HomeAustraliaIndigenous rights advocates demonstrate across Australia ahead of vote

Indigenous rights advocates demonstrate across Australia ahead of vote

Australians rallied across the country on Sunday to fight for a landmark Indigenous rights reform that is losing support in polls ahead of the Oct. 14 referendum.

Tens of thousands joined “Walk for Yes” events in major cities ahead of the vote that could give indigenous Australians the constitutionally enshrined right to be consulted on policies that affect them – so-called Voice.

More than 200 years after British colonization, indigenous people – whose ancestors have lived on the continent for around 60,000 years – have shorter lives than other Australians, poorer education and are much more likely to die in police custody.

“I think we need a voice in parliament and I think it’s about time,” said Laurel Johnson, a 58-year-old retired Indigenous community services worker who joined hundreds of people at the Sydney rally, many of whom were seeking shade during a spring heat wave.

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When asked if the Voice would improve the lot of indigenous people, he said: “I hope so.”

His sister Priscilla Johnson, 53, said some indigenous people were still living in “Third World” conditions.

“Australia is considered a First World country. The poor social determinants of health have been ongoing since the invasion of 1788,” he said, referring to the landing of the First Fleet that established a British penal colony in Australia.

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In Melbourne, more than 10,000 supporters marched through the streets, some carrying banners that read: “You are the voice, vote yes.”

Thousands more gathered in Canberra, Perth, Brisbane, Darwin, Hobart and Alice Springs.

But the “Vote Yes” campaign, launched just weeks ago by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, faces an uphill battle.

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Recent polls show that around 60 percent are against the reform, compared to 40 percent who support it, almost the opposite of the situation a year ago.

To pass, the referendum needs majority support across Australia, but also a majority in at least four of the six states.

Voting is mandatory and non-voters who do not have a valid reason face a fine of 20 Australian dollars (13 US dollars).

Voters will be asked: “A proposed law: to amend the Constitution to recognize Australia’s first people by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice. Do you approve this proposed amendment?”

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Opponents of the reform, including the conservative opposition, say it would confer special privileges on indigenous people while adding an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy.

They also complain that there are not enough details about how Indigenous Voice would work. The exact process would be debated and legislated by parliament if the “yes” case prevails.

Aiming to change the national mood, the “yes” campaign launched a television ad campaign over the weekend in which an indigenous boy asks: “Will I grow up in a country that listens to my voice? Will I live as long as other Australians? Will I be able to go to a good school?”

Cameron Lum, 34, a supporter of the Voice proposal, said he joined the Sydney rally to support “change that is long overdue in this country.”

“I think it opens the door to massive political changes led by First Nations people,” he said.

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