© Reuters. Voters walk past Vote ‘Yes’ and Vote ‘No’ signs at the Old Australian Parliament House, during The Voice referendum in Canberra, Australia, October 14, 2023. REUTERS/Tracey Nearmy
By Praveen Menon
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian Indigenous leaders called for a week of silence and reflection after a referendum to recognise the First Peoples in the constitution was decisively rejected by a majority of the population.
More than 60% of Australians voted “No” in the landmark referendum on Saturday, the first in almost a quarter of a century, that asked whether to alter the constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people through the creation of an Indigenous advisory body, the “Voice to Parliament”.
The outcome is seen as a setback for reconciliation efforts with the country’s Indigenous community, and also for Australia’s image in the world regarding how it treats First Nations people.
Unlike other nations with similar histories like Canada and New Zealand, Australia has not yet formally recognised or reached a treaty with its First Peoples.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people make up 3.8% of the 26 million population and have inhabited Australia for about 60,000 years but are not mentioned in the constitution and by most socio-economic measures are the most disadvantaged people in the country.
“This is a bitter irony. That people who have only been on this continent for 235 years would refuse to recognise those whose home this land has been for 60,000 and more years is beyond reason,” the leaders said in a statement that was released on social media platforms.
The leaders said the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island flag would be lowered to half-mast for the week to acknowledge the referendum result.
“The referendum was a chance for newcomers to show a long-refused grace and gratitude and to acknowledge the brutal dispossession of our people underwrote their every advantage in this country,” the statement said.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese staked significant political capital on the Voice referendum, but his critics say it was his biggest misstep since coming to power in May last year.
The opposition leader Peter Dutton said it was a referendum “that Australia did not need to have”, and that it only ended up dividing the nation.
One of the biggest reasons for the referendum loss, however, was the lack of bipartisan support, with leaders of the major conservative parties campaigning for a “No” vote.
No referendum has passed in Australia without bipartisan backing.
“Much will be asked of the role of racism and prejudice against Indigenous people in this result,” leaders said in the statement.
“The only thing we ask is that each and every Australian who voted in this election reflect hard on this question.”