CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Opposing campaigners made their final pitches on Friday over changing the Australia’s constitution to acknowledge a place for Indigenous Australians on the eve of the nation’s first referendum in a generation.
The referendum has the potential to amend Australia’s founding legal document for the first time since 1977. But opinion polls suggest that the amendment will be rejected as more than four-in-five referendums have been in the past.
Australians are being asked to alter the constitution to recognize the “First Peoples of Australia” by establishing an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.
The committee comprised of and chosen by Indigenous Australians would advise the Parliament and government on issues that affect the nation’s most disadvantaged ethnic minority.
Indigenous Australians account for only 3.8% of Australia’s population. But they die on average eight years younger than the wider population, have a suicide rate twice that of the national average and suffer from diseases in the remote Outback that have been eradicated from other wealthy countries.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, a leading Voice advocate, cited the Israel-Hamas war to underscore why Australians should vote “yes” out of kindness toward the Indigenous population.
“This week of all weeks where we see such trauma in the world, there is nothing — no cost — to Australians showing kindness, thinking with their heart as well as their head, when they enter the polling booth tomorrow and vote ‘yes,’” Albanese said.
“Kindness costs nothing. Thinking of others costs nothing. This is a time where Australians have that opportunity to show the generosity of spirit that I see in the Australian character where at the worst of times we always see the best of the Australian character,” Albanese added.
Opposition leader Peter Dutton, whose conservative party opposes the Voice, said polling showing declining support for the referendum over the past year was evidence Albanese failed to convince voters of the benefits of the Voice.
“He’s instinctively won their hearts because Australians do want better outcomes for Indigenous Australians, but he hasn’t won their minds,” Dutton told Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Indigenous activist Robbie Thorpe drew attention to Indigenous division over the Voice this week by applying for a High Court injunction to stop the referendum. “The referendum is an attack on Aboriginal Sovereignty,” Thorpe said in a statement on Friday.
But the High Court said his writ had been rejected on Thursday on the grounds that it appeared to be an abuse of the court process, frivolous, vexatious or outside the court’s jurisdiction.
Thorpe is among so-called progressive “no” campaigners who argue an Indigenous committee with no power of veto over legislation is not a sufficiently radical change.
Many progressives argue the constitution should more importantly acknowledge that Indigenous Australians never ceded their land to British colonizers and a treaty was a higher priority than a Voice.
Conservative “no” campaigners argue the Voice is too radical and the courts could interpret its powers in unpredictable ways.
Some Indigenous people don’t have faith that the Voice’s membership would represent their diverse priorities.
“Yes” campaigner Kyam Maher, an Indigenous man who is South Australia state’s attorney general, said the question he was most often asked by thousands of voters was what result Indigenous Australians wanted.
“I can say absolutely and overwhelmingly Aboriginal people want their fellow Australians to vote ‘yes’ tomorrow,” Maher said.
An opinion poll published this week supported Maher’s view that a majority of Indigenous Australians wanted the Voice although that support had eroded since early 2023.
Polling suggests the referendum will lose despite Australia’s peak legal, business, faith and sporting groups overwhelmingly supporting the Voice.
Anne Twomey, a Sydney University constitutional law expert and a member of the Constitutional Expert Group that advised the government on drafting the referendum question, said she feared that Australian lawmakers might give up trying to change the constitution if the referendum fails.
“I think it is a big concern if we end up with a constitution that’s frozen in time that we can’t change,” Twomey said.
“In practice around the world, when a constitution becomes frozen and out of date with the world that it operates in, it becomes brittle and when there’s ever any stress on it, it does tend to break,” she added.
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