Australia is a nation that has, since its founding as a British colony in the late eighteenth century, struggled with the recognition and inclusion of its indigenous Aboriginal population. A recent effort by the current government in Australia sought to propose a reform to the constitution which would have more formally recognized their inclusion in the state and given them a mechanism to have a greater say and involvement in governance. However, despite the noble intentions of the reform bill, it failed at the polls this past weekend – rejected by a majority of more than 60% of the voting population. The failure of the proposal leads to questions on how democracies of former settler and colonial states can deal with addressing the issues of indigenous minority populations.
First, some background on the situation of Australia’s indigenous population that led to the constitution reform efforts. The Aboriginal population of Australia has inhabited the country for 60,000 years prior to colonization by European settlers. Currently, they makeup approximately 3.8% of the population of Australia – less than 1 million people in total. They long suffered from racial and systematic discrimination which has led to sharp divides between them and the non-Indigenous population. Indigenous Australians, on average, live 10 years less than other Australians and are 15 times more likely to be imprisoned at some point in their life. They suffer from higher rates of unemployment and crime as well as lower educational and wealth levels. There have been longstanding historical efforts by Aboriginal activists and other pro-indigenous groups to fully address these issues and grievances so that they would be more fully included in Australian society and their rights secured.
What did the reform propose?
The constitutional reform bill was put forward by the current Australian labour government, whose Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, campaigned on the platform to provide an ‘indigenous voice to parliament’ when the Labour Party won the national elections in May 2022. Since then, there was a great debate on what form this ‘voice’ would take. The actual reform proposed was a full constitutional amendment which would have formally recognized the rights of the Aboriginal population and established an indigenous advisory board who would provide advice to the Australian government on issues which would affect the indigenous population. This advisory board would be made up of gender-equal appointed leaders from various indigenous groups, including the main Aboriginal tribes and the Torres Strait Islander peoples. The exact mechanisms for how the Voice would function would have been decided by lawmakers after the amendment had theoretically passed.
Why did the vote fail?
From the beginning, the campaign for the constitutional reform was affected by issues of misinformation and conspiracy theories. Opponents of the bill put forward that it sought to divide Australians on racial lines and that the bill lacked details on how it would function – which could negatively impact governance mechanisms and institutions. More extreme claims were made that the bill would lead to restitution efforts by the indigenous population, that homes and land could be reclaimed as belonging to Aboriginal peoples. Overall, the opposition ‘No’ campaign was led by the opposition conservative party, who amplified many of the more moderate claims and emphasized the lack of detail of the plans and fears of division with usual racial and populist tactics.
The proposal for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament in Australia faced significant challenges and ultimately did not gain enough support to pass. The plan aimed to establish a constitutionally enshrined advisory body representing Indigenous Australians, providing them a platform to influence policy decisions affecting their communities. However, the failure stemmed from a mix of political and public resistance, concerns about potential division within the nation, disagreements over the form and powers of the proposed body, and an insufficiently broad understanding of its purpose and benefits. Some feared it could create a “third chamber” of Parliament, while others believed that existing mechanisms were adequate. Additionally, there was a lack of consensus on the specifics of the proposed Voice, ultimately resulting in the failure to secure the necessary support for its realization.
The failure of the Australia Indigenous Voice vote underscores the enduring challenges in achieving meaningful recognition and inclusion of Indigenous perspectives within the country’s political landscape. It highlights a gap in understanding and consensus regarding the appropriate mechanisms to ensure Indigenous voices are adequately represented in decision-making processes that affect their communities. The setback suggests a need for deeper dialogue, education, and collaborative efforts between Indigenous peoples, policymakers, and the broader Australian population to build a more comprehensive and widely supported approach towards reconciliation, recognition, and genuine engagement with Indigenous Australians in shaping policies that address their unique needs and aspirations. Without a unified vision and commitment to advancing Indigenous representation, achieving a more inclusive and equitable society remains a significant, yet crucial, hurdle for Australia.