MELBOURNE, Australia—Thomas Mayo speaks without notes. For the past six years, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander man has traveled Australia delivering a version of this speech: a call to support the Uluru Declaration of the Heart, an invitation to the 2017 reconciliation of Australian Indigenous leaders who have called for, among other things, the creation of an Indigenous representative body in Parliament, called the Voice.
On a sweltering summer morning in a sprawling colonial-era house in Toorak, one of Melbourne’s wealthiest suburbs, Mayo was addressing a friendly crowd – leaders of local community groups, churches and charities who had come together to support the ‘yes’ campaign. , which seeks to enshrine the Voice in the country’s constitution.
“The policy makers of this country for too long have not been responsible for their failures and their cruelties,” Mayo told the packed house. “The Voice is a mechanism for us to hold them to account. A voice that they cannot take away, that they are constitutionally bound to listen to.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who led the centre-left Labor Party to power in 2022, has pledged to hold a referendum this year on constitutional recognition of Indigenous peoples and creating a voice. All indications suggest that the vote will take place in October.
“I had a lot of emotions sitting here this morning, listening to the opening words,” Mayo told Toorak, “realizing it’s 2023, the year we’re going to have a referendum in this country and have a rare opportunity to hear from Indigenous peoples on a permanent basis.
Voice in Parliament was one of three proposals made in the Heart Statement, which was released after months of negotiation among Indigenous communities culminating in a national conference at Uluru in Australia’s red center . Native leaders viewed the incorporation of the Voice into the Constitution as essential because so many Native advisory bodies before it had been destroyed by the political tides.
A truth process about the continent’s history was also demanded, and an agreement recognizing indigenous land ownership was never ceded – a treaty. Australia remains the only Commonwealth nation never to have signed a treaty with its indigenous peoples, 200 years after British colonization was justified by the myth that Australia was zero ground– no man’s land.
Mayo, a dockworker turned maritime union organizer, was part of the 2017 conference in Uluru, having worked his way up the local dialogues. He says winning this year’s referendum is the first step towards realizing reconciliation, the motivating vision of the Heart Declaration. To do so, however, the yes campaign will need to secure a double majority: a majority of the national vote, and also more than 50% support in a majority of Australia’s six states. Since the country’s federation in 1901, only eight of 44 such referendums have passed.
Australians have consistently expressed frustration with the lack of progress in achieving equality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, often referred to as “closing the gap”. A 2022 survey showed that more than 60% of non-Indigenous Australians want the government to do more to uplift historically marginalized Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. And yet, Voice has become a surprisingly complex issue. His success at the polls is by no means guaranteed.
Early polls found that when forced to choose, 58% of respondents would vote “yes” to accept the declaration, which is broadly in line with public polls. However, only 23% of them were a “strong yes”, indicating a major challenge to achieve a double majority. To change the needle, the yes campaign plans to take a grassroots approach, enlisting supporters, such as those gathered to hear Mayo speak, as advocates for “kitchen table conversations” with their neighbors. With nearly a third of Australians born overseas, migrant communities have been identified as a key voter group.
The “no” campaign, on the other hand, took a much more publicized approach. Its supporters hammered home the need for more details on how the vote would work and what powers it would have. Some of the most prominent no activists are indigenous. For example, Northern Territory Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, of the country’s Liberal Party, was a major opponent of the declaration’s passage and warned of Voice’s potential to divide the country along racial lines.
For Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, confusion over how Voice works has become a key talking point. “Millions of Australians want to hear the details of what the Prime Minister is promoting,” he said in an interview with Sky News. A former police officer whose tough stance on immigration once sparked a New York Times columnist to describe him as a “little Trump,” Dutton has yet to announce a position on the voice.
(Albanese’s position is that details of the Voice will be worked out after the referendum is passed; the current wording of the amendment only promises that the Voice can make “representations” to Parliament, with no mention of the ability to making laws. Albanese even called the proposed body “subordinate” to Parliament, a description that angered many Voice supporters.)
