On the same day New Zealanders cast their votes in the general election for a new centre-right coalition, Australians voted against recognising indigenous people in their constitution, marking what aboriginal leaders are calling a setback for reconciliation efforts.
In a referendum, where Australians chose “Yes” or “No” to acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people with an advisory body, “Voice to Parliament”, 60% voted “No” with nearly 70% of the votes counted. Early projections suggest that all six Australian states opposed the change.
The decision requires majority national support and approval from at least four of the six states.
“I’m devastated,” Indigenous leader and “Yes” campaigner Thomas Mayo told the ABC.
“We need a Voice. We need that structural change.”
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese also campaigned in favour of The Voice, he expressed his disappointment Saturday saying, “Our nation’s road to reconciliation has often been hard.”
“Tonight is not the end of the road and is certainly not the end of our efforts to bring people together.”
The “Voice to Parliament” was a recommendation in the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, a document crafted by Indigenous leaders in 2017 that set out a roadmap for reconciliation with wider Australia.
Australia’s Indigenous people, who make up 3.8% of the 26 million citizens and have lived in the country for around 60,000 years, are not mentioned in the constitution and are the most disadvantaged group in any number of metrics from health, to employment and housing.
The voice referendum lacked bipartisan support. Opposition leader Peter Dutton claimed it was unnecessary and divisive.
“The proposal and the process should have been designed to unite Australians, not to divide us,” he said, on finding out the referendum had failed.
A campaign on social media stoked fears that the Voice, despite being a purely advisory body, would transform into a third parliamentary chamber and would have the ability to disproportionately benefit aboriginal Australians, and disadvantage non-Aboriginal people.
Albanese denounced some media for diverting the referendum discussion away from the purpose of The Voice.
“We have had outlets discuss a range of things that were nothing to do with what was on the ballot paper tonight,” Albanese said.