By Madhuri RanasingheAustralia’s indigenous population, with a history spanning 60,000 years, faces an omission in the 122-year-old constitution. Despite constituting about 3.2% of the country’s 26 million people, Aboriginal individuals find themselves on the fringes of socio-economic measures. In the ongoing discourse about constitutional amendments, there exists a nuanced landscape of opinions within the indigenous community.
However, in a historic referendum held on Saturday, October 14, 2023, Australians cast their votes on a proposal to amend the Constitution, aiming to recognize the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an advisory body known as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. The referendum, unfortunately, did not secure the needed support for constitutional change.
Understanding the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice
The proposed Voice sought to provide independent advice to the Parliament and Government on matters concerning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Key design principles included proactive representation, response to government requests, independent resourcing for research and advocacy, and early involvement in the development of laws and policies.
Members of the Voice were intended to be selected by Indigenous communities, ensuring cultural legitimacy and accountability. The body aimed for balanced gender representation and consultation with grassroots communities and regional entities. Transparency and accountability were to be maintained through standard governance and reporting requirements, with members falling under the scrutiny of the National Anti-Corruption Commission.
The Constitutional Amendment
The proposed constitutional amendment, outlined in the Constitution Alteration Bill, would have added a new chapter recognizing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. It detailed the body’s role in making representations to the Parliament and Executive Government, emphasizing the Parliament’s power to legislate on matters related to the Voice.
In a resounding outcome, more than 59% of voters rejected the proposal to establish the Voice to Parliament. Indigenous leaders and the wider community were divided over the issue. Advocates believed that the Voice would enhance the delivery of government services and improve outcomes for Indigenous lives by incorporating Indigenous perspectives. However, opponents argued that it could lead to racial divisions without addressing Indigenous disadvantages and potentially pave the way for claims of repatriation and compensation.
Opposition leader Peter Dutton accused Prime Minister Albanese of creating needless racial division over a doomed referendum. Dutton emphasized warnings given over the preceding months about the potential divisive nature of the proposal.
Inclusive Practices and Unmet Recognition
Australia, with a total population of 25 million, encompasses a rich diversity, including a significant 3% comprising First Nation peoples. The recent constitutional amendment referendum aimed to acknowledge and empower the voice of Indigenous Australians, a crucial step toward fostering inclusivity and addressing historical imbalances.
However, amidst these efforts, it is noteworthy to observe the paradoxical nature of inclusivity. While the amendment sought to recognize and amplify the voices of Australia’s Indigenous population, a reflection on the broader spectrum raises questions. The commitment to inclusion becomes particularly striking when contrasting it with the acknowledgement of other minority groups.
The posting of a Sinhalese translation on the official website, for example, to accommodate the approximately 0.58% of the population who are Sri Lankan immigrants, is a noteworthy practice that demonstrates a dedication to language diversity in almost all the government entities in Australia. However, it appears that the same amount of or even higher respect, which some may claim is their right, did not extend to the First Nations people—the land’s forefathers. This prompts profound insights into the challenges of inclusiveness and the areas where recognition falls short.
Also, there were First Nation stakeholders opposing the Voice aiding the same notion many have contemplated against the amendment. While a majority rallies behind the concept of the Voice, a constitutional acknowledgement for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, not everyone is on board. Notably, figures like Warren Mundine and Jacinta Nampijinpa Price voice their opposition, arguing that the focus should be on practical solutions rather than constitutional symbolism.
This divergence in perspectives isn’t limited to the indigenous community alone. First Nation stakeholders have also emerged in opposition to the proposed Voice, aligning with those sceptical of its potential impact. The challenge lies in reconciling the varied opinions within this diverse tapestry of voices.
Recently, an interesting development unfolded as two prominent indigenous leaders, Warren Mundine and Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, united to bolster their joint campaign against the proposed constitutional recognition. (https://www.reuters.com/business/sustainable-business/campaigns-against-indigenous-referendum-gather-strength-australia-2023-05-11/ )Their collaborative effort, named “Australians for Unity,” seeks to amplify the “No” stance, contending that constitutional amendments may not be the panacea for the issues at hand. In essence, the indigenous community is not a monolithic entity in its stance on the Voice, and this diversity of opinions adds layers to the ongoing conversation about constitutional reform in Australia.
In navigating these complexities, it becomes imperative to foster an inclusive dialogue that transcends cultural and ethnic boundaries. The quest for constitutional recognition is not merely a legal endeavour; it is a societal commitment to weaving together the diverse threads that make up the fabric of Australia. As conversations on constitutional reform continue, there exists an opportunity to reevaluate and strengthen the collective commitment to acknowledging the history, culture, and contributions of all Australians, irrespective of their cultural backgrounds.