In a high-profile referendum, the Australian public rejected amending the country’s constitution to introduce a first-of-its-kind advisory body representing indigenous people.
Australians went to the polls on Saturday to vote on whether to alter the national charter to recognize the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice,” better known simply as “the Voice,” a proposed body that would advise Australia’s Parliament on matters related to its indigenous people. Opponents of the Voice argued that having a separate advisory body would be divisive and bureaucratic.
To pass, a referendum needs to receive majority support both nationally and in at least four of Australia’s six states. The Voice referendum met neither threshold.
Indigenous Australians, whose ancestors have inhabited the land for more than 60,000 years, account for less than 4% of the country’s 26 million population. But relative to their non-indigenous counterparts, indigenous Australians on average have about eight years less life expectancy and fall short in a number of other socio-economic indicators, including education and employment levels.
The Voice vote was the culmination of indigenous leaders’ decades-long call for constitutional recognition. In May 2017, over 250 representatives from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples issued a landmark statement seeking to establish the parliamentary Voice after a four-day convention at the foot of Uluru, a historically significant site to indigenous Australians. Since he became Prime Minister in 2022, Anthony Albanese promised to deliver on this “Uluru Statement from the Heart,” formally announcing the referendum in March this year and supporting it through the very end.
But the referendum, which advocates hoped would unify Australians, appeared instead to bring out a racist underbelly—from the burning of indigenous flags to the attacking of Yes campaigners with slurs to the spreading of racist disinformation. A groundswell of opposition formed in the lead-up to the vote, turning what was once generally positive public sentiment for the Voice against it.
While Australians may think that it’s an insular issue, political historian Paul Strangio at Monash University says the failure of the Voice referendum will have international repercussions, perpetuating Australia’s outlier status among former colonial countries in constitutionally acknowledging its native peoples. “I think [the] international community will look with curiosity at Australia, how we compare to other certain societies, like Canada and New Zealand, [that] have been able to recognize their indigenous populations. And yet here is Australia, in 2023, falling short on this step of recognizing indigenous Australians.”
Historically, referendums in Australia haven’t had a good record of passing. In the 122 years since its Federation, Australia has had 44 referendums on constitutional amendments. Only eight have been successful—including a 1967 vote to no longer exclude Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from the nation’s official population, which saw 90.77% of votes in favor, making it one of the most successful national campaigns in Australia’s history.
“The Australian public is highly conservative when it comes to constitutional amendment,” says Strangio. “History shows that proposals for constitutional change are virtually doomed if they lack bipartisan support.”
Campaigners for the Voice argue that the opposition successfully stoked negative perception. “I think the no campaign has run a very effective campaign,” says Paula Gerber, a law professor at Monash University. “They have relied on fear and people’s emotions and being scared of change.”
Those against the Voice, including opposition leader Peter Dutton of the Liberal Party and Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, charged that details about the proposed body’s composition and scope of powers were scant, and that constitutionally enshrining the Voice would sow division among Australians. They also argued against redundancy, saying that there already are bodies catering to indigenous residents, and an additional institution would only bloat government operating costs.
But beyond the logistical arguments, a fog of falsehoods spread online, too. Conspiracy theories—such as that the Voice would raise taxes and strip Australians of their homes, that the election was rigged, that the law would only cater to the indigenous elite, or even that the Voice would be the first step toward the U.N. invading Australia—proliferated the internet.
Dani Linder, a Bundjalung, Kungarakany woman and law lecturer at the University of Queensland in Australia, tells TIME that efforts by proponents to educate the masses were dampened by the disinformation.
“It’s been one struggle to just sort of educate people and get them up to scratch as to what’s going on,” says Linder. “It’s been another issue entirely to correct the disinformation that’s been spread out after we’ve tried to inform voters, and we’ve put a lot of work and time and effort and money into that.”
In reality, the Voice was a “simple and modest request,” says Thomas Mayo, a Torres Strait Islander of Kaurareg Aboriginal and Kalkalgal, Erubamle heritage and one of the prominent faces of the Yes campaign.
“If we do fail,” Mayo told TIME the day before the vote, “then what we know for sure is that things will continue to get worse … we know life will continue to be one of entrenched disadvantage.”
What happens next?
Yes campaigners fear that the referendum’s defeat will further intensify the prejudices and inequities that prompted the Voice’s proposal in the first place.
Linder says the result will be “quite distressing” for Indigenous people, considering that the vote has “brought up a lot of racism and discrimination or treatment towards Aboriginal people in this country.” In terms of next steps, Linder says indigenous communities will recalibrate, and will likely focus on asking for other elements of the 2017 Uluru Statement to be upheld.
Aside from the Voice vote, the 2017 statement also called for the establishment of a Makarrata Commission—which could supervise the establishment of treaties between the Australian federal government and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
But there’s also now an onus on the Albanese government, says Strangio, to recognize the public fracturing over the vote and to ensure that no one feels like second-class citizens in the country.
“There will be a real obligation on the part of the Australian Prime Minister to somehow make sense of that and start that healing process,” he says. “I think Albanese will need to explain why the whole idea of reconciliation still remains genuine in Australia.”