‘If not now, when?’: Emotional Australian prime minister delivers Indigenous referendum

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia took a step towards a landmark referendum on Thursday to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander recognition in the constitution and for the first time a voice in matters affecting their lives.

In an emotional speech, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has revealed the question the government wants to put in the referendum later this year, urging Australians to support what he described as a long overdue vote.

“For many… this moment has been a very long time in the making,” Albanese said, choking back during a televised news conference and standing alongside several indigenous leaders who support the proposal.

“And yet they’ve shown such patience and optimism through this process, and that spirit of cooperation and thoughtful dialogue and respect has been so important in getting to this point in such a unified way.”

The referendum question to be put to Australians will be: “Proposed Act: to change the Constitution to recognize First Peoples in Australia by creating an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice. Do you agree with this proposed amendment?”.

Indigenous people make up about 3.2% of Australia’s 26 million people, were marginalized by the British colonial rulers and not mentioned in the 122-year-old constitution. They were not granted voting rights until the 1960s and tracked rates below national averages on most social and economic measures.

Albanians urged Australians, who will be required to vote between October and December, to amend the constitution to create an advisory committee in Parliament called Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.

He asked: “If not now, then when?”

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The committee will provide non-binding advice to Parliament on matters affecting First Nations people.

The government will present the bill next week, hoping to pass it in Parliament by the end of June. Any constitutional amendments require a national referendum.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, flanked by members of the First Nations Referendum Working Group, speaks to the media during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, March 23, 2023. AAP Image/Lukas Coch via REUTERS

The opposition demands details

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton said the government had yet to respond to his inquiries about how the advisory committee would work and he needed more details.

“We will decide at the appropriate time whether we are for or against the vote,” Dutton told reporters.

The country-based National Party, the junior partner in the opposition coalition, said it would oppose the vote, while the left-wing Greens and some independent MPs promised support.

A poll for The Guardian on Tuesday showed public support for the referendum had fallen by 5% but was still majority supported, with 59% in favour.

Albanese staked large political capital on the referendum. Since Australia gained independence in 1901, there have been 44 proposals for constitutional change in 19 referendums, and only eight have been approved.

In the last referendum in 1999, Australians voted against changing the constitution to create a republic and replace the British monarch as head of state with a president.

Opponents criticized the wording of that referendum, and Albanese said it aimed to frame the current question as simply and clearly as possible.

The opposition conservative coalition was demanding funding for groups that support and oppose the referendum, but the government made no promises.

The federal government said a “yes-no” pamphlet, containing arguments from both sides, would be sent to all households.

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Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Lincoln Feist and Raju Gopalakrishnan

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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