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Australia to vote on giving Indigenous peoples a voice in Parliament


MELBOURNE, Australia — Indigenous Australians will launch a campaign Saturday to change the constitution and ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ views are better represented in Parliament, part of a years-long effort to make sure they are consulted on major policy initiatives.

The effort to have the Voice to Parliament enshrined in the country’s founding document is a “once-in-a-generation opportunity,” Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney said last month.

The Voice, as it is shortened Down Under, would give First Nations people a right to express their views on policy through representatives elected by their communities. Lawmakers would not be bound to follow the body’s advice, but they would be required to at least listen.

Thomas Mayo, a First Nations union official who wrote a book about the Voice proposal, said it would be a moral and practical step. “It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “There’s a belief in ourselves and our fellow Australians that this could be achieved.”

Australians will decide this year whether to change their constitution. Here’s a guide to why it’s so important.

What is the Voice to Parliament?

It would be a “right to be consulted on laws and policies that are made,” said Megan Davis, a constitutional law professor at the University of New South Wales, who is Indigenous and co-chaired the Uluru Dialogue.

In 2016-2017, a council appointed by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull hosted meetings in 13 towns and cities across Australia to ask First Nations Australians what form constitutional recognition should take. About 270 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, chosen to represent their home communities, then traveled to Uluru, in the center of the continent, and produced the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

The statement called for the establishment of the Voice to Parliament; the establishment of a commission to oversee agreement-making between Indigenous people and the Australian government; and a truth-telling process about Australia’s history. Together, they are referred to as Voice, Treaty and Truth.

“We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country,” the statement reads. “When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.”

Turnbull rejected the proposal; it has now been picked up by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who was elected in May.

Why was a Voice to Parliament proposed?

Indigenous people were in Australia for at least 65,000 years before British colonization in 1788, comprising more than 250 nations with distinct languages and cultures.

After the arrival of the British convict ships came brutal frontier wars, the introduction of new diseases, working conditions tantamount to slavery, massacres into the 1920s and the “Stolen Generations” — widespread government policy of removing mixed-race children from their families between about 1910 and 1970. Aboriginal Elders today remember life on predominantly Christian missions, where every aspect of life was controlled and they were punished for speaking their own language or practicing their own culture.

Now, First Nations people have an average life expectancy eight years shorter than the general Australian population. They are the most imprisoned population in the world. Indigenous children are still 10 times more likely to be taken into state care than other Australian children, and half of those between the ages of 10 and 17 in youth detention on a given night are Indigenous, despite them making up 6 percent of the overall youth population.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart addresses these markers of ongoing trauma and discrimination. “These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem,” it reads. “This is the torment of our powerlessness.”

Davis said the lack of a formal structure within the state for First Nations people to contribute to laws and policies was “driving the huge gap and disparity between non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians.”

How do you change the constitution in Australia?

Albanese committed, in the third sentence of his election night victory speech, to implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full. He later said a referendum would take place in the second half of this year.

Voting in Australia is compulsory, so every citizen aged 18 and above will be required to cast a ballot. The bar for constitutional change is high: It requires an overall majority across the country and a “yes” vote in a majority of states.

It would be possible for Albanese to legislate a Voice to Parliament without involving the constitution. But Mayo said this could be too easily politicized and disregarded. Advocates for the Voice see the high bar of constitutional change as an effective bulwark against the whims of the ruling party of the day.

“Doing hard work to see good programs put into place, or even mechanisms from which we can engage with government in a proper way, and that being ended suddenly … it is heartbreaking,” he said.

There is currently no mention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian constitution.

What is the historical context?

Josephine Bourne, a political scientist with the University of Queensland and First Nations woman, said Australia differed from other Western nations that grew out of British colonies, such as the United States, Canada and New Zealand, because there was never a treaty process between the Indigenous peoples and the colonizing power. Native American tribal sovereignty is also recognized in the U.S. Constitution.

Treaties were not always complied with or executed in good faith, but “Australia is quite unique in that we don’t have those foundation documents that even recognize the existence of First Nations people,” she said.

“We’re trying to build on, I think, very shaky foundations in comparison,” Bourne said.

First Nations — and all — Australians also lack the protection of a U.S.-style Bill of Rights in their constitution, Bourne added. A legislated Racial Discrimination Act was suspended by government in 2007 to pass policies including compulsory land acquisition, criticized by some as harmful, that only applied to Aboriginal remote communities.

The Voice proposal has faced criticism from both conservative figures and some left-leaning Indigenous leaders.

At the 2017 Uluru meeting, seven of the 270 delegates walked out, including Lidia Thorpe, now an outspoken senator who resigned from the left-wing Greens party this month in favor of sitting as an independent lawmaker focused on a “blak sovereign movement.” (First Nations people often refer to themselves as “blak,” without the c.)

Thorpe and some other First Nations figures advocate a treaty process between the federal government and Indigenous nations. “We deserve better than an advisory body,” she told an “Invasion Day” protest in Melbourne on Jan. 26. She wants these negotiations to include 10 designated First Nations seats in parliament. She also wants the government to implement the full recommendations from inquiries that took place in the 1990s — the “Bringing Them Home” report into the Stolen Generations and the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody — ahead of a Voice referendum.

Australia’s conservative opposition has not yet announced if it will support a “yes” vote; leader Peter Dutton says he needs to see more detail before deciding. The National Party, with lawmakers from regional electorates, is opposed.

A “no” campaign was