The Australian Aborigines expressed their anger and bitterness on Sunday, after the rejection by the majority of The white woman of the country of a reform which proposed to recognize the indigenous populations in the Constitution and to give them more rights.
Aboriginal leaders called for “a week of silence” to mourn the failure of the referendum, as Prime Minister Antony Albanese called on the divided nation to calm down “in a spirit of of unit”.
With more than 70% of ballots counted on Sunday, it appears that around 61% of Australians voted “no” to the question of whether the 1901 Constitution should be amended to recognize the country's original inhabitants.
< p>They also rejected the creation of an advisory council – nicknamed “The Voice” – to Parliament and the government to issue opinions on laws and public policies that affect indigenous populations.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people represent 984,000 people, or 3.8% of the Australian population.
Millions of Australian voters missed the opportunity to redress the “brutal dispossession” of their people, according to a group of Aboriginal advocacy groups. “Now the time has come for silence, to mourn and to reflect deeply on the consequences of this outcome.”
“The truth is that we offered this recognition and it was refused. We we now know where we are in our own country”, adds the text, before calling for a “week of silence” to cry and reflect.
– Deep divisions –
Aboriginal voter Shirley Lomas stressed that “indigenous people have been here for 60,000 years and (…) will continue to be here.”
A passerby in front of a painted wall at Redfern train station in Sydney, October 14, 2023, the day of the referendum on Aboriginal rights in Australia © AFP – Saeed KHAN
“Voters voted 'no' because “They fear change. Most of them don't even know an indigenous person,” she told AFP after the result.
Aborigines had to fight and wait a long time to obtain the right to vote – 1962 at the federal level -, the right to own their traditional lands, and to be able to be elected to parliament.
“Yes” supporters saw the referendum as a way to unite the country and heal the wounds of historical injustices inflicted on indigenous peoples during the country's colonization.
Instead, the campaign election highlighted the deep divisions that still run through Australian society more than two centuries after British colonization.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese gives a press conference in Parliament after the rejection of the referendum on Aboriginal rights on October 14, 2023 © AFP – DAVID GRAY
Antony Albanese pledged his government would continue to work to ensure recognition of indigenous peoples, even if the options available remain unclear.
Aboriginal activist and academic Marcia Langton found that decades of efforts to building trust among Australians had failed. “Reconciliation is dead,” she declared on an indigenous television channel.
In Redfern, a suburb of Sydney where there are many Aboriginal people, around ten people participated in a traditional ceremony purification and healing by burning eucalyptus leaves, after this disappointment.
One of them, Shane Sturgiss, sitting on steps, says the rejection of the referendum “broke his heart.”
Members of our community “hug each other, cry a lot “. And “I'm going to start crying now”, he says with tears in his eyes.
But “being angry now would be a waste of these emotions”, he adds, estimating that the Aborigines must continue to fight for their rights.
– Undecided targeted –
The opposition campaign had skillfully channeled fears about the role and effectiveness of “La Voix”, and targeted the undecided by encouraging them to vote “no”.
Supporters of the referendum on Aboriginal rights saw the vote as a way to unite the country © AFP – DAVID GRAY
Social media was flooded with misinformation suggesting that “The Voice” was likely to succeed land confiscations, would create a system of apartheid, or that it was part of a United Nations plot.
Conservative opposition leader Peter Dutton, fiercely opposed to the referendum, s was declared relieved on Saturday evening. “It is obvious that the referendum was not a success and I think that is a good thing for our country.”
The Australian Aborigines, whose ancestors settled on the island continent around 60,000 years ago, are today recognized as one of the oldest cultures in the world.
But 235 years after the arrival of the first British settlers, they have a life expectancy eight years lower than that of other Australians, are on average poorer, more often incarcerated and have less access to education.
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