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Debate heats over Australia's referendum to include Indigenous people in policymaking


There is heated debate in Australia over what's known as the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. A referendum will be held next month on whether First Nations people should be part of the consultation process for government policy. But as reporter Scott Mayman reports from Australia's capital city, Canberra, this simple yes-or-no question has divided opinion.

SCOTT MAYMAN: Under the current system, Australia's government policies are conceived, considered, approved and implemented by politicians through sittings of Federal Parliament in Canberra. But now there's a question on changing Australia's constitution to include First Nations people as part of planning considerations involving future policies. It's a vote branded as Voice - stands for Voice for Indigenous Australians.


PRIME MINISTER ANTHONY ALBANESE: It's about changing our founding document to recognize the privilege that we have of sharing this continent with the oldest continuous culture on earth.

MAYMAN: Australia's Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese.


ALBANESE: It's about also having an advisory body - a voice so we can listen to Indigenous people about matters that affect them so that we can get better results.

MAYMAN: The prime minister's plan was to involve the country's Indigenous people - around 4% of the total population of 26 million - in the policymaking process. To succeed, it needs to go to the public by referendum. October 14 is the date Australians will go to the polls and vote either yes or no. At first, it appears to be a simple question. But the matter has sparked heated debate here, with a recent opinion poll showing only about 38% of Australians support the referendum. Yes-campaigners, including the prime minister, say the referendum is a step towards reconciliation. Those against it - or no-campaigners - say there's not enough information about the plan. They also say it's not clear what the plan involves. In a recent TV interview, independent Senator from Tasmania Jacqui Lambie explained how the campaign has become confusing.


JACQUI LAMBIE: When we've sold the word recognition for years and years and years and then you come in with a brand new word, voice - so it will become just one big puddle.

MAYMAN: Lambie has some powerful backing, including those from Aboriginal society. Jacinta Price, a Northern Territory politician, says the referendum does not fix the fundamental issues facing First Nations people.


JACINTA PRICE: This is not how you solve problems for Indigenous Australians. The Prime Minister has failed to actually provide any evidence whatsoever that demonstrates how it will improve the lives of Indigenous Australians.

MAYMAN: It's an argument that resonates with some yes voters, too. Kate Galloway is an academic lawyer from Griffith University in Queensland. She says she supports greater recognition of the country's Indigenous population, but a successful referendum does not necessarily mean First Nations people's recommendations in Parliament will be followed through.


KATE GALLOWAY: It gives the power to First Nations people to make representations to Parliament and executive government, but there's no guarantee that they will be listened to.

MAYMAN: So will changing the Constitution and the yes campaign be fair and equitable for all Australians? It's a question that's currently without an answer until after the referendum is held on October 14. One thing's for sure - the government wants the referendum to return a yes vote. And like all big political campaigns, organizers have brought in a popular Australian singer, using a popular Australian song, to promote the campaign and ensure the yes vote is just as popular.


JOHN FARNHAM: (Singing) Make a noise and make it clear, oh...

MAYMAN: For NPR News, I'm Scott Mayman in Canberra, Australia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Mayman