On 15 October, Indigenous Australians grieved the collapse of a landmark push for Indigenous rights and recognition that was spurned by the country’s white majority in a binding constitutional referendum.
Indigenous leaders called for a “week of silence” to mourn the bitter outcome of Saturday 14’s landside vote. The defeat has called into question decades-long reconciliation efforts.
‘This rejection was never for others to issue’
Aboriginal advocacy groups stated that millions of Australians had ignored the chance to atone for the country’s colonial past and the “brutal dispossession of our people”. A joint statement read:
Now is the time for silence, to mourn and deeply consider the consequence of this outcome.
Much will be asked about the role of racism and prejudice against Indigenous people in this result. The only thing we ask is that each and every Australian who voted in this election reflect hard on this question.
To our people we say: do not shed tears. This rejection was never for others to issue.
The truth is that rejection was always ours to determine. The truth is that we offered this recognition and it has been refused. We now know where we stand in this our own country.
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More than 70% of ballots had been counted by Sunday 15 October. In them, around 61% of Australians said “no” when asked if the 1901 constitution should be changed to recognise the country’s indigenous inhabitants.
In doing so, Australians also voted against creating a new consultative body. This ‘Voice’ to Parliament would have had a say on issues related to Indigenous communities. The proposal was defeated in every state of the country, despite being backed by Australia’s centre-left government.
‘They don’t know our history’
Political gains have never come easily for Aboriginal Australians. They’ve had to fight tooth-and-nail over the years to secure basic voting rights, own traditional lands, and win election to parliament.
Supporters saw the referendum as a way to address the historical injustices inflicted upon First Nations people. Instead, it has exposed the deep racism that still runs through the country more than two centuries since British colonisers dropped anchor in Sydney Harbour.
Indigenous leader Esme Bamblett said that white voters’ unfamiliarity enabled the misinformation that dominated the referendum campaign. Social media posts spread disinformation suggesting that the Voice would lead to land seizures, create a South African-style system of apartheid, or was part of a United Nations plot.
A lot of people don’t know about Aboriginal people. They don’t live in our communities, they don’t work in our communities, and they don’t know what we go through. They don’t know the extent of dispossession and they don’t know our history
‘Reconciliation is dead’
Prominent Aboriginal activist and scholar Marcia Langton declared that decades of work to build trust between Australians had failed. In an interview with NITV, she said:
It’s very clear that Reconciliation is dead. A majority of Australians have said no to an invitation from Indigenous Australia, with a minimal proposition, to give us a bare say in matters that affect our lives, advice that doesn’t need to be taken by the parliament.
I think the No campaigners have a lot to answer for. In poisoning Australia against this proposition and against Indigenous Australia. They say they’re not celebrating, but let’s see how they wheel themselves out in the future.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has urged his divided nation to heal “in the spirit of unity”. He also vowed that his government will continue working to deliver Indigenous recognition. However, it is now deeply unclear what options remain. And, as Langton highlighted, Indigenous Australians are as vulnerable as ever to the political forces arrayed against them:
this has been a cynical political exercise by the Coalition … They’ll now be pressing hard for policies that cause us harm.
Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse.
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