What to Know About Australia’s Indigenous ‘Voice to Parliament’ Vote

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(Bloomberg) -- Unlike some other former British colonies, Australia doesn’t have a treaty with its Indigenous population, collectively known as First Nations. There isn’t even a mention of them in the country’s constitution. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is staking part of his legacy on changing that. He has set a referendum for Oct. 14 that would give Indigenous Australians an official voice — not a veto — in the nation’s politics. But there’s opposition from several sides, including some prominent Indigenous activists who view it as a threat to their deeply felt claim to sovereign status.

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1. Who are Indigenous Australians?

They are the continent’s original inhabitants and one of the oldest continuing cultures in the world. There is archaeological evidence that Aboriginal people on the mainland and Torres Strait Islanders off the northern coast have been around for more than 60,000 years. Following the arrival of the First Fleet of British colonizers in 1788, the Indigenous population rapidly shrank as a result of disease, dispossession from the land and killings perpetrated by settlers. But they never formally ceded sovereignty. In 1948, they became Australian citizens along with everyone else as the new country’s ties with the UK dwindled. Today they make up 3.2% of Australia’s 25 million people, or about 800,000. On average they are the country’s poorest and most disadvantaged group: they die earlier, leave school at a younger age and are more likely to spend time in prison.

2. What is being considered?

A new advisory body, composed of a small number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, called the Voice to Parliament. This group would give its opinion on matters that affect Indigenous Australians, with an aim to improve their lives. What those exact areas might be has yet to be decided. The group would be “subservient” to the Parliament, in Albanese’s words, with no veto power. The proposal came out of a historic meeting of more than 250 Indigenous leaders to discuss constitutional reform in 2017. It was held in central Australia at the sacred site of Uluru, previously known as Ayers Rock.

3. Are First Nations consulted now?

Not collectively. Currently eight out of 76 senators and three out of 151 members of the House of Representatives identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, including Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney. That’s the highest total in Australian history. There are also lawmakers with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage in state and territory parliaments, while advocacy groups for Indigenous communities lobby to influence government policy.

4. Who’s in favor? Opposed?

Advocates such as Pat Anderson, one of the architects of the Uluru statement, say enshrining the Voice in the country’s constitution would provide official recognition for “the First Peoples of this beautiful continent of ours.” A poll in April showed most Australians in favor, but by August support had slipped to 43%, with the “No” vote rising to overtake it at 47%. The “No” camp says that the change will become divisive and make little practical difference in the lives of Indigenous Australians. Conservative political parties have so far refused to support the proposal. There has also been pushback from some Indigenous leaders such as Senator Lidia Thorpe, who said she couldn’t support the Voice unless she was convinced it wouldn’t cede Indigenous sovereignty. On Australia Day this year, which marks the landing of the First Fleet from Britain on Jan. 26, 1788, thousands of demonstrators in major cities called for a vote against the Voice, saying it would undermine their claims to sovereignty while failing to give Indigenous people real power.

5. When is Australia’s referendum? How does it work?

The center-left Labor government set it for Oct. 14. Any change to Australia’s constitution must be approved in a referendum. The bar for success is high: The measure must be approved by at least half of Australians who are eligible to vote, as well as at least four of the country’s six states. (Australia has held 44 referendums in its history and only eight have passed). If there’s a positive result, details such as how members are chosen and consultations would function will be decided by Parliament.

6. What’s at stake for Albanese?

If the referendum passes, it will be a major win for Albanese and his government, which has been riding high in the polls since winning power in May 2022. It could also set him up to move ahead with a second referendum — on whether Australia should cut ties with the British monarchy and become a republic — in a second term, should he be reelected. (He has said Indigenous recognition must come first.) But if it fails, he will lose a lot of the political capital and momentum that he has staked on the vote, weakening his position ahead of a likely general election in 2025.

7. How does this compare to Indigenous rights in other former British colonies?

  • In Canada, the 1982 Constitution recognizes the right to Indigenous self-determination and sets out a nation-to-nation relationship. There are three main national Indigenous organizations: the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Metis National Council. Between 2007 and 2015, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigated the impact of Canada’s assimilationist school system for Indigenous children, finding that it constituted “cultural genocide.”

  • New Zealand ensures parliamentary representation for its Indigenous Māori citizens through designated electorates. But its recent efforts to include Māori leaders in some decisions on managing public assets — a concept called co-governance — have proved politically contentious. An example is the government’s Three Waters proposal to transfer water-related infrastructure from local councils to publicly owned entities to oversee major upgrades. Government critics have labeled co-governance as anti-democratic and shorthand for giving Māori preference in decision-making roles. Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, who took over from Jacinda Ardern in January, has said he will review some co-governance initiatives as he seeks to reclaim center-ground voters ahead of an election in October — though he must do so without angering the Māori members of his caucus.

8. What about in the US?

Native Americans are mentioned in the US Constitution: Article 1, Section 8, for example, gave Congress the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations, among states “and with the Indian Tribes.” Hundreds of treaties were signed between the US and sovereign tribes until 1871, when Congress stopped recognizing them as independent nations. While existing treaties remained in force on paper, history is littered with broken promises. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a branch of the Department of the Interior that dates back to 1824, the guiding principle today in federal relations is that tribes “retain inherent powers of self-government.” For those tribes who hold land in reservation status, that means laws and regulations can differ on tribal soil from those elsewhere in a state.

--With assistance from Stephen Wicary and Matthew Brockett.

(Updates with date set)

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