Australia’s Voice campaigners make final push ahead of historic referendum on indigenous rights

Polling shows vote to recognise First Nations people expected to fail amid backlash

Australia’s indigenous community leaders and prime minister Anthony Albanese have issued their final rallying cry in support of a historic referendum to improve the lives of the country’s First Nations population.

Saturday’s referendum, known as “the Voice”, will ask Australians to decide whether to amend the constitution to recognise the country’s original inhabitants and to establish a non-binding body to advise parliament on issues that concern the one million indigenous people.

Despite the modest nature of the proposed changes, the latest polling by Roy Morgan, an Australian research group, suggests the referendum is set to fail, with 54 per cent expected to vote against it and 46 per cent in support.

Albanese, who announced the Voice referendum following Labor’s election victory in May last year, struck an urgent tone on Friday, saying Australia’s 26 million people had “nothing to fear, everything to gain”.


“We can’t continue to have a situation with an eight-year life expectancy gap, where an indigenous young male is more likely to go to jail than to university,” he told state broadcaster ABC. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for recognition.”

Noel Pearson, a leading indigenous rights campaigner, was still hopeful that the referendum could succeed, making his final pitch to voters from Perth on Thursday. “To say to those Australians who are undecided, who are still thinking about yes or no, don’t slam the door on the children,” he said.

Pearson also accused opposition politicians of “vandalising” the referendum, noting that the Voice, originally proposed in 2017, previously had support across the political divide.

The lack of bipartisan backing could be a decisive blow against the vote. Of the 44 referendums in Australia’s history, only eight have been successful, and all of those passed with cross-party support. A constitutional amendment needs not just a majority of popular support, but also to win in at least four of six states.

Peter Dutton, leader of the opposition Liberal Party and one of the most vocal proponents of the “no” campaign, told Sky News on Friday that Albanese and the “yes” supporters had resorted to “pious announcements” but failed to convince the public how the proposal would improve the lives of the indigenous people.

“They’ve won the hearts, they’ve lost the minds,” he said.

Dutton and the “no” campaign have focused on a lack of detail over how the parliament advisory body would work while alleging it would divide the country along racial lines.

The proposal was designed to be an in-principle referendum, asking voters to support the notion of the amendment rather than its specifics. Some indigenous activists have also opposed the Voice as a symbolic gesture that offers little tangible gains while absolving guilt over the country’s colonial history.

Paula Gerber, a law professor and human rights expert at Monash University in Melbourne, said that while the referendum’s failure was not yet a “done deal”, Australian society needed to look closely at the role of the news and social media after the debate became increasingly toxic.

“What the ‘no’ campaign has done well is play to emotions, they’ve really been very successful in generating a lot of fear about this referendum,” she said. “The ‘yes’ campaign has been very much based on logic, reason and the law ... that hasn’t worked.”

Gerber also said media attention had been skewed towards the minority of indigenous Australians who opposed the Voice.

“Indigenous people deserved so much better than the debate we were subjected to this year: the misinformation, death threats, conspiracy theories, the racist nonsense and everything in between,” Bridget Brennan, the ABC’s indigenous affairs editor, wrote in an op-ed this week. “The worst of Australia has been on display.”

Experts noted that if the federal referendum fails on Saturday as projected, advances in indigenous representation are still being made at the state and territory level, except for Western Australia. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023