Australia holds landmark referendum on indigenous representation


Australians will on Saturday vote whether to recognise First Nations peoples in the country's constitution for the first time. But the lead-up to the referendum has triggered a torrent of racist abuse, with toxic debate spreading online and in the media.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Friday issued an emotional, final-day plea to salvage the poll, telling voters: "Kindness costs nothing."

The measure is aimed at elevating the rights of indigenous people, whose ancestors were in Australia for 60,000 years before British colonial rule began in the late 1700s.

The reform would create a "Voice" – an indigenous body with the right to be consulted about issues that affect First Nations peoples battling poorer health, lower incomes, higher barriers to education and incarceration than other Australians.

Albanese's centre-left government promised to call the referendum when it successfully campaigned for election in May last year, but support for it has since plummeted.

Recent polls indicate a split of about 60-40 against the Voice, with the conservative opposition attacking it as an ineffectual, bureaucratic reform that would divide Australia.


The debate has stirred uncertainty about the reform's scope and impact.

Proponents of the constitutional amendment say creating a permanent constitutional body of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to advise Canberra would help craft policies that work.

Opponents say the plan lacks detail, creates unnecessary bureaucracy, opens a racial divide, confers special privileges on indigenous people and would do little to improve their lot.

Opposition leader Peter Dutton, head of the conservative Liberal Party and one of the leading campaigners against the Voice, warned it would "re-racialise" Australia.

Referendum supporters accused Dutton of disinformation and scare-mongering.

Albanese said disinformation and "absurd debates" swirling around the Voice – such as whether it would affect interest rate decisions – had been "terrible".

Inadequate compromise?

But some indigenous activists see the referendum as a compromise solution that does not go far enough to address historical wrongs.

Independent Senator Lidia Thorpe told a rally of about 100 people in Melbourne last Saturday that the referendum was set up to "appease white guilt".

"This is not about giving us any rights at all. No rights," said Thorpe, who is indigenous.

However, Noel Pearson, an indigenous lawyer and land rights activist who is one of the architects of the "Voice" proposal, says a "no" vote would be a travesty for the country. 

"One choice will bring us pride and hope and belief in one another and the other will, I think, turn us backwards and bring shame to the country," he told ABC.

"'Yes' is a moral choice and 'no' would be a travesty for the country, and we will possibly never live it down."

Peak in racism reports

Meanwhile reports of racism targeting indigenous people have spiked since July, according to University of Technology Sydney criminology professor Chris Cunneen, who leads a project that documents such incidents.

The share of racism complaints in the "Call It Out" register related to the referendum had climbed to about 30 percent since July, he said. In previous months, the rate was eight percent.

"We have also seen an increase in reports of racism online on social media and in the media during the same period," Cunneen said. "Combined these make roughly more than half of all reports."

Australia's Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan told French news agency AFP last week that racist conduct had gone largely unchallenged in the public domain.

"I am disappointed that the way some people have engaged in the debate has stoked racial tensions and caused harm to First Nations peoples," he said.

UN support

On an international level, Jose Francisco Cali Tzay, the UN's special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, on 5 October issued a joint statement with Surya Deva, special rapporteur on the right to development, urging Australians to support the proposal.

"The First Peoples of Australia have a right under international human rights law to participate in decision-making that affects them," the experts said.

By voting "yes", they wrote, Australians will "help the government fulfil its human rights obligations" and pave the way to overcoming the "systemic discrimination and inequalities that have undermined the ability of indigenous peoples to realise their rights to development and self-determination".

(with AFP)

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