Dispatch
The view from the ground.

Australians Can’t Agree on the Voice

Most of the country wants the government to do more for Indigenous Australians. So why is a proposal to achieve that so fraught?

Australian Greens Sen. Lidia Thorpe speaks to a crowd.
Australian Greens Sen. Lidia Thorpe speaks to a crowd.
Gunnai Gunditjmara woman and Australian Greens Sen. Lidia Thorpe speaks to a crowd at the so-called Invasion Day rally in Melbourne, Australia, on Jan. 26, 2021. Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

MELBOURNE, Australia—Thomas Mayo speaks without notes. For the past six years, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander man has travelled Australia making some version of this speech: A call to support the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a 2017 invitation for reconciliation from Australian Indigenous leaders that asked for, among other things, the creation of a representative Indigenous body to Parliament, called the Voice.

MELBOURNE, Australia—Thomas Mayo speaks without notes. For the past six years, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander man has travelled Australia making some version of this speech: A call to support the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a 2017 invitation for reconciliation from Australian Indigenous leaders that asked for, among other things, the creation of a representative Indigenous body to Parliament, called the Voice.

On a stifling summer morning in a sprawling colonial era home in Toorak, one of Melbourne’s wealthiest suburbs, Mayo was addressing a friendly crowd—leaders from local community groups, churches, and charities who had gathered to throw their weight behind the “yes” campaign, which seeks to enshrine the Voice in the nation’s constitution.

“Decision-makers in this country for too long have been unaccountable for their failures and their cruelties,” Mayo told the packed room. “The Voice is a mechanism for us to be able to hold them to account. A voice they cannot take away, that they are constitutionally required to listen to.”

Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who led the center-left Labor Party to power in 2022, has pledged to hold a referendum on Indigenous constitutional recognition and the creation of a Voice this year. All indications suggest the vote will be in October.

“I had a lot of emotions sitting here this morning, listening to the opening words,” Mayo said in Toorak, “realizing we are in 2023, the year we are going to have a referendum in this country and have a rare opportunity to hear Indigenous people in a permanent way.”

The Voice to Parliament was one of three proposals made in the Statement from the Heart, which was released after months of negotiation within Indigenous communities that culminated in a national conference at Uluru, in Australia’s Red Centre. Indigenous leaders regarded the Voice’s incorporation into the Constitution as essential because so many Indigenous advisory bodies before it had been destroyed by the tides of politics.

Also called for was a process of truth-telling about the continent’s history, and an agreement acknowledging Indigenous land ownership was never ceded—a treaty. Australia remains the only Commonwealth nation to have never signed a treaty with its Indigenous peoples, 200 years after British colonization was justified by the myth that Australia was terra nullius—no man’s land.

Mayo, a wharf laborer turned maritime union organizer, was part of the 2017 conference at Uluru, having worked his way up from local dialogues. He says winning this year’s referendum is the first step to realizing reconciliation, the motivating vision of the Statement from the Heart. To do that, though, the yes campaign will have to secure a double majority: a majority of the national vote, and also more than 50 percent support in a majority of Australia’s six states. Since the country’s federation in 1901, only eight of 44 such referendums have passed.

Australians have consistently indicated frustration with the lack of progress on achieving equality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, often referred to as “closing the gap.” A 2022 survey showed more than 60% of non-Indigenous Australians want the government to do more to lift up historically marginalized Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. And yet the Voice has become a surprisingly fraught question. Its success at the polls is by no means guaranteed.

Early polling found that, when forced to choose, 58 percent of respondents would vote “yes” to accept the statement, which is broadly in line with public polls. However, only 23 percent of those were a “strong yes,” indicating a major challenge ahead to get to a double majority. To shift the needle, the yes campaign plans to take a grassroots approach, enlisting supporters, such as those gathered to hear Mayo speak, as advocates in “kitchen table conversations” with their neighbors. With almost a third of Australians born overseas, migrant communities have been identified as a key swing voter group.

The “no” campaign, meanwhile, has taken a far more high-profile approach. Its proponents have hammered home in the national media a need for more detail on how the Voice would work, and what powers it would have. Some of the most prominent no campaigners are Indigenous. For instance, Northern Territory Sen. Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, of the Country Liberal Party, has been a major opponent to the statement’s passage, and has warned of the Voice’s potential to divide the country along racial lines.

For opposition leader Peter Dutton, confusion around how the Voice will work has become a key talking point. “Millions of Australians want to hear the detail of what it is the Prime Minister’s promoting,” he said in a Sky News interview. A former police officer whose tough stance on immigration once prompted a New York Times columnist to describe him as a “little Trump,” Dutton has yet to announce a position on the Voice.

(Albanese’s position is that the details of the Voice will be worked out after the referendum passes; the amendment’s current wording promises only that the Voice may make “representations” to Parliament, with no mention of a capacity to make laws. Albanese even called the proposed body “subservient” to Parliament, a description that grated many Voice supporters.)

