Australia votes in referendum on giving voice to nation’s Indigenous people

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A man walks in front of Redfern train station in Sydney on October 14, 2023, as polls opened in Australia's historic Indigenous rights referendum [Saeed Khan/AFP]

Opinion polls show slide in support for ‘yes’ campaign, majority expected to vote ‘no’ to Indigenous Voice in government.

Australians are voting on whether their nation’s constitution should be amended to enshrine a mechanism for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to advise parliament on policies that affect their lives.

‘The Voice’ referendum, as it has become known, would establish a board of Indigenous peoples who would provide advice to the federal government on issues affecting their communities.

Despite comprising only 3.8 percent of Australia’s population, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to experience drastic inequalities and the long-lasting impact of colonial policies.

Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese campaigned for the referendum, which asks Australians to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the constitutional amendment of which he is in favour.

Recent polling has demonstrated a slide in support for the amendment, with a majority expected to vote against any change.

Public debate has been marred by misinformation, racism and what some people state is a lack of detail on how “the Voice” would operate.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander politicians and community leaders have also been divided in their support, and Liberal opposition party leader Peter Dutton is staunchly opposed to the proposal.

Significantly, just eight out of 44 referendums in Australia’s history have been successful, with past results suggesting that bi-partisan support from both major parties is necessary to win a majority vote.

Al Jazeera sought the views of several members of the public in Melbourne as they cast their votes on Saturday.

Matthew Weegberg (35) with his children Evie (8) and Walter (4)
Matthew Weegberg with his children, Evie, right, and Walter, centre [Ali MC/Al Jazeera)

Matthew Weegberg is an Indigenous father and husband who identifies with the Mutti Mutti, Yorta Yorta and Boon Wurrung peoples. He cast an early “yes” vote, saying he was optimistic a Voice to Parliament could bring about positive change.

“I’m optimistic that that Voice will achieve positive outcomes for Indigenous communities throughout Australia,” he said. “I’m a glass half-full kind of guy hoping that something good comes out of it.”

He said he was voting yes to support his children’s future.

“I’m hoping they can function in this society free of any racism or prejudice against them,” he told Al Jazeera.

James Henry
James Henry [Ali MC/Al Jazeera]

James Henry is an Indigenous father and partner who identifies with the eastern Yuwaalaraay and Gamilaraay peoples, and also has a non-Indigenous heritage.

He voted against the proposal for a Voice to Parliament, telling Al Jazeera he “wasn’t convinced that the Voice was going to be the right path for Indigenous advancement”.

“While I do approve of community consultation and working with communities, I didn’t see [the Voice to Parliament] as the best way to address Indigenous disadvantage,” Henry said.

He said the money and effort used to promote the referendum could have been spent on addressing the inequalities that exist in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

“Despite the millions of dollars put into the campaign, it’s likely to not succeed,” he added.

Christine Smith (68)
Christine Smith [Ali MC/Al Jazeera]

Christine Smith was handing out leaflets at a polling booth encouraging people to vote against the proposed Voice to Parliament on Saturday. She told Al Jazeera that the constitutional amendment would create division.

“We don’t want a division. We want everybody to be treated equal,” she said.

Smith was also concerned that an advisory body such as the Voice to Parliament would utilise money that could instead be spent directly on “grassroots” service to assist Indigenous peoples.

“How many schools or health clinics could they set up, instead of having another body that they just got to give millions of dollars to,” she said.

Leanna Buchanan (50) and Dan Stubbs (53)
Leanna Buchanan, left, and Dan Stubbs [Ali MC/Al Jazeera]

Partners Leanna Buchanan and Dan Stubbs were enthusiastic supporters of the Voice to Parliament.

Stubbs told Al Jazeera that “it’s the most simplest way we can show some gesture towards including Aboriginal communities”.

“We as white people lose nothing. And hopefully, we show some openness and community. A minor thing for us to embrace Aboriginal communities in Australia, it’s the least we can do,” he said.

Buchanan agreed, saying it was important that “Aboriginal perspectives” are included in the government, but acknowledged that the Voice alone “is clearly not the answer to all aspects of inequality”.

“But just making sure that when government makes decisions, they’re being advised by Aboriginal community. And from Aboriginal perspectives. That has to offer some hope,” she said.

“I’m actually really emotional. If this is a no-vote, I will feel so sad,” she added.

Michael Paterson (43) and Nioka Mellick-Cooper (22)
Nioka Mellick-Cooper, left, and Michael Paterson [Ali MC/Al Jazeera]

Michael Paterson is an Indigenous man who identifies with the Dja Dja Wurrung people. He told Al Jazeera that he was voting “yes”.

“I’m just hoping that we can finally get a say in what our people do and hopefully get some of our land back,” he said. Paterson also said that if the vote was unsuccessful, “it would set us back about 10 years”.

Nioka Mellick-Cooper told Al Jazeera that she also voted yes and had listened to a diverse range of Indigenous voices before making her decision.

“I’m not an Indigenous person. And I don’t think it’s my place to vote ‘no’,” she said. “I’ve been listening to Indigenous voices and reading as much as I possibly can because I want to get a good grasp on everything.”

She said that while “there are Aboriginal people that are voting no, a lot of people that I’ve loved and respected in the Aboriginal community are voting yes. So I’m going to support them.”

Annette Maxwell (64) and Yvonne Gu (54)
Annette Maxwell, left, and Yvonne Gu [Ali MC/Al Jazeera]

Annette Maxwell and Yvonne Gu were campaigning against the Voice to Parliament.

Maxwell told Al Jazeera that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people already had a “Voice” in government by way of the 11 elected members of parliament that already hold office.

She said the main problem was that the government was “not doing a good job” on Indigenous affairs, which had resulted in the inequalities experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“It’s not because they don’t have a voice,” she said. “It’s because [the government] are not doing a good job. We need to solve that problem.”

Gu – a member of the Liberal Party and supporter of conservative Indigenous Senator Jacinta Price – told Al Jazeera that the “Voice referendum is actually part of a much bigger agenda, which is excluding so-called conservative people from the society”.

“It’s similar to so-called Black Lives Matter in America,” she said.

“At the end of the day, no one’s going to benefit from it apart from a small group of elites.”

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA

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