SYDNEY - Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese cast his “Yes” vote in the country’s Voice referendum a week early, declaring the nation had a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to recognise Indigenous people in the constitution.
“This is an important moment in the history of our nation,” Albanese said on Saturday at an event in his constituency in an inner Sydney suburb. About two million people have cast ballots in early voting, according to local media.
The government’s proposal, known as the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, is to include an Indigenous advisory body to Parliament in the constitution. Campaigning for the nationwide Oct 14 referendum has become increasingly divisive in recent weeks, and major polls suggest the country will reject the proposition.
Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney acknowledged in an interview with ABC Television on Saturday that the “Yes” vote was behind in the polls but said Australians could still be convinced to vote in favour of recognising Indigenous people “conversation by conversation”.
“When people take a few minutes to actually talk and understand what the referendum is about, what the question is about, they very, very much say ‘well, that sounds fair enough’,” she said.
All major surveys show the “No” side leading, although an Essential Media survey released last week found the “Yes” vote rising to 43% from 41% and opposition to the proposal sliding to 49% from 51%. It was the first gain for “Yes” after months of worsening figures.
“Australians have legitimate concerns about this constitutional change,” Liberal Party opposition leader Peter Dutton wrote in a column for the West Australian newspaper Saturday.
“Yet for merely asking reasonable questions they have been called Chicken Littles, doomsayers and fearmongers.”
Indigenous Australians experience high levels of social and economic disadvantage. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are more likely to be imprisoned, earn lower wages or be unemployed, and have a shorter life expectancy than non-Indigenous people.
The Indigenous Voice was originally suggested by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elders in 2017, and was picked up by Albanese before his election win in May 2022. Early referendum balloting has begun, including in remote Indigenous communities.
Two former Australian Liberal prime ministers, John Howard and Tony Abbott, said a Voice to Parliament will not improve practical outcomes for Indigenous people in central Australia, The Australian reported on Saturday.
“I’m not going to take lectures from John Howard who was in office for 12 years, and Tony Abbott, who was the prime minister of this nation as well, who cut funding for Indigenous programmes in his 2014 budget,” Albanese said at the Sydney event.