Australia sets date for referendum on First Nations people

Australians to vote on whether to recognise the country’s First Nations people in the constitution for the first time through a body called the Voice to Parliament

The wait is finally over. On Wednesday in Adelaide, prime minister Anthony Albanese announced that the historic Voice to Parliament referendum will take place on October 14th. In Australia it is compulsory to vote and there is an important choice to be made.

Australians will arrive at polling stations to vote yes or no on whether to recognise the country’s First Nations people in the constitution for the first time through a body called the Voice to Parliament. This would be led by indigenous people and would advise the government on significant issues that relate to their communities such as health, education and welfare.

The question that will be on ballot papers will be the following: “A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?”

At first glance, it seems like a fairly simple proposition that should have strong support. However, every major poll has the Voice to Parliament losing nationally. The question is: why?


Shortly after his election as prime minister last year, Albanese said, “On behalf of the Australian Labor Party, I commit to the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full.” It was a powerful endorsement of his government’s willingness to work with Aboriginal communities to achieve positive outcomes.

In 2017, Aboriginal leaders created the Uluru statement, which called for a First Nations voice to be established in the constitution. .

For Albanese’s first year in power, opposition leader Peter Dutton, leader of the conservative Liberal Party, was largely irrelevant in national conversations – until the Voice to Parliament changed everything. Dutton has continually challenged Albanese about the lack of detail surrounding the Voice and Labor’s inability to clearly communicate its benefits, which has clearly contributed to support for the Yes vote slipping. Now, Dutton believes he has a final trump card to play in parliament.

Dutton has frequently asked Albanese about the government’s plans for a treaty with First Nations people. It is a reasonable question, given Albanese’s support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which clearly mentions a treaty, but he has been unable to give a straight answer. Albanese is aware that Dutton has already thrived on a scare campaign that would be fuelled by confirming federal support for a treaty. Polling has shown that some voters are concerned that any treaty could mean financial reparations.

A treaty would be an agreement or understanding between Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the government, with its details to be defined. Albanese has stated that treaty negotiations are already happening at a state level, indeed within Dutton’s own state of Queensland the idea received bipartisan support. Albanese has been non-committal in his responses regarding any federal support of a treaty, fully aware that the Yes vote cannot afford to slip any further. However, if he refuses to engage with any discussions about a treaty at all, he runs the risk of losing support from key Indigenous leaders.

Albanese will also be mindful of his own party’s backflip in Western Australia on recent laws aimed at protecting Aboriginal cultural heritage sites after widespread opposition from farmers and small landowners. In July, a new Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act came into force in the state, replacing a previous Act from 1972. It was designed to avoid a repeat of the circumstances that enabled the destruction of the Juukan Gorge rock shelter by the mining company Rio Tinto in 2020.

Under the new law, anyone who had more than 1,100sq m of land was required to apply for a permit from their local Aboriginal cultural heritage services before carrying out certain activities that could disrupt potential Indigenous sites, such as building fences or planting trees. The state’s Labor government was lobbied strongly not to carry out the laws by farming bodies, but rejected the pleas.

In early August, Western Australia premier Roger Cook confirmed that the laws would be scrapped after only 39 days in operation. “Put simply, the laws went too far, were too prescriptive, too complicated and placed unnecessary burdens on everyday Western Australian property owners,” he said. It is not coincidental that polling now shows that the Yes campaign in the Voice to Parliament referendum has little chance of succeeding in the state.

Albanese has influential allies, including outgoing Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce, who has been a key corporate supporter of the Voice to Parliament, with three of the airline’s aircraft bearing the livery of the Yes campaign. Albanese has also received significant support from former members of the opposition, including former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and former foreign minister Julie Bishop.

The recruitment of Bishop and Turnbull, both Liberal stalwarts, is significant and smart. Their recent support could sway many Australians who are still undecided, particularly those who are not traditionally Labor voters. Bishop highlighted the international reputational damage that could hit Australia in the case of a No vote.

“I have no doubt that it would be sending a very negative message about the openness, and the empathy, and the respect and responsibility that the Australian people have for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders,” she said.

Critically, all major sporting bodies in Australia back the Yes vote, which will become increasingly important by September when millions across the country are watching rugby league and Australian football finals. Football Australia is also a strong supporter, its standing bolstered by a hugely successful Women’s World Cup.

Nevertheless, the task is still daunting.

This will be the 45th referendum in Australia’s history and the first in 23 years. Of the last 44 referendums, only eight were successful. Albanese knows that history is not on his side, but he has six crucial weeks to convince Australia to vote Yes. His decision to announce the date of the referendum in Adelaide was significant and could help to swingthe state of South Australia to vote Yes.

The fight isn’t over, and although Albanese is badly bruised, he is in no mood to throw in the towel. There is far too much at stake.