Australia's Senate votes for holding referendum on Indigenous Voice to Parliament within 6 months

Australia’s Senate has voted for a referendum to be held this year on creating an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, an advocacy body to give the nation’s most disadvantaged ethnic minority more say on government policy

Rod McGuirk
Monday 19 June 2023 03:30 BST

Australia's Senate voted Monday to hold a referendum this year on creating an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, an advocate aiming to give the nation’s most disadvantaged ethnic minority more say on government policy.

Dozens of mainly Indigenous people stood up the public galleries and clapped when senators passed the referendum bill 52 votes to 19.

The Senate vote means the referendum must be held on a Saturday in a two-to-six-month window.

While the Voice would advocate for Indigenous interests, it would not have a vote on laws, and debate for and against the elected body has become increasingly heated and divisive.

Proponents hope the Voice will improve living standards for Indigenous Australians, who account for 3.2% of Australia’s population and are the most nation’s most disadvantaged ethnic group.

If the referendum is passed, it would be Australia’s first successful referendum since 1977 and the first ever to pass without bipartisan support.

Opposition spokesperson on the attorney general’s portfolio Michaelia Cash told the Senate on Monday most of her colleagues would vote to hold the referendum “because we believe in the people of this nation and their right to have a say.”

“This is not because we agree with what this bill ultimately sets out to achieve, which is of course to irrevocably change this nation’s constitution in a way that will destroy one of our most fundamental values: equality of citizenship,” Cash told the Senate before the vote.

Opposition Sen. Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, who is Indigenous, said the Voice proposal was already dividing Australia along racial lines.

“If the ‘yes’ vote is successful, we will be divided forever,” Price said.

“I want to see Australia move forward as one, not two divided. That’s why I will be voting ‘no,’” Price added.

Independent Senator Lidia Thorpe, who is also Indigenous, said she opposed the Voice because it was powerless.

“It’s appeasing white guilty in this country by giving the poor little Black fellas a powerless advisory body,” Thorpe said.

Assistant Minister for Indigenous Australians Malarndirri McCarthy said providing Indigenous people with a Voice was a “very simple request” and urged all sides to keep the debate respectful.

“I urge all Australians to dig deep, to listen to the better side of yourself throughout this debate,” said McCarthy, who is Indigenous.

“This is a critical moment in our country’s history. It is the right thing to do ... and it is time now to put this question to the Australian people,” she added.

Australia’s House of Representatives last month voted overwhelming in support of holding the referendum.

The Liberal Party and Nationals party, which formed a conservative coalition government for nine years before the center-left Labor Party was elected last year, both oppose the Voice.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese committed his government to holding the referendum during his election night victory speech.

The Voice was recommended in 2017 by a group of 250 Indigenous leaders who met at Uluru, a landmark sandstone rock in central Australia that is a scared site to traditional owners. They were delegates of the First Nations National Constitutional Convention that the then-government had asked for advice on how the Indigenous population could be acknowledged in the constitution.

The conservative government immediately rejected the prospect of the Voice, which it likened to a third chamber of Parliament.

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