CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australians will vote on Oct. 14 on a proposed law to create a so-called Indigenous Voice to Parliament in the nation’s first referendum in a generation.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Wednesday announced the referendum date, triggering just over six weeks of intensifying campaigning by both sides of the argument.
The referendum would enshrine in the constitution an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, a collection of advocates aimed at giving the nation’s most disadvantaged ethnic minority more say on government policy.
Albanese urged people to vote “yes” as polls showed more than 80% of Australia’s Indigenous population – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – intended to do so.
“Let’s be very clear about the alternative: because voting ‘no’ leads nowhere. It means nothing changes,” Albanese told 400 Voice supporters in the city of Adelaide.
“Voting ‘no’ closes the door on this opportunity to move forward. I say today, don’t close the door on constitutional recognition, don’t close the door on listening to communities to get better results. Don’t close the door on an idea that came from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves, and don’t close the door on the next generation of Indigenous Australians. Vote ‘yes,’” Albanese added.
Australia has not held a referendum since 1999 and a referendum has not passed since 1977.
No referendum has ever passed without bipartisan support and the major parties remain divided over the Voice.
Proponents argue that giving Indigenous people a say in policies that effect their lives would lead to less disadvantage.
Indigenous Australians account for 3.8% of population and they die around eight years younger than Australia’s wider population.
Megan Davis, an Indigenous lawyer who helped craft the Voice proposal, said Outback Indigenous residents should not have move to the national capital Canberra to “have a say in the laws and policies made about their lives.”
“Best practice globally tells us that human beings are more likely to flourish if they have control over their lives,” Davis told the same audience as Albanese. “To dream, to have vision, to plan: this is what the Voice is about. It permits our people to have a seat at the table.”
Proponents say there would be no Indigenous right of veto over government policy and lawmakers would be free to disregard the Voice’s representations.
But opponents argue the courts might interpret the Voice’s constitutional powers in unpredictable ways, creating legal uncertainty. They also say the Voice would be the biggest ever change in Australia’s democracy that would divide the nation along racial lines.
“It is evident to me that this elite proposal is about division in our country. And it is that old rule of divide and conquer that I can’t stand for,” Indigenous opposition Sen. Jacinta Nampijinpa Price told reporters.
“I’m not going to allow a line to run straight through the middle of my family within our constitution,” Price added, referring to her mixed-race heritage.
Albanese has long maintained his confidence that the referendum would succeed despite opinion polls showing that the marginal majority support for the Voice has waned in recent months as the public debate has become more heated and divisive.
Indigenous businessman Warren Mundine, a vocal Indigenous anti-Voice campaigner, recently revealed that the personal abuse he had received over his stance had left him with suicidal thoughts.
“Everyone knows the pressure that was put on me to send me almost to suicidal positions and this is what this prime minister has done,” Mundine told reporters.
“This prime minister from day one had attacked people who had a different opinion to him, called them names and that opened up the floor for the whole division to start, with all the horrible racial abuse, with all the horrible bigotry that’s been going on out there and it’s all Albo. He’s the one who started this,” said Mundine, referring to the prime minister by his nickname.
Voice proponents complain that social media companies have not done enough to exclude racial abuse from the argument.
Opponents including opposition leader Peter Dutton, Australia’s alternative prime minister, argue the system is stacked in favor of the “yes” vote.
“Just make it a fair process instead of trying to load the system and trying to skew it in favor of the ‘yes’ vote,” Dutton said.
The system requires voters to write “yes” or “no” on their ballot. But the Australian Electoral Commission, which runs federal elections and referendums, has said it will accept a tick as an affirmative vote, but a cross would be an invalid vote.
Opponents of the Voice want crosses to be added to the “no” tally.
Voice advocates accuse Dutton of attempting to undermine faith in the voting system.
The commission said the ruling that a cross would be open to interpretation and therefore invalid had been unchanged since 1988. The proportion of invalid votes, including those marked with crosses, at the last referendum was only 0.86% of the ballots cast, the commission said.
Most observers agree that the referendum result is unlikely to turn on the tiny proportion of ballots marked with crosses.
Opponents also accuse the government of failing to provide sufficient detail about who will be part of the Voice and how it will work.
“If you don’t know, vote ‘no,’” No campaigners urge uncertain voters.
While some opponents argue the Voice proposal is too radical, others argue that it is not radical enough.
Independent Indigenous Sen. Lidia Thorpe told the National Press Club this month that the Voice would be a “powerless advisory body” that insulted the intelligence of Indigenous Australians.
She urged Albanese to call off the referendum, saying its failure would expose Australia as a racist country.
Albanese agreed that the result of the referendum would effect international perceptions of Australia.
“It’s … about how Australians see ourselves, but also how the world sees Australia,” Albanese said in April.