Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has outlined details of a proposed referendum to be held later this year aimed at giving recognition in the constitution to the nation’s Indigenous people.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who represent about 3.8 percent of Australia’s population, are currently not mentioned in the constitution. For 122 years, Australia’s founding document has failed to recognise Indigenous communities and their more than 65,000 years of continuous connection to the land.
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The referendum – to be held between October and December – will seek to enshrine in the constitution recognition of Indigenous people through the establishment of a consultative committee to parliament called the “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice”.
An emotional Albanese said on Thursday that such a body promoting Indigenous views to the government and parliament was needed to overcome systemic disadvantage experienced by generations of Indigenous people.
“We urgently need better outcomes because it’s not good enough where we’re at in 2023,” Albanese told reporters. “On every measure, there is a gap between the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the national average,” Albanese said.
“A 10-year gap in life expectancy, a suicide rate twice as high, tragic levels of child mortality and disease, a massive overrepresentation in the prison population and deaths in custody, in children sent to out-of-home care,” he said.
“And this is not because of a shortage of goodwill or good intentions on any side of politics and it’s not because of a lack of funds. It’s because governments have spent decades trying to impose solutions from Canberra rather than consulting with communities,” he added.
“If not now, when?”, a visibly emotional Albanese said, pausing several times while reading a prepared statement.
This is the question that will be asked of the Australian people. Nothing more, but nothing less. pic.twitter.com/XDj3JIp46A
— Anthony Albanese (@AlboMP) March 23, 2023
“Today is the result of years of patient and passionate work,” the prime minister wrote in a tweet. “Now, the chance to make history and create a better future belongs to you – the people of Australia,” he said.
The question asked of voters in the referendum will be: “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?”
If the referendum succeeds, the constitution would state that the “Voice may make representations” to the parliament and government “on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”.
Australia’s constitution came into effect in 1901 and has never acknowledged the Indigenous population as the country’s original inhabitants.
The term Great Australian Silence was coined late last century to describe an erasure of Indigenous perspectives and experiences from mainstream Australian history.
But changing Australia’s constitution has never been easy and more than four in five referendums fail. Of the 44 referendums held since 1901, only eight have been carried and none since 1977. In the last referendum in 1999, Australians voted against changing the constitution to create a republic and replace the United Kingdom’s monarch as head of state with a president.
Opinion polls suggest most Australians support the Voice concept, which Albanese announced was a majority priority of his centre-left Labor Party government during his election night victory speech in May last year.
But deep divisions remain across Australian society.
Opposition leader Peter Dutton said his conservative Liberal Party has yet to decide whether they would support the Voice and required more detail including the government’s own legal advice.
The Nationals party, the junior coalition partner in the former conservative-led government, announced in November they had decided to oppose the Voice, saying it would divide the nation along racial lines.
A Guardian opinion poll out on Tuesday showed public support for the referendum was down 5 percent but was still backed by a majority, with 59 percent in favour of the constitutional change.
Albanese has staked significant political capital on the referendum.