Indigenous Australians have called for a “week of silence” and mourning after a referendum on giving them more political representation was rejected by the country’s white majority.
With more than 70 percent of ballots counted on Sunday, about 61 percent of Australians said “no” when asked if the country’s 1901 constitution should be changed to recognise the country’s original inhabitants. Less than 4 percent of Australia’s 26 million people are Indigenous.
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By voting no, Australians also voted against creating a new consultative body – a “Voice” to Parliament – that could have had a say on issues related to Indigenous affairs in Australia.
Indigenous supporters of the Voice said it was “a bitter irony” that “people who have only been on this continent for 235 years would refuse to recognise those whose home this land has been for 60,000” years.
Thank you, friends, for sending your love & care in this sad time.
Thank you to the many thousands of volunteers for taking action. You were part of an unprecedented movement that will continue on toward justice for First Nations people.
The below statement went out last night. pic.twitter.com/Cn9Ij8djg1
— Thomas Mayo (@thomasmayo23) October 15, 2023
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, whose centre-left Labor Party championed the referendum, said “sharing this continent with the oldest continuous culture” was a “source of pride” for Australians. But Albanese looked visibly distressed as he spoke to the nation on Saturday night and called for “a spirit of unity and healing”.
For many Indigenous people, the election was a source of additional distress.
Indigenous Senator Lidia Thorpe, who opposed the referendum and campaigned for people to vote no, said the nationwide election had “caused nothing but harm to First Peoples”.
The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), an Indigenous-run health organisation, shared information on mental health resources for people experiencing “increased anxiety and depression” in the wake of the “no” vote.
Mental health is one of many areas where Indigenous people in Australia experience disadvantage, adding to a more than seven-year difference in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
Calls for truth-telling
Supporters of the failed vote had highlighted the large number of Indigenous and non-Indigenous volunteers who supported the campaign.
Thomas Mayo, a prominent Indigenous supporter of the Voice, thanked the “many thousands” of volunteers who joined the campaign in the lead-up to the election.
“You were part of an unprecedented movement that will continue on towards justice for First Nations people,” he said.
The Greens, a minor party in Australian politics, said in a statement that “corrosive” disinformation spread during the election showed Australia needed to introduce a truth and justice commission.
“Many people across the country have no idea of the truth of what happened to First Nations people during colonisation,” Dorinda Cox, a Greens senator and Yamatji–Noongar woman, said in support of the proposal.
Thorpe has long called for a truth-telling process and split from the Greens as their positions on the referendum diverged.
Countries that have held truth-telling commissions include South Africa, Canada and New Zealand.
In 2021, the Australian state of Victoria created the Yoorrook Justice Commission, becoming the first and only Australian state so far to undergo the truth-telling process around colonisation and treatment of the country’s Indigenous communities.