In addition, there are structural barriers to any referendum passing in Australia. Professor Frank Bongiorno, of the Australian National University, says it’s hard to get a referendum across the line without bipartisan support. “It is really difficult to get [referendums] up when they’re controversial,” Bongiorno said. “Large majorities in polling in favor of a particular proposition can disappear over the course of a few months.”

Australia’s last referendum, held in 1999 on the question of becoming a republic, secured only a 45 percent “yes” vote after pro-monarchist groups ran a strong campaign picking holes in the proposed model. “Once doubts and worries are implanted in people’s minds about a proposition, it’s been historically very difficult to get that proposition up,” Bongiorno said.

Even in the early months of campaigning, calls for details about Voice logistics have been effective in denting the yes majority. A recent survey suggests support has now fallen below 50 percent, though this figure rose to 58 percent when undecideds were forced into a position. Indeed, even in a room full of supporters, Mayo was peppered with questions about why he couldn’t offer specifics to coax fence-sitters to support the Voice. But he is firm that the referendum is a question of principle, which is, “Should there be a Voice for Indigenous people or not?” Mayo echoed Albanese in maintaining the details of the model are for Parliament to decide after the vote. “Keeping it simple is the way to go,” he said.

In a February speech that linked the referendum debate to the threat of democratic decay, Albanese said some opponents of the Voice were “pushing misinformation on social media, drumming up outrage, trying to start a culture war.” Some commentators have suggested recent concern about crime and alcohol abuse in the majority Aboriginal town of Alice Springs, drummed up in media outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch, is nothing but a “moral panic” threatening to “engulf the debate over a Voice to [P]arliament.”

A further complication for the prospects of the vote is opposition from high profile Indigenous leaders on the political left who think the proposal is premature. Most prominent in this group is Sen. Lidia Thorpe. Early this year, as Indigenous spokesperson for the Greens, a leftist party that commands about 10 percent of the national vote, Thorpe advocated for a treaty before the establishment of the Voice. “When the British invaded these lands, we never sat down to negotiate what peaceful coexistence looks like,” Thorpe wrote in an opinion piece for SBS National Indigenous Television. Consequently, the Greens held off supporting the yes campaign.

On Australia’s national day, Jan. 26, which marks the arrival of white settlers to Australia and is a day of mourning known as Invasion Day for many Indigenous people, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Melbourne to march in a rally billed as anti-Voice. Thorpe addressed the rally wearing a shirt that read “Sovereignty Never Ceded.” She called for a treaty, action on Indigenous deaths in custody, and an end to the forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families.

“They are still killing us,” she told the large crowd, which stretched halfway through the city’s downtown. “They are still stealing our babies.”

A few weeks later, Thorpe announced she would quit the Greens and become an independent senator to “speak freely on all issues from a sovereign perspective without being constrained in portfolios and Green party positions.” Immediately after her departure, the Greens announced they would support the Voice.

Thorpe welcomed the Albanese government’s recent confirmation that it is pushing ahead with the creation of the statement’s proposed Makarrata Commission, which would oversee treaty negotiations. Still, she told national broadcaster ABC last week, “we deserve better than a powerless Voice …. We want real power; we want real justice in this country. Everything else we’ve been offered for the last 200 years has no power. And we’re not settling for anything less.”

For his part, Mayo believes that the yes campaign can win. At the same time, he acknowledged the high cost of failure. “We won’t see another referendum in our lifetime or for generations on constitutional recognition [if it fails],” he said.

The stakes, for Mayo, are clear; the risks, vivid. But then, after years of campaigning, so is the dream of waking up the day after the referendum in a country that’s voted yes—when Australia, Mayo said, “is suddenly not a young nation, but a nation that can celebrate over 60,000 years of continuous culture and heritage unique in the world.”

Maddison Connaughton is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia. Twitter: @madconnaughton

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A photo illustration shows Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden posing on pedestals atop the bipolar world order, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and Russian President Vladamir Putin standing below on a gridded floor.
A photo illustration shows Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden posing on pedestals atop the bipolar world order, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and Russian President Vladamir Putin standing below on a gridded floor.

No, the World Is Not Multipolar

The idea of emerging power centers is popular but wrong—and could lead to serious policy mistakes.

A view from the cockpit shows backlit control panels and two pilots inside a KC-130J aerial refueler en route from Williamtown to Darwin as the sun sets on the horizon.
A view from the cockpit shows backlit control panels and two pilots inside a KC-130J aerial refueler en route from Williamtown to Darwin as the sun sets on the horizon.

America Prepares for a Pacific War With China It Doesn’t Want

Embedded with U.S. forces in the Pacific, I saw the dilemmas of deterrence firsthand.

The Chinese flag is raised during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics at Beijing National Stadium on Feb. 4, 2022.
The Chinese flag is raised during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics at Beijing National Stadium on Feb. 4, 2022.

America Can’t Stop China’s Rise

And it should stop trying.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky looks on prior a meeting with European Union leaders in Mariinsky Palace, in Kyiv, on June 16, 2022.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky looks on prior a meeting with European Union leaders in Mariinsky Palace, in Kyiv, on June 16, 2022.

The Morality of Ukraine’s War Is Very Murky

The ethical calculations are less clear than you might think.