Australia will hold a historic Indigenous rights referendum on October 14, the prime minister said Wednesday, setting up a defining moment for the nation’s relationship with Aboriginal minorities.
“On that day, every Australian will have a once-in-a-generation chance to bring our country together,” Anthony Albanese said as he announced the date for the compulsory and binding vote.
“October 14 is our time. It’s our chance. It’s a moment calling out to the best of our Australian character.”
If passed, Indigenous Australians — whose ancestors have lived on the continent for at least 60,000 years — would be recognised in the constitution for the first time.
They would also gain a constitutionally enshrined right to be consulted on laws that impact their communities, the so-called “Voice to Parliament”.
“It permits our people to have a seat at the table,” said Indigenous academic and constitutional lawyer Megan Davis.
The “yes” campaign is currently trailing in the polls, sparking fears a failed referendum could tarnish Australia’s global reputation and squander a rare chance to reduce pervasive inequality.
“Voting no closes the door on this opportunity to move forward,” Albanese said from South Australia, a crucial swing state.
“Don’t close the door on the next generation of Indigenous Australians.”
Aboriginal Australians carry the flame for some of the world’s oldest continuous cultures.
But more than two centuries after the first British settlers dropped anchor in Sydney Harbour, they are still far more likely to die young, live in poverty, and wind up in prison.
The leader of Australia’s conservative opposition party Peter Dutton has spearheaded the “no” campaign, has argued it is not “in our country’s best interests” and claimed it would create red tape.
Indigenous activist Georgia Corrie, 30, has been drumming up support in the Northern Territory, which has the highest proportional Aboriginal population in the country.
“The feeling on the ground is great, there is a lot of support for the upcoming referendum,” she told AFP.
“Australians have recognised it’s time to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”
Albanese points to polls which showed about 80 percent of Indigenous Australians support the Voice. But it is by no means universally popular.
Some fear it would taint the constitution or strain race relations, while some Indigenous Australians believe it does not go far enough.
Conservative Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, an Indigenous Australian who opposes the Voice, said it would sow division and discontent.
“We will not allow the prime minister and this referendum to divide our country along the lines of race within our constitution,” she said following Albanese’s announcement.
Initial surveys hinted at broad support for the proposal, but approval has “been on a downward arc” in recent months, pollster William Bowe told AFP.
Bowe said the “no” campaign’s adept use of Indigenous spokespeople had “persuaded a lot of Australians that it’s not racist for them to do what they are naturally inclined to do in referendums, which is to cautiously favour the status quo.”
Since Australia became a federation in 1901, 44 constitutional referendums have been held. Only eight have passed, most recently 1977 votes setting retirement ages for judges, allowing electors in territories to vote and setting a process for filling vacant Senate seats.
For this referendum to pass it needs to win a majority of votes in a majority of Australia’s eight states and territories.
One poll on the eve of Albanese’s announcement found slim support in the key state of South Australia, while a different survey in Tasmania had respondents leaning towards no.
Former conservative foreign minister Julie Bishop warned this week that a no vote would send a “very negative message” to the world about Australia’s respect for racial equality.