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Irish-based Aussies head to the polls amid historic vote on rights for Indigenous Australians

Australia’s government is calling for a Yes vote, but polls suggest majority will vote against constitutional amendment

Outside a redbrick terraced building on Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green on Thursday morning, ordinary people are coming and going in a trickle. The reason: they are contributing to a referendum that will capture millions of votes over the coming days.

Inside, the Australian embassy building is equipped with a scattering of modest desks and a row of cardboard voting booths. Citizens fill out forms and drop their ballots before heading back into the rain.

They are voting on a constitutional amendment that would help create a “voice” entity giving specific representation to the country’s historically ill-served Indigenous population.

But in Australia, referendums are infrequent and generally fall. There have been 44 since 1901, with just eight of these successful. The last, asking voters whether the country should become a republic, was voted down in 1999 and, according to polling, this one looks likely to follow suit.


The process began, in part, with the 2017 Uluru “statement from the heart” issued by Indigenous leaders who requested a representative voice to make their views known on issues pertinent to their communities. The resulting referendum is seen as part of a broader effort to address past inequities.

Voters are being asked to approve a change to Australia’s constitution that would recognise Indigenous people through a body called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.

“It’s not for me to speak for 26 million Australians,” says the country’s ambassador to Ireland Gary Gray. “But it is reasonable to say that the health, education, employment, that the opportunities for our First Nations people have not been good.”

During a 2017 visit to Australia, President Micheal D Higgins acknowledged before parliament the historic injustices inflicted on the country’s Indigenous people by Irish emigrants.

Nine years earlier, Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd formally apologised for the “stolen generation” of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who were forcibly taken from their families by the state.

“Australia, like Ireland, has a lot of difficult history, a lot of painful history and a lot of hurt in its history. And like Ireland it’s not always someone else’s fault,” says Mr Gray.

“Understanding and accepting your history is a difficult journey for all modern countries. We see this in Europe, we see this in Canada, [and] in Australia. We see it in Ireland. And so addressing some of our shortcomings through measures such as this makes sense.”

There are 3,500 Australian citizens living in Ireland and 14,500 dual citizens. They are obliged to vote by law, meaning turnouts are extremely high – typically about 96 per cent. One in 10 of the Australian population claims Irish heritage.

In Dublin, officials recorded about 100 in-person votes a day once the polling station opened last Monday. Polling day in Australia is Saturday.

“It’s an important debate for us to have,” says John Weber from Sydney, who is visiting Ireland. “I’m not sure that the outcome is [going to be] what the government would like it to be. All of the statistical analysis ... suggests that it’s been going toward No.

“I think the public perceive that the government hasn’t told them what the change actually envisages. You’re voting for a concept, not a thing.”

Dave Harris (54) from near Sydney says the vote has become divisive. “I’ll be voting Yes. Unfortunately I don’t think it’s going to pass because there’s just so much negative, wedge politics back home.”

There is a noticeable level of engagement on the issue. Jack Coyle and Lily Dawson, both in their early 20s, believe misinformation was a problem in the run-up to the vote.

“Among my friends and my circles the consensus is leaning towards a Yes vote,” says Ms Dawson “I think that would be carried across young people in general.”

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times