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s major policy pledges during his successful election campaign last year.

But the build-up to the vote has stirred divisions in Australia, with reports of racism and abuse triggered by rampant misinformation on social media.

“They [Indigenous people] are definitely feeling depressed and a sense of distress because the racism has completely hardened within Australia,” said Dani Linder a Bundjalung, Kungarakany woman and senior lecturer of law at the University of Queensland.

Yes voters gather in central Australia. Uluru is behind them. They are holding up the letters Y, E and S.
Elected grassroots representatives of remote communities in central Australia urge voters to choose ‘Yes’ [Tina Tilhard/Central Land Council via AFP]

Polls have consistently placed the ‘No’ vote ahead, with experts pointing to a lack of bipartisan support from lawmakers. It has left some from the Indigenous community feeling dismayed.

“We’re starting to have to come to terms with exactly how our fellow Australians feel about us and what they really truly think about us,” Linder told Al Jazeera.

Here is all you need to know about Australia’s first referendum since 1999.

How will polling day work?

Australians will be asked to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to one single question at the ballot box.

The exact wording was finalised in June and will read: “A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?”

Voting is compulsory and more than 2.2 million people have already voted in early polling according to the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC).

On Saturday, polling stations will be open from 8am to 6pm (21:00 GMT Friday to 07:00 GMT Saturday). Vote counting will begin as soon as the polls close, with the AEC displaying a rolling tally on their website.

If there is a clear winner, then results could come as early as Saturday night. But if it is tight, there could be a delay while the remaining postal votes are counted.

If the ‘Yes’ campaign is to win, they need to secure a double majority. That means over half of the national vote as well as a majority in at least four of the six states.

Referendums have a record of failure in Australia, with only eight succeeding from 44 votes since federation in 1901.

How will the Voice work?

The idea for the Indigenous Voice to Parliament was put forward by 250 First Nations representatives during a meeting at Uluru, the famous sandstone rock in central Australia.

Members of the Voice would be from First Nations communities and would be selected by fellow Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders. They would serve for a fixed period of time.

Aboriginal people outside a takeaway shop
Indigenous people make up about 3.8 percent of Australia’s population [File: Jaimi Joy/Reuters]

They will provide independent advice to parliament and government on Indigenous matters. However, they will not be able to direct or veto government policy.

Supporters of the Voice hope it would ensure that Indigenous communities are better served by government policy decisions, which could help to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

“It’s like going to surgery after having consulted the patient, checked the patient’s x-rays and gathered all the information that you want,” Ron Levy, an associate professor at ANU College of Law told Al Jazeera.

“If you’re going to act on someone’s behalf or for somebody, then the more information and the more you speak to them, the better.”

The Voice would not be the first of its kind – several other countries have already created similar types of Indigenous advisory groups.

“If we look abroad to places like Finland, Norway and Sweden, they have established Sami Parliaments, which are elected bodies that are regulated by Parliament, they advise lawmakers on how to best solve issues affecting Sami communities,” said Linder.

What are the two sides saying?

The ‘Yes’ campaign, heavily backed by Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, argues that this is an opportunity for Indigenous culture to finally be recognised in Australia’s 122-year-old constitution.

“Indigenous Australians are basically an unsettled issue in Australia and in its constitutional history.

“The constitution doesn’t recognise them and it doesn’t acknowledge their distinctiveness,” Levy told Al Jazeera.

‘Yes’ campaigners also say that the Voice will be able to make real-world differences in health, education, employment and housing for Indigenous people.

They argue the Voice will be protected if it is added to the constitution and First Nations people will be better served if the government listens directly to Indigenous people.

The ‘No’ campaign is backed by opposition Liberal party leader Peter Dutton. They have focused on concerns that not enough is known about how the Voice would operate and how its members would be chosen.

Campaigning with the tagline, ‘If you don’t know, vote no’, they say the Voice is legally risky and could lead to a dysfunctional government.

“The ‘No’ side of the debate has been able to capitalise on the lack of detail about the Voice to sow doubt in the minds of voters,” explained Paul Strangio, a professor of politics at Monash University.

Opponents of the Voice have also warned that it could create permanent divisions in Australia, a claim that experts reject.

“There has been the argument that the enshrinement of the Voice will entrench racial inequality in the constitution and that Indigenous Australians will be given an entitlement that other Australians do not enjoy.

“This is a highly misleading argument because the referendum is not about race, but rather indigeneity,” Strangio told Al Jazeera.

The ‘No’ campaign is also backed by so-called ‘progressive no’ voters. These are Indigenous people who believe that the Voice will not make any practical difference to the lives of their First Nations allies.

“They think that this is not good enough, and what’s needed is a treaty or something that recognises sovereignty,” said Levy.

Source: Al Jazeera