Australia’s Parliament on Monday passed legislation that will allow for a historic referendum on Aboriginal rights, in which voters will decide whether indigenous peoples have a “voice” in national policymaking. The Senate passed the legislation with 52 votes in favor and 19 against, and now Prime Minister Anthony Albanese must set a date for the referendum in the coming weeks.
The center-left government seeks to amend the constitution to empower Aborigines, who face poorer health, education, and higher rates of incarceration compared to the rest of the population. Australia’s Indigenous Affairs Minister Linda Burney, who is Aboriginal, said the referendum will be a turning point for the country and expressed her excitement at the start of campaigning.
If passed, Aboriginal Australians, who have inhabited the continent for at least 60,000 years, will have constitutionally guaranteed rights to be consulted by the government on laws affecting their communities.
However, the debate has intensified with warnings from the conservative opposition that this will divide the country along racial lines. In addition, the bill does not have universal support among Aboriginal Australians, with some questioning whether it is a bureaucratic fix that will have a limited impact on reality.
While initial polls indicate that a majority of Australians would vote in favor, some recent polls show a decline in support amid the heated debate that has ensued. The Aboriginal Rights Referendum is a major issue and could have a significant impact on the future of the relationship between the Australian government and the country’s indigenous communities.