© 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 on Sunday 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”, that can advise parliament on matters concerning the community.
The outcome is a major setback for reconciliation efforts with the country’s Indigenous community, and also damages Australia’s image in the world regarding how it treats First Nations people.
Unlike other nations with similar histories such as 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 Australia’s 26 million population and have inhabited the country for about 60,000 years. But they 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 they would lower the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island flag to half-mast for the week and urged others to do the same.
Australian Indigenous leader and former national rugby union player Lloyd Walker said the path to reconciliation seems difficult now, but the community needs to keep fighting.
“We can say it got out-voted but there was still 40% of the people that wanted it. Years and years ago we wouldn’t have that percentage for sure,” said Walker.
Jade Ritchie, a “Yes” campaigner said after the results on Saturday night that the whole nation should be grieving the lost opportunity.
“We had an opportunity to make real change,” she told Reuters.
“These gaps, this disadvantage, this disenfranchisement of a whole portion of our community …. we talk about this stuff all the time and government after government try to address these issues and here we are with a very moderate and fair proposal and a practical way forward, and it’s not been accepted.”
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.
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.”