In the recent Australia referendum on the Voice, a proposed body comprising members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders people to advise the country’s Parliament on laws impacting this vulnerable group, voters dropped the plan by a resounding 60% margin, rejecting an opportunity to amend their constitution for the first time in almost 50 years towards a more inclusive ethos. The idea of the referendum came from a historic 2017 summit of Indigenous peoples, which announced the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ and called for a treaty between the Australian government and the indigenous community as well as a commission to promote “truth-telling about our history”. In March 2023, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced a plan to hold the referendum, arguing that the Voice would formalise the “recognition” that Australians who arrived… from elsewhere “share this great island continent with the world’s oldest continuous culture”. On the one hand, the Voice was seen by its supporters as the means to enable consultations between lawmakers and Indigenous community leaders on policies to address, for example, the shorter life expectancy of this group relative to non-Indigenous Australians, and their considerably lower health care and education attainments, and higher incarceration rates.
However, its critics posited that the Voice might split Australians along racial lines while failing to reduce the disadvantages faced by the indigenous peoples and opening the door to compensation and reparation claims. The ‘No’ campaign advocates, including prominent members of the Indigenous community, also urged that at 4.8% of Parliament, which is more than the proportion of Indigenous people in the total population, the group already enjoyed fair representation. Indeed, several Indigenous leaders have argued that they would prefer to see a “legally binding, negotiated agreement” between the government and the First Nations peoples. Mr. Albanese has now called for unity across Australian society while standing by his decision to hold the referendum. While it remains to be seen whether he will — as he has indicated he intends to — hold a referendum if he wins another term in 2025, in the broader arc of history the country has missed the chance to take forward the conversation on building a more harmonious future for all Australians. Whether by the Voice, a binding treaty or more pro-Indigenous intention and action by lawmakers, unless the human development indicators and life prospects of the Indigenous peoples are brought to parity with those of other Australians, the country’s socioeconomic progress will be hobbled by an unsettled question of justice from its colonial past.