Australia sets date for historic referendum on its First Nations people

    Cedric Marika leads the Gumatj dancers during Garma Festival in East Arnhem, Australia, on August 4. (Photo: Tamati Smith/Getty Images)

    Brisbane, Australia (CNN) — Australia has set the date for its first referendum in 24 years as polls suggest the government is on course for failure unless it can reverse declining support.

    On October 14, more than 17 million registered voters across the country will vote on whether to change the constitution to recognize the land’s original inhabitants through a First Nations advisory group with a direct line to government.

    “On that day, every Australian will have a once in a generation chance to bring our country together and to change it for the better,” said Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Wednesday.

    As soon as the date was announced, the no campaign sent a text message calling for tax deductible donations that read: “It’s on! Albo has called it and we have until OCT 14 to beat the Voice!”

    Just one question will be asked that requires a “yes” or “no” answer – “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?”

    The question has generated hundreds of headlines and hours of debate online and on air, as both sides mount vigorous campaigns to sway the majority in all states and territories.

    A double majority vote is needed for the vote to pass – that is over 50% of voters across the country, and at least 50% in a majority of states – at least four of six. Votes in the territories – the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory will only be included in the national total.

    The vote is being seen as a pivotal moment, not only because constitutional change is rare and irreversible but because it has illuminated issues that have festered for centuries.

    The Voice, if approved, would enshrine a body in the constitution made up of Indigenous people to advise the government on laws that relate to them.

    Supporters say the vote is an opportunity to treat the raw wounds of injustice, to finally listen to First Nations people following generations of persecution, racism and neglect.

    Others say it’s a token gesture that at best will achieve nothing and risks dividing the nation by giving some Australians a special place above others in the constitution.

    The landscape is further complicated by those in the “yes” camp who believe a mark on a ballot is a small stand against racism destined to be exhibited by some “no” voters, whose ranks include some First Nations people who argue that voting yes will absolve Australians of any substantive action against racism and what’s really needed is a treaty.

    Is a tick a yes?

    Now a date has been called, campaigners are expected to ramp up efforts to capture undecided voters, who may not automatically cast their ballots along traditional political party lines.

    While the Labor government wants a yes vote, Australia’s other major parties – the Liberal Party and National Party, whose coalition was dumped last May after nine years in power – are backing a “no.”

    The heated political climate has created spot fires of misinformation that the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has attempted to snuff out before they catch hold.

    For example, last week, Liberal leader Peter Dutton suggested that the AEC process was flawed because the AEC commissioner said they’d likely accept a tick for yes but not a cross for no.

    “At every turn, it just seems to me that they’re taking the opportunity to skew this in favor of the yes vote when Australians just want a fair election, not a dodgy one,” Dutton told Sky News.

    The AEC released a statement saying it “completely and utterly rejects the suggestions by some that by transparently following the established, public and known legislative requirements we are undermining the impartiality and fairness of the referendum.”

    The AEC said by law it is obliged to count votes with a clear voting intention that have been incorrectly cast and that “longstanding legal advice provides that a cross can be open to interpretation as to whether it denotes approval or disapproval.”

    A question of perception

    Beyond arguments over procedure, the debate has struck at the heart of how the nation perceives its Indigenous people 235 years after the arrival of British settlers irreparably transformed the fates of those whose ancestors had inhabited the Australian subcontinent for tens of thousands of years.

    Government statistics updated each year show the enduring toll of colonization, casting a broad brush over an Indigenous population whose hundreds of distinct groups make up less than 4% of the population – some 800,000 people in a nation of 26 million.

    For a long time, Australian history was told through the lens of colonizers, who ignored or downplayed the country’s violent roots, says Anna Clark, a historian at the Australian Centre for Public History, at the University of Technology Sydney.

    At the end of the 19th century, she said Indigenous people didn’t fit into Australia’s nation-building narrative, and decades later, as the American civil rights and anti-apartheid movements took hold, “the silence became overwhelming.”

    Demands from the Indigenous community grew louder and were discussed, refined and finally drafted into the “Uluru Statement from the Heart” – a document endorsed by nearly 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders and elders. The statement forms the basis of the Voice proposal – which Clark says historians “overwhelmingly” back.

    “It’s a really important moment because Australian historians have kind of curated and defined what Australian history is and who is a historian and who can tell that story. And right now we’re being invited to step back and listen to other national narratives and to give that voice to Aboriginal storytellers and knowledge holders.”

    No vote strengthening in the polls

    But recent polling suggests if a vote was cast now, it would likely fail.

    The no campaign has gained momentum with questions about the detail, suggesting that voters don’t know enough about how the Voice will work to make a decision. The government says those details will be debated in parliament after constitutional change.

    The last time Australians were asked to vote in a referendum on the country’s Indigenous people was in 1967 – when 90% voted to include Indigenous Australians in population counts and for the government to enact laws pertaining to them.

    This time around, June Oscar, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), is concerned that the information isn’t reaching some people – those in remote areas and others who are shutting out the conversation, which at times has been distressing for some First Nations people.

    “We are seeing or hearing a lot of racist and harmful discourse in relation to the referendum,” Oscar said, noting the AHRC produced a referendum resource kit that advises people on how to minimize harm. Tips include centering Indigenous knowledge, voices and perspectives and avoiding racially denigrating language.

    Oscar said she’s also “saddened and disappointed at some of the untruths” being spread.

    The fear among some is that if the vote fails, it will send a message, rightly or wrongly, that racists have won – and centuries of fighting for respect as the country’s First Nations people will then fall to future generations.

    “I think there is a strong and shared belief that we should and we are capable of getting this right during our lifetime, and that we should not leave this legacy of the fight to our children and grandchildren,” Oscar said.

    And if it fails?

    “We go back to the drafting board again and learn from this for whenever the next opportunity comes around.”

    But Albanese has made it clear there are no second chances.

    “Voting no leads nowhere. It means nothing changes. Voting no closes the door on this opportunity to move forward,” he said on Wednesday.

    Directly addressing Australians he said, “Don’t close the door on an idea that came from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves, and don’t close the door on the next generation of Indigenous Australians.”

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