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Divisions in Australia over Plan for Indigenous Voice to Parliament

FILE - Protesters take part in a "silent march" during the "Abolish the Date" rally in Sydney, Jan. 26, 2022, to demand that Australia Day, the country's national day, be changed.
FILE - Protesters take part in a "silent march" during the "Abolish the Date" rally in Sydney, Jan. 26, 2022, to demand that Australia Day, the country's national day, be changed.

Australia plans to hold a referendum to legally enshrine indigenous voices in politics. Campaigners argue it will help address deep-seated inequality, but not everyone is convinced.

Australia’s recently-elected Labor government wants to change the constitution to recognize First Nations people. It also plans to mandate consultation with them on decisions that affect their lives by adding a so-called Indigenous Voice to parliament.

The Australian constitution can only be altered by referendum, or a national popular vote.

Labor has enlisted high-profile international support for its proposed reforms to help indigenous people.

Former U.S. basketball star Shaquille O’Neal, known for his social justice campaigning in the United States, was in Canberra last weekend, and has agreed to appear in videos promoting Labor’s plan.

No date for the referendum has been set.

Eddie Synot, an Aboriginal community leader, said it is time the country’s original inhabitants were officially recognized.

“What we are dealing with now is the kind of first principle’s idea that, you know, there is the symbolic part of recognition and the rightful place of First Nations. But also, this fundamental, simple idea that indigenous peoples, you know, have particular issues, have rights as indigenous peoples. You know, our voice should be heard on the decisions that affect us,” said Synot.

The plan, however, does not have universal support. Some indigenous leaders, including Greens senator Lidia Thorpe, a federal lawmaker, has said it was a “waste of money,” saying the funds used to hold the referendum could be better spent in Aboriginal communities.

Critics have argued an Indigenous Voice to Parliament is not the answer to the crises facing First Nations communities.

David Littleproud, the leader of the opposition Nationals Party, also has concerns about the plan’s lack of detail.

“We have not got any detail to vote on and I think all Australians are starting from scratch and this policy area is littered with good intentions, but little in terms of shifting the dial of closing the gap,” he said.

There remains a large gap in the health and wellbeing of Indigenous people and other Australians. Their life expectancy is shorter by up to ten years, and they suffer disproportionately high rates of poverty, unemployment and imprisonment.

Community leaders have also argued the criminal justice and law enforcement systems are systemically racist. An inquest began Monday into the death of an Aboriginal teenager shot dead by the police in Central Australia. The officer was found not guilty in March of murder, but campaigners are asking the coroner to investigate alleged use of excessive force by the police in remote indigenous settlements.

Australia’s constitution, which came into effect in 1901, does not refer to the country’s Indigenous people, who lived there for 65,000 years by some accounts.