The Australian government on Thursday took the first formal step towards holding a referendum to recognise Indigenous people in the constitution and set up an Indigenous “Voice to Parliament” to advise lawmakers on matters that impact their lives.
Introducing the bill in parliament, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said the referendum, to be held between October and December, would be an opportunity to acknowledge history and help Australians come together “for a more reconciled future.”
“We will all stand with a clean heart and a clean conscience and we will know our country is on the path to a better direction,” Dreyfus said.
Australians will be asked if they want to change the constitution to create an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice – a consultative committee providing non-binding advice to parliament on matters that affect them.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese last week revealed the question the government wants to set in the referendum and urged Australians to back what he described as a long overdue vote.
Australia’s Aboriginal people, making up about 3.2% of the near 26 million population, track below national averages on most socio-economic measures and are not mentioned in the 122-year-old constitution. They were marginalised by British colonial rulers and not granted voting rights until the 1960s.
The government proposed the bill be referred to a joint select committee for consideration and is hoping to pass it by the end of June.
The main opposition Liberal party has not yet decided if it would support the proposed constitutional amendments but its junior coalition partner, the rural-based National Party, has said it would oppose them. The left-wing Greens party and some independent lawmakers have promised to support the “Yes” campaign.
A Guardian poll last week showed public support for the referendum was down 5% but was still backed by a majority, with 59% in favour.