‘If not now, when?’: Emotional Australian PM pushes ahead with Indigenous referendum

SYDNEY, March 23 (Reuters) – Australia took a step towards a historic vote on Thursday to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people constitutional recognition and a voice for the first time on matters that affect their lives.

In an emotional speech, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese revealed the question the government wants to put to a referendum later this year, urging Australians to back what he described as a long-overdue referendum.

“For many … this moment has been a very long time in the making,” Albanese said, choking up during a televised news conference where he stood with several tribal leaders who supported the proposal.

“However, they have shown such patience and faith through this process, and that spirit of cooperation and thoughtful, respectful dialogue is critical to getting to this point in such a united fashion.”

The referendum question put to Australians is: “A proposed Act: To amend the Constitution to recognize Australia’s First Peoples by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice. Do you approve of this proposed change?”.

Aboriginal people, who make up about 3.2% of Australia’s population of 26 million, were marginalized by British colonial rulers and are not represented in the 122-year-old constitution. They were not given the right to vote until the 1960s and were below the national average in most socio-economic measures.

Albanese urged Australians, who will be asked to vote between October and December, to amend the constitution to create an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice in parliament.

“If not now, when?” he asked.

The committee will provide non-binding advice to Parliament on matters affecting First Nations peoples.

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The government will introduce the bill next week and hopes to have it passed by parliament by the end of June. Any constitutional changes require a national referendum.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, surrounded by members of the First Nations Referendum Task Force, speaks to the media during a news conference at Parliament House in Canberra on March 23, 2023. AAP Image/Lucas Koch via REUTERS

The opposition is looking for details

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton said the government had yet to respond to his questions about how the advisory committee would work and that more details were needed.

“We will decide in due course whether we support or oppose the vote,” Dutton told reporters.

The rural-based National Party, the junior partner in the opposition coalition, has said it opposes the vote, while the left-wing Green Party and some independent legislators have pledged support.

A Guardian poll on Tuesday showed popular support for the referendum fell by 5%, but the majority support remained at 59%.

Albanians have staked considerable political capital on the referendum. Since Australian independence in 1901, there have been 44 proposals for constitutional change in 19 referendums, and only eight have been ratified.

In the last referendum in 1999, Australians voted against changing the constitution to create a republic and replace the British monarch with a president.

Opponents criticized the wording of that referendum, and Albanese said it was intended to make the current question as simple and clear as possible.

The opposition Conservative Alliance has sought funding for campaign groups supporting and opposing the referendum, but the government has made no promises.

A ‘yes-no’ pamphlet containing arguments from both sides will be sent to all households, the central government said.

Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Lincoln Feast and Raju Gopalakrishnan

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