In addition, there are structural barriers to any Referendum vote in Australia. Professor Frank Bongiorno of the Australian National University says it is difficult to pass a referendum without bipartisan support. “It’s really hard to get [referendums] when they are controversial,” Bongiorno said. “Big majorities in the polls in favor of a particular proposal can disappear within months.”
Australia’s last referendum, held in 1999 on whether to become a republic, only got a 45% ‘yes’ vote after pro-monarchist groups campaigned hard for loopholes in the proposed model. “Once doubts and concerns are planted in people’s minds about a proposal, it’s historically been very difficult to put that proposal into place,” Bongiorno said.
Even in the early months of the campaign, Voice’s requests for logistical details were effective in shaking the yes majority. A recent survey suggests that support has now fallen below 50%, although that figure rose to 58% when the undecided were forced to take a stand. Indeed, even in a room full of supporters, Mayo was peppered with questions about why he couldn’t offer details to coax the gatekeepers into supporting the Voice. But he is firm that the referendum is a matter of principle, namely: “Should there be a voice for indigenous peoples or not?” Mayo echoed Albanese in saying the details of the model are left to parliament to decide after the vote. “Keeping it simple is the way to go,” he said.
In a February speech that linked the referendum debate to the threat of democratic decadence, Albanese said some opponents of The Voice were “pushing disinformation on social media, sparking outrage, trying to start a culture war.” Some commentators have suggested that recent concerns about crime and alcohol abuse in the predominantly Aboriginal town of Alice Springs, echoed in Rupert Murdoch-owned media, are nothing more than a ‘moral panic’ threatening “to engulf the debate on a vote to [P]parliament”.
Another complication for the outlook for the vote is opposition from high-level Indigenous leaders on the political left who believe the proposal is premature. Chief among this group is Senator Lidia Thorpe. Earlier this year, as an indigenous spokesperson for the Greens, a left-wing party that holds about 10% of the national vote, Thorpe advocated for a treaty before the Voice was created. “When the British invaded these lands, we never sat down to negotiate what peaceful coexistence looks like,” Thorpe wrote in an op-ed for national Aboriginal television SBS. Consequently, the Greens gave up supporting the yes campaign.
Australian National Day, January 26, which marks the arrival of white settlers in Australia and is a day of mourning known as Invasion Day for many Indigenous peoples, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Melbourne to take part in a rally billed as anti-voice. Thorpe addressed the gathering wearing a shirt that read “Sovereignty Never Ceded.” She called for a treaty, action on Indigenous deaths in custody and an end to the forced removal of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander children from their families.
“They’re still killing us,” she told the large crowd, which stretched halfway downtown. “They always steal our babies.”
A few weeks later, Thorpe announced that she would leave the Greens and become an independent senator to “speak freely on all issues from a sovereign perspective without being constrained in Green Party portfolios and positions”. Immediately after his departure, the Greens announced that they would support the Voice.
Thorpe welcomed the Albanian government’s recent confirmation that it was moving forward with the establishment of the Makarrata Commission proposed in the statement, which would oversee the treaty negotiations. Still, she told national broadcaster ABC last week, “we deserve better than a helpless voice…. We want real power; we want real justice in this country. Everything else we have been offered over the past 200 years has no power. And we settle for nothing less.
For his part, Mayo believes that the yes campaign can win. At the same time, he recognized the high cost of failure. “We will not see another referendum in our lifetime or for generations on constitutional recognition [if it fails],” he said.
The stakes, for Mayo, are clear; the risks, sharp. But then, after years of campaigning, the dream of waking up the day after the referendum to a country that voted yes, when Australia, Mayo said, “is suddenly no longer a young nation, but a nation that can celebrating more than 60,000 years of continuous culture and unique heritage in the world.
. Australia debate the opportunity give a voice aux peoples native Parliament
. Australia debates give indigenous peoples voice parliament