Australia will hold a referendum on October 14 to decide whether to amend its constitution to recognize the rights and voices of its Indigenous people. The referendum, announced by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Wednesday, will be the first of its kind since 1967, when Australians voted overwhelmingly to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the national census and allow the federal government to make laws for them.
The proposed constitutional change would establish a new body, called the Voice to Parliament, that would provide advice and representation to the parliament and the government on any matters affecting First Nations people. The Voice would not have any veto power or legislative authority but would aim to ensure that Indigenous perspectives are heard and respected in the decision-making process.
The referendum is the result of a long campaign by Indigenous activists and leaders, who issued a historic document called the Uluru Statement from the Heart in 2017, calling for constitutional recognition and a treaty with the Australian state. The Uluru Statement said that Indigenous sovereignty was never ceded or extinguished and that a Voice to Parliament was necessary to empower First Nations people and address the legacy of colonization, dispossession and discrimination.
The referendum has been welcomed by many Indigenous organizations and advocates, who see it as a historic opportunity to advance reconciliation and justice in Australia. However, some Indigenous activists have opposed the proposal, arguing that it does not go far enough to recognize Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination and that it could undermine their claim to treaty rights.
The referendum also faces opposition from some conservative politicians and commentators, who have criticized the Voice as divisive, undemocratic and unnecessary. They have argued that the constitution should not be changed to create a separate body for one group of Australians and that existing mechanisms are sufficient to protect and promote Indigenous interests.
The referendum will require a majority of votes nationally, as well as a majority of votes in at least four of the six states, to pass. This is a high threshold that has only been met by eight out of 44 previous referendums in Australian history.
The latest opinion polls suggest that there is strong public support for constitutional recognition of Indigenous people, but also a lack of awareness and understanding of what the Voice to Parliament would entail. The government has pledged to launch a public education campaign ahead of the vote, while Indigenous leaders have urged Australians to embrace the referendum as a chance to heal the nation and create a more inclusive and respectful society.