A proposal by the Australian government to recognize the country’s indigenous peoples in the constitution has ignited a culture war and sparked divisive debates, including among indigenous peoples themselves.
The centre-left Labor government of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is backing a historic referendum to enshrine in the Australian Constitution an indigenous body, known as ‘Voice to Parliament’, to advise the government on legislation and policies affecting Aboriginal and Islanders from the Torres Strait, constituting nearly 4% of Australia’s population of 26 million.
Unlike other former British colonies such as the United States, Canada and New Zealand, Australia has no treaty with its indigenous peoples, who are not mentioned in the 1901 constitution. Like indigenous peoples in the United States and elsewhere , Indigenous Australians fare much worse than their compatriots in terms of life expectancy, incarceration rates, and other measures of socioeconomic well-being.
Supporters say a successful referendum would improve Australia’s image and help indigenous peoples in other nations.
“It is an opportunity for Australia to be unique in the world, by sharing more than 60,000 years of indigenous heritage and culture in a practical way that brings greater equity to indigenous peoples,” said Thomas Mayo, director of the non-profit group Australians for Indigenous Constitutional Recognition. as well as a Kaurareg Aboriginal and a Kalkalgal, Erubamle Torres Strait Islander.
After being approved by the Senate last month, the referendum is expected to take place between October and December. Opposition Conservatives are actively campaigning against him, saying that no other demographic in Australian society is allowed such privileges and that they would give indigenous people undue power in Parliament.
Earlier this month, thousands of people from across Australia attended rallies organized by the «yes» referendum campaign. But a poll last month by The Sydney Morning Herald found support for the referendum at 49%, up from 53% in May.
Australians have voted on 44 referendum proposals since 1901, only eight of which have been successful.
Polarization over the Voice referendum has fueled racist behavior, Mayo said, including on social media, where she said she had seen «a sharp increase in vile and racist comments towards me and other indigenous peoples who are advocating for this.»
Nine Entertainment, a major Australian news outlet, apologized last week for a full-page ad in its newspaper featuring Mayo and was criticized as racist. The ad, paid for by the “no” campaign, showed Michael Chaney, chairman of Australian conglomerate Wesfarmers and a referendum supporter, handing money over to Mayo, who appears as a child standing at his feet.
The referendum also has strong opponents within the indigenous community.
“Of course it is divisive, because we are trying to fit into a framework, a colonialist framework,” said Taylah Gray, a member of the Wiradjuri people and indigenous rights activist who has not yet decided how to vote.
Voice’s proposal is useless and «cosmetic» change, said Gary Foley, a veteran indigenous activist, member of the Gumbaynggirr people and professor of history at Victoria University in Melbourne.
He said the referendum was likely to fail because of Australia’s growing polarization and its reluctance to face its troubled past.
“Most Australians know absolutely nothing about their own history,” he said. «How are Australians today in a position to make an informed decision about something they know nothing about?»
Some indigenous people who oppose the constitutional change argue that it means ceding sovereignty to those who took their land by force.
What indigenous peoples want, Foley said, «is self-determination, political and economic independence.»
Lidia Thorpe, the first Aboriginal senator from the state of Victoria, said that Voice could override existing Aboriginal governance systems.
“I have supported and amplified the voices of the ‘No’ Sovereign camp, which is made up of First Nations people from across the country who have never relinquished their sovereignty and do not want to be recognized in the colonizer’s constitution,” he told NBC News. . in a written statement.
Instead, Thorpe calls for more concrete action, saying the government must first implement the recommendations of the 1991 and 1997 reports on Aboriginal deaths in custody and the separation of Aboriginal children from their families.
“Our people are in dire straits as a result of record rates of incarceration and removal of children, and the government already has the policies in place that will make an immediate difference,” said Thorpe, who voted last month against holding the referendum.
Thorpe has urged Australians, who are required to vote by law, to vote no, while Foley encourages them to void their votes.
“It is time that governments let Aboriginal people determine their own destiny, instead of white racists determining our destiny,” he said.
Finlay said he was confident that constitutional recognition would not impede indigenous sovereignty and could even bring life to the treaty process.
“At the moment,” he said, “I don’t see that we have any mechanism” that allows for a treaty to be negotiated at the federal level.
“La Voz will allow us to do that,” he said.
All previous indigenous advisory bodies ended up being watered down or abolished as governments changed, fueling mistrust of such initiatives among some indigenous peoples.
Gray said she remained «cautious» of any government structure aimed at improving the lives of indigenous people, saying they had been subjected to «centuries of violence, displacement, broken promises» by governments of the left and right.
But Mayo said that enshrining the Voice in the constitution would protect it from the same fate as its predecessors, putting it out of reach for future governments «that are avoiding accountability or using indigenous lives and our problems as political football.»
Despite their opposing views, Foley, Mayo, Finlay and Grayl agreed that a majority “no” vote in the referendum would be irreversibly damaging to indigenous rights.
“There is a lot to be gained by being able to self-determine who speaks for us and influence the decisions that are made about us,” Mayo said.
If the referendum fails, he said, indigenous people will be worse off «because the Australian people will have officially discarded that long and proud history, heritage and culture.»
“It will officially rule out a step towards greater equity in our country,” Mayo said.