Early Votes Show Australia Set to Reject Landmark Indigenous Voice Referendum

AAP Image/Jono Searle via REUTERS
Voters are seen at a voting centre during The Voice referendum in West End, inner Brisbane, Australia, October 14, 2023.

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Early results from Australia’s historic referendum to recognize Indigenous people in the constitution suggest the proposal will be rejected, in a setback to the country’s efforts for reconciliation with its First Peoples.

Australians had to write ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ on a ballot paper with a question asking whether they agree to alter the 122-year-old constitution to recognize 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.

With 11.4% of the vote counted, the “No” campaign led “Yes” by 55.4% to 44.6%. Australian broadcaster ABC projected that New South Wales, which includes Sydney and is Australia’s most populous state, would vote “No.”

Counting is under way in three of Australia’s eastern states and its capital region. Voting continues in West Australia, Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory, which are in earlier time zones.

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

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

The Voice to Parliament was proposed in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a 2017 document crafted by Indigenous leaders that set out a roadmap for 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.

Many Indigenous people favor the change, but some say it is a distraction from achieving practical and positive outcomes. The political opposition has criticized the measure, saying it is divisive, would be ineffective, and would slow government decision-making.

In 1967 a referendum to count Indigenous people as part of the Australian population was a resounding success with bipartisan political support. The 2023 referendum has not garnered unified political support, with leaders of the major conservative parties campaigning for a “No” vote.

Referendums are difficult to pass in Australia, with only eight of 44 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.

This is the first referendum in Australia in almost a quarter of a century, and since Australian voters rejected a 1999 proposal to become a republic.

Sharon Minniecon was outside St John’s church in Glebe in central Sydney, where Indigenous people had gathered to support each other on Saturday afternoon as polling booths closed. Her message to Australia was “to exhale – we got to accept what is being voted by the people and just keep moving forward and supporting one another.”

“We are just all sitting together to encourage one another and support one another,” she said.