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Australia votes to reject greater rights for indigenous people in country’s ‘Brexit moment’

Senator and No campaigner Lidia Thorpe is surrounded by opponents outside a voting centre in Melbourne
Senator and No campaigner Lidia Thorpe is surrounded by opponents outside a voting centre in Melbourne - Reuters/Reuters

Australians have roundly rejected greater rights for indigenous citizens after a divisive referendum campaign likened to the country’s “Brexit moment”.

The vote on whether to give Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people the right to advise the government on laws and policies affecting their lives – through the creation of an indigenous advisory body, the “Voice to Parliament” – delivered a resounding no on Saturday.

Nationwide, with almost 70 per cent of the vote counted, the “No” vote led “Yes” 60 per cent to 40 per cent. Australian broadcaster ABC and other TV networks have projected that a majority of voters in all six of Australia’s states would vote against altering the 122-year-old constitution.

“I’m devastated,” said Thomas Mayo, indigenous leader and prominent campaigner on ABC News. “We need a voice. We need that structural change.”

Australia’s indigenous citizens make up 3.8 per cent of the country’s 26 million population and have inhabited the land for about 60,000 years – but are not mentioned in the constitution. They are also, by most socio-economic measures, the most disadvantaged people in the country.

If it had passed, the panel would have been advisory – without a veto or budgetary control – and marked the first mention of First Nations people in Australia’s constitution.

But the controversial vote was bitterly debated, and did not receive the support of four of the six states and national majority it needed.

Australia's prime minister Anthony Albanese concedes defeat in the landmark referendum
Australia's prime minister Anthony Albanese concedes defeat in the landmark referendum - Reuters/Reuters

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who had staked his political reputation on the importance of the referendum, said he accepted the result but vowed to continue to fight for Aboriginal reconciliation.

“Our nation’s road to reconciliation has often been hard going,” he said in a televised news conference. “Tonight is not the end of the road and is certainly not the end of our efforts to bring people together.”

Academics and human rights advocates now fear a win for the “No” camp could set back reconciliation efforts by years.

On average, Aboriginal people live eight years less than their non-indigenous counterparts and are nine times more likely to be homeless. Incarceration rates remain 14 times greater.

Only 68 per cent of Aboriginal people aged 20-24 completed Year 12, compared with 90 per cent of the non-indigenous population.

In remote communities, their roads are unpaved, many houses are crumbling, and illnesses like rheumatic heart disease remain common. In inner city Sydney, gentrification is pricing some indigenous people out of their neighbourhoods, while overcrowding and unemployment remain significant challenges.

Indigenous leaders argued that the Voice would have improved living conditions and opportunities for Aboriginal people.

The Labour government first announced the referendum on the recommendation of Aboriginal leaders in 2017, in what became known as the Uluru statement from the heart.

Disappointed ‘Yes’ campaigners comfort themselves as the votes come in in Sydney
Disappointed ‘Yes’ campaigners comfort themselves as the votes come in in Sydney - AFP/AFP

But support for it soured as Australians worried about the proposal becoming enshrined in the constitution, which is difficult to change. There were also complaints that the government had not provided sufficient detail about the new body and the cost to the taxpayer.

A misinformation campaign also spread through social media that sparked fear that the Voice would become a third chamber of parliament, resulting in more federal aid to Aboriginal people, and more disputes between indigenous and non-indigenous people.

The No campaign, led by the conservative opposition, argued it would create extra bureaucracy, embed “racial privilege” into the constitution, and turn indigenous people into victims. Another opposition group, “Progressive No”, said the Voice would be a “powerless” advisory board that does not go nearly far enough.

Peter Dutton, the opposition leader, insisted that despite the result Australians wanted to see indigenous disadvantage addressed.

“We just disagree on the Voice being the solution,” he said. “This is the referendum that Australia did not need to have.”

Mr Albanese criticised some sections of the media that he said had steered the referendum debate away from the core issues.

“We have had, including in outlets represented in this room, discussions about a range of things that were nothing to do with what was on the ballot paper tonight,” Mr Albanese said.

Referendums are difficult to pass in Australia, with only eight of 44 succeeding since the country’s founding in 1901. This is the first referendum in Australia since voters rejected a proposal to become a republic almost a quarter of a century ago.

In 1967, a referendum to count indigenous people as part of the Australian population was a resounding success with bipartisan political support. This year’s referendum, however, has not garnered unified support, with leaders of the major conservative parties campaigning for a “No” vote.