In Australia, a referendum will be held this year to decide whether to add a chapter to the Constitution that provides for the formal recognition of the country’s indigenous peoples and which introduces a consultative body: the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice o Voice to parliament it would have the power to provide non-binding opinions to the federal government and parliament on laws affecting indigenous communities. The law will be debated in parliament between May and June, and will be submitted to a referendum between October and December 2023. The constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples is supported by a large majority, the introduction of Voice is instead much more debated and support has dropped a lot in recent months, although according to polls la majority of voters are in favor.
Indigenous Australians are the descendants of the first inhabitants of Australia, who arrived over 50,000 years ago, and belong to many different populations by language and culture. The term indigenous people is used in Australia to refer to Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders, an archipelago north of Australia inhabited by groups who are recognized as culturally distinct from mainland Aboriginal peoples, and usually referred to separately. From the beginning of European colonization in 1788 they lost control over much of the lands they occupied and suffered violence and discriminatory policies, including the forced removal of thousands of Aboriginal and mixed-descent children from their families of origin to state institutions or ecclesiastical, between the beginning of the twentieth century and the seventies.
In recent years, various governments have tried to improve the living conditions of indigenous people: despite numerous measures and subsidies, Aboriginal and Torres Strait people have in fact a life expectancy of about ten years less than other Australians, a high level of prevalence of chronic diseases (mainly due to smoking and alcohol), suicides and incarceration, a low level of education and access to basic health services. Today the majority of them live in poverty and support themselves on state subsidies, and episodes of racism and discrimination are frequent. For this reason, many activists argue that the state measures have so far been essentially symbolic and that the measures necessary to ensure an improvement in the quality of life have not been taken.
According to many the Voice to parliament it could help implement more effective policies to improve the representation and living conditions of the approximately 700,000 Aboriginal people, who are almost 3 per cent of Australia’s population.
The Labor government of Anthony Albanese, prime minister from 2022, considers the success of the referendum on Voice central to your program. Instead the Coalition – the alliance of the two main opposition parties, the centre-right Liberal Party and the National Party, representing the demands of the rural world – despite being in favor of formal recognition and a representative body, opposes the measures proposed by the first minister and is leading the campaign for the No in the referendum, even if some local sections of both parties have decided to support the reform anyway.
The motivations of those who intend to vote No include the fear that the reform will emphasize racial distinctions, the distrust of another federal government body, with the alternative proposal of establishing several local bodies rather than one in the capital, and the preference for an intervention that is established by law, not by a constitutional referendum, and which therefore could be modified more easily if it turns out to be dysfunctional. On the other hand, those who support the reform are discussing whether to limit the consultative power of the Voice to parliament alone, excluding the government, in the hope that a more moderate reform will convince the many undecided voters.
The location of the First Nations – as indigenous communities are often called – is not unanimous, also because they are made up of hundreds of thousands of people of different geographical origins, cultures, languages, economic and social conditions. For example, one of the most active opponents of the project is Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, of the National Party and of Aboriginal descent: she argues that she further establishes a separation and that she serves the interests of power groups and leaders within Aboriginal communities . His opposition at the Voice is one of the communication topics used by opponents of reform, although polls indicate that among indigenous people, Voice you find a consent preponderant.
One aspect considered critical by many activists is the absence of concrete progress on other issues considered important for the self-determination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait communities, such as the signing of a treaty with the federal government to regulate mutual relations. On the other hand, a principled opposition to a representative body of the indigenous population is not supported in parliament except by a few fringe right-wing parties, such as One Nation. It is rather in the public debate, above all online, that the use of racist terms and tones is growing, especially among those who adhere to the No campaign, but also by those who support the reform towards the Aboriginal leaders who oppose it. The Commissioner against racial discrimination urged politicians to exclude the racial issues from their own speeches, in order not to legitimize racist speeches in public debate.
Another aspect considered problematic by many, including some politicians Labor, is the paucity of information published by the government. It has not yet been defined how the body will be composed and how its members will be chosen, nor other details on its functioning. The prime minister’s motivation is that of not wanting to shift the debate from having or not the Voice the details of its operation. A similar thing happened in 1999 in the last constitutional referendum, concerning the choice between republic and monarchy (Australia is one of the realms of the Commonwealth, the former British colonies, which kept the monarch of the United Kingdom as head of state even after the ‘independence). Although public opinion favored the transition to the republic, the divisions among the republicans on the method of choosing the president led to the failure of the reform. In Australian history, only 8 out of 44 proposals have been approved by referendum, and an absolute majority of votes is required both nationally and in at least four of the six states.