On Saturday, Australians participated in their first referendum in a generation, where they voted on whether to address Indigenous disadvantages by incorporating a new advocacy committee into the country’s constitution.
The proposal for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament bitterly divided Australia’s Indigenous minority as well as the wider community.
Indigenous activist Susanne Levy said the Voice would be a setback for Indigenous rights imposed by non-Indigenous Australians.
“We’ve always had a voice. You’re just not listening,” she said, referring to the wider Australian population.
Levy spent Saturday at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, an Indigenous land rights protest that has existed in the heart of the national capital, Canberra, since 1972.
The collection of ramshackle shelters and tents in a park used to be across a street from the Australian Parliament before lawmakers moved into their current premises in 1988.
Old Parliament House is now a museum that was used Saturday as a voting station.
“Yes” campaigner Arnagretta Hunter was promoting the cause outside Old Parliament House just a stone’s throw from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy where signs advocating a “no” vote were on display.
Hunter said she had some sympathy for the Voice’s opponents because some of their questions had not been satisfactorily answered.
She described the Voice as a significant step forward for the nation.
“We can’t listen where there’s no voice. And to legislate that and enshrine that in the constitution is key,” Hunter said.
The Voice would be a committee comprised of and chosen by Indigenous Australians that would advise the Parliament and government on issues that affect the nation’s most disadvantaged ethnic minority.
Voice advocates hope that listening to Indigenous views would lead to more effective delivery of government services and better outcomes for Indigenous lives.
Accounting for only 3.8% of the population, Indigenous Australians die on average eight years younger than the wider population, have a suicide rate twice that of the national average and suffer from diseases in the remote Outback that have been eradicated from other wealthy countries.
Almost 18 million people were enrolled to vote in the referendum, Australia’s first since 1999. Around 6 million cast ballots in early voting over the last three weeks.
Around 2 million postal votes will be counted for up to 13 days after the polls close Saturday.
The result could be known late Saturday unless the vote is close.
Opinion polls in recent months have indicated a strong majority of Australians opposing the proposal. Earlier in the year, a majority supported the Voice before the “no’ campaign gathered intensity.
Australian Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers, who oversaw the referendum, said voting had been orderly apart from a few instances of campaigners harassing voters at polling booths.
“Referendums quite often unleash passions not seen at election time,” Rogers said.
“At an election, people think, ‘Well, in three years I can vote a different way.’ For referendums, it’s different. These are generational issues,” he said.
If the proposal passes, it will be the first successful constitutional amendment since 1977. It also would be the first ever to pass without the bipartisan support of the major political parties.
Opposition leader Peter Dutton described the Voice as “another layer of democracy” that would not provide practical outcomes.
Independent Aboriginal senator Lidia Thorpe voted “no” Saturday and said Indigenous people need grassroots solutions to their problems.
“We’re not going to be dictated to by another prime minister … on trying to fix the Aboriginal problem,” Thorpe said.
“We know the solutions for our own people and our own community,” she added.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese visited every Australian state and mainland territory in the past week encouraging support for the Voice.
He hit back at critics who said his proposal had created division in the Australian community.
“The ‘no’ campaign has spoken about division while stoking it,” Albanese said.
He said the real division in Australia is the difference in living standards between Indigenous people and the wider community.