SYDNEY: Australians began voting today in a historic referendum, the first in almost a quarter of a century, to decide whether to recognise its First Peoples in the constitution, as requested by the country’s Indigenous leaders six years ago.
Australians will simply write “Yes” or “No” on the ballot paper, after a question asking whether they agree to alter the 122-year-old constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people and create an Indigenous body, called the “Voice to Parliament”, that can provide advice to the government on Indigenous issues.
Doors to polling booths open at 8am local time in Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth, although more than five million people have already voted at early polling centres, overseas, or through postal votes. Voting is compulsory in Australia.
Counting of the votes will begin after polls close at 6pm, and the Australian Electoral Commission will release updated tallies as they come in from voting centres.
The Voice to Parliament was proposed in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a 2017 document that set out a roadmap for Indigenous reconciliation with wider Australia.
Supporters of the proposal believe entrenching an Indigenous voice into the constitution would unite Australia and usher in a new era with its Indigenous people, who account for 3.8% of the population and, by most socioeconomic measures, are the most disadvantaged people in the country.
They have inhabited the land for about 60,000 years but are not mentioned in the constitution, while data ranging from life expectancy to suicide rates to average income shows them worse off than non-Indigenous people.
Public debate over the referendum, however, steadily shifted to divisive issues such as race, privilege, and who gets what, with detractors arguing that the Voice would give special rights to Aboriginal people in the founding document.
Online misinformation gained traction and a lacklustre campaign in support of “Yes” failed to inspire.
The latest polling trends indicate the “No” vote is likely to succeed, which academics and human rights advocates fear could set back reconciliation efforts by years.
Referendums are difficult to pass in Australia, with only eight of 44 referendums succeeding since the country’s founding in 1901. Constitutional change requires a majority of votes both nationwide and in at least four of the six states.
The Voice has been a key feature of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s term in office, and a referendum loss would stand out, political analysts say, as his biggest setback since coming to power in May last year.