Australian PM reveals next steps on Indigenous referendum

Australia is seeking to give more recognition to its Aboriginal people, who have inhabited the land for 60,000 years but are not mentioned in the 122-year-old constitution

March 23, 2023 08:37 am | Updated March 24, 2023 06:47 pm IST - SYDNEY

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, surrounded by members of the First Nations Referendum Working Group, speaks to the media during a news conference at Parliament House in Canberra, March 23, 2023.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, surrounded by members of the First Nations Referendum Working Group, speaks to the media during a news conference at Parliament House in Canberra, March 23, 2023. | Photo Credit: Reuters

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese fought back tears on Thursday as he revealed the question the government wants to put to a vote in a proposed federal referendum to constitutionally recognize Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

"If not now, when?," said Mr. Albanese, choking up during a televised media conference.

"For many...this moment has been a very long time in the making," Mr. Albanese said, standing alongside several Indigenous leaders. "Yet they have shown such patience and optimism through this process, and that spirit of cooperation and thoughtful, respectful dialogue has been so important at arriving at this point in such a united fashion."

Australia is seeking to give more recognition to its Aboriginal people, who have inhabited the land for 60,000 years but are not mentioned in the 122-year-old constitution. Any constitutional alterations require a national referendum.

Making up about 3.2% of Australia's nearly 26 million population, Indigenous people track below national averages on most socio-economic measures and suffer disproportionately high rates of suicide and imprisonment. Aboriginal people were marginalized by British colonial rulers' doctrine of terra nullius - nobody's land - and were not granted voting rights until the 1960s.

Australians will be asked to vote between October and December on amending the constitution to create a consultative committee in parliament called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. It would provide non-binding advice to parliament on matters that affect First Nations people.

The government will introduce the constitution alteration bill next week, hoping to pass it in the parliament by the end of June.

The main opposition Liberal Party has not said if it would support a "yes" vote, while its junior coalition partner, the rural-based National Party said it would oppose.

The left-wing Greens party and some independent lawmakers support the referendum.

Independent Indigenous senator Lidia Thorpe, who quit the Green party over concerns about the Voice proposal, wants a treaty between the government and Indigenous people, similar to what exists in New Zealand and Canada.

"Cry me a river," Ms. Thorpe tweeted a seemingly sarcastic response to the announcement.

A Guardian poll out on Tuesday showed public support for the referendum was down 5% but was still backed by a majority, with 59% in favour.

Mr. Albanese has staked significant political capital on the referendum. Since Australian independence in 1901, there have been 44 proposals for constitutional change in 19 referendums, and only eight have been approved.

In the last referendum in 1999, Australians voted against changing the constitution to create a republic and replace the British monarch as head of state with a president.

Opponents criticised the wording of that referendum, and

Mr. Albanese has said he would aim to frame the current question as simply and clearly as possible.

The referendum question to be put to Australians will be: "A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognize the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?".

The federal government on Wednesday said the legislation has passed the Senate - where it does not have a majority - with bipartisan support to ensure that the referendum voting process and voter experience mirrors that of a federal election.

The opposition conservative coalition had been demanding funding for campaign groups who support and oppose the referendum but the government has made no promise.

The federal government said the 'Yes-No' pamphlet, containing arguments on both sides, will be sent to all households.

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