Australia's PM Albanese reveals plans for landmark indigenous referendum

Australian PM Anthony Albanese speaks to Indigenous leaders, campaigners and advocates on July 30 at the Garma Festival. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY (BLOOMBERG) - Prime Minister Anthony Albanese unveiled plans for a referendum on changing the Australian constitution to set up a representative indigenous body in parliament, moving a step closer to fulfilling a major part of his policy agenda.

In a speech to the Garma Festival of Traditional Culture in Australia's Northern Territory on Saturday (July 30), Mr Albanese proposed to ask Australians in a national vote: "Do you support an alteration to the Constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice?"

Mr Albanese's government has promised to hold a referendum on a voice for indigenous Australians in parliament by the end of his first term in office in 2025.

Australia's election in May returned the largest number of Indigenous politicians in the country's history, but leaders of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait community have called for a separate consultative parliamentary body to advise the government.

The proposal was first put forward at a gathering of indigenous Australian leaders in 2017, as part of a document known as the "Uluru Statement from the Heart."

Ms Pat Anderson, co-chair of the Referendum Council and one of the architects of the statement, said in an interview with Bloomberg that indigenous Australians wanted to be recognised as "the First Peoples of this beautiful continent of ours."

She said Mr Albanese had "provided the necessary leadership that's required to progress this whole political agenda, which is nation building and will make a huge difference to the country."

Indigenous Australians are the country's poorest and most disadvantaged group on average and make up about 3.2 per cent of the population, according to the 2021 census. A government report released on Wednesday revealed that the welfare of indigenous Australians was deteriorating across four out of nine main indicators, including children's schooling and suicide rates.

Mr Albanese has promised to make efforts to improve the lives of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including through the parliamentary body, improved health care and lifting education standards.

Speaking on Saturday, Mr Albanese called for "all Australians of goodwill to engage on this." "We will seek-out every ally and every advocate," he added, "from 'every point under the southern sky'."

Any changes to Australia's constitution require a national vote known as a referendum. Any successful referendum must win over 50 per cent of the vote overall as well as in a majority of Australia's six states, making any proposed changes difficult to implement.

Mr Albanese has been pushing for bipartisan agreement on the referendum, however so far the opposition Liberal and National parties have not committed to supporting the change. Newspapers owned by the Nine network reported on Friday that there was growing opposition among a small number of lawmakers.

"There may well be misinformation and fear campaigns to counter," Mr Albanese said. "But perhaps the greatest threat to the cause is indifference."

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