With a mere two-letter utterance, Australians vehemently rejected the initial endeavor for constitutional change in 24 years. This decision, experts assert, will leave enduring scars on First Nations people and extinguish any aspirations for modernizing the nation’s foundational document.
Preliminary results from the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) indicate that a majority of the country’s 17.6 million registered voters unequivocally marked ‘No’ on their ballots. Notably, CNN affiliates 9 News, Sky News, and SBS all forecasted a dim future for the ‘Yes’ campaign.
‘Yes’ Campaign Envisions Change, While Critics Decry Lack of Detail
The proposed amendment, aiming to acknowledge Indigenous people in the constitution and establish an Indigenous advisory body to shape policies affecting them, required a national majority and approval in four of six states to succeed.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, an advocate for the referendum, expressed his commitment to enhancing the lives of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders in a national address on Saturday night. He emphasized, “This moment of disagreement does not define us. And it will not divide us. We are not yes voters or no voters. We are all Australians.”
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Albanese continued, “It is as Australians together that we must navigate our country beyond this debate without losing sight of why we engaged in it initially. Too often, the challenges faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been marginalized in our nation’s life and political discourse. This referendum and my government have placed it squarely at the forefront.”
Proponents of the Yes vote envisioned it as an opportunity to collaboratively address pressing issues in the most remote First Nations communities, including elevated rates of suicide, domestic violence, children in out-of-home care, and incarceration. However, opposition swelled as conservative political factions criticized the proposal for its lack of detail and deemed it an unnecessary duplication of existing advisory bodies.
Opposition Parties Demand Clarity
Leading No campaigner Warren Mundine asserted that the referendum should never have been called, marking a climactic moment in the contentious debate.
“This is a referendum we should never have had because it was built on a lie that Aboriginal people do not have a voice,” asserted Warren Mundine in an interview, marking a pivotal moment in the ongoing debate.
Throughout months of campaigning, the No vote gathered momentum, leveraging slogans tailored to appeal to voter apathy, such as “If you don’t know, vote No.” According to experts, a plethora of statements aimed to instill fear, including the notion that the referendum would divide Australia by race and pose legal risks, contrary to expert advice.
Despite an array of high-profile endorsements for the Yes campaign, featuring support from constitutional experts, Australians of the Year, retired judges, companies, universities, sports figures, and even unexpected figures like US rapper MC Hammer. The tide continued to shift towards the No camp. Aussie music icon John Farnham contributed a song, considered an unofficial Australian anthem, to a Yes advertisement with a powerful message of national unity. Yet, opinion polls consistently favored the No side.
Objections from leaders of opposition parties focused on the perceived lack of detail in the proposal, anticipating that crucial aspects would be decided and legislated by parliament. Some members of the Indigenous community voiced objections, expressing a desire for more than a mere advisory body, stating they didn’t want to be part of a settler document.
Amidst the disengagement of some Australians, Yes campaigner Marilyn Trad revealed that volunteers making calls had to inform prospective voters this week that a referendum was indeed taking place. Kevin Argus, a marketing expert from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), criticized the Yes campaign as a “case study in how not to message change on matters of social importance.”
Argus highlighted the simplicity of the proposed advisory group to the government, likening it to other industry groups’ expectations during legislation drafting. He noted that the No campaign excelled in straightforward messaging, leveraging personal profiles, and responding decisively to challenges with clear and repeatable slogans.
Constitutional Rejection Unleashes Ripples of Consequence
The outcome, a resounding ‘No’ to constitutional change, resonates beyond the immediate decision, heralding lasting consequences for the entire nation, according to experts.
For First Nations people, this result signifies more than a rejection of a constitutional amendment; it’s viewed as a repudiation of reconciliation by Australia’s non-Indigenous majority, an implicit endorsement of a status quo that, for two centuries, is widely acknowledged to have failed them.
Senator Pat Dodson, the government’s special envoy for reconciliation, emphasized the enormity of the healing process the country must now undertake, irrespective of the referendum’s outcome. “Win or lose, we’ve got to contemplate the impact of a No vote on the future generations, the young people,” he asserted, drawing attention to the high suicide rates among Aboriginal youth and questioning why they struggle to envision a future.
Maree Teesson, the director of the Matilda Center for Research in Mental Health and Substance Use at the University of Sydney, highlighted the significance of the Voice to Parliament in offering self-determination to Indigenous communities—a say in their own destinies. A ‘No’ vote, she argued, not only maintains the status quo but also undermines the self-determination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
“I do hope that we don’t lose the possibility of the hope that this gave our nation and that we somehow work to find another way to achieve that,” Teesson expressed, underscoring the importance of exploring alternative avenues for progress.
On a broader scale, some experts posit that the No outcome could dissuade future leaders from pursuing referendums, suggesting that the high bar for constitutional change, entrenched in the document since 1901, may be deemed insurmountable. Paula Gerber, a professor of Law at Monash University, emphasized that the power to modernize the constitution has been entrusted to the Australian people. However, if the refrain becomes “If you don’t know, vote No,” the prospect of overcoming such a challenge may deter politicians from investing time and resources in referendums that appear easily defeated. This consequential juncture raises questions about the future trajectory of constitutional change and the nation’s receptivity to pivotal reforms.