Australians will vote on October 14 on whether they want to change the constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait island people, a defining moment in the struggle for Indigenous rights in the country.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced the date for the landmark referendum at a packed news conference in Adelaide on Wednesday, describing it as a once-in-a-generation chance to unite the nation.
“October 14 is our time…it’s our chance,” Albanese told a cheering crowd.
“It’s a moment calling out to the best of our Australian character. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people this has been a marathon. For all of us, it is now a sprint.”
Australians will now face a six-week campaign before voting in the referendum, where they would be asked whether they support altering the constitution to include a “Voice to Parliament”, an Indigenous committee to advise federal parliament on matters affecting the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people.
Any constitutional alterations in Australia require a national referendum.
Australia is a global laggard on relations with its Indigenous people, in comparison to many other developed nations including Canada, New Zealand, EU nations and the U.S.
It has no treaty with its Indigenous people, who make up about 3.2% of its near 26 million population and track below national averages on most socio-economic measures.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people are not mentioned in Australia’s constitution despite inhabiting the land for over 65,000 years.
Pat Anderson, an Aboriginal woman who is co-leading the campaign for the change said a majority of Aboriginal people support the Voice to Parliament because they know it will improve outcomes.
“Between now and referendum day, we ask everyone to remember that we as First Nations Peoples know what works best for our communities and we believe that a Voice will finally be the step to improve our peoples’ lives,” she said in a statement.
The government has staked significant political capital on the referendum’s success, and top sporting codes, major corporations and welfare groups support the campaign.
But public debate on the issue has been divisive, and support for the proposal has dipped in recent months, according to opinion polls.
Backers argue voting yes will help mend fraught ties with the Aboriginal community and unite the nation, and the advisory body will help prioritise Indigenous health, education, employment and housing.
Some opponents, however, argue the move would divide Australians along racial lines and hand excessive power to the Indigenous body. Others have described the Voice as a symbolic and toothless body.
“Voting No leads nowhere….it means nothing changes,” Albanese said. “Voting No closes the door on this opportunity to move forward.”
Referendums in Australia need to surpass a high bar of ‘double majority’ to be successful. This means it must be backed by more than 50% of voters nationwide, and supported from a majority of voters in at least four of the six states.
In the past there have been 44 proposals for constitutional change in 19 referendums, and only eight of these have passed, the last in 1977.
In the most recent referendum in 1999, Australians voted against changing the constitution to establish Australia as a republic.