'If not now, when?': Emotional Australian PM advances Indigenous referendum

Anthony Albanese asks for referendum on recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the country's constitution

Published : 23 March 2023, 05:58 AM
Updated : 23 March 2023, 05:58 AM

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese fought back tears on Thursday as he revealed the question the government wants to ask in a referendum on whether to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the country's constitution.

"If not now, when?," Albanese asked, choking up during a televised media conference, standing alongside several Indigenous leaders supporting the proposal.

"For many ... this moment has been a very long time in the making," Albanese said . "Yet they have shown such patience and optimism through this process, and that spirit of cooperation and thoughtful, respectful dialogue has been so important at arriving at this point in such a united fashion."

Australia is seeking to give more recognition to its Indigenous people, who have inhabited the continent for 60,000 years but are not mentioned in the 122-year-old constitution.

Making up about 3.2 percent of Australia's near 26 million population, Aboriginal people track below national averages on most socio-economic measures and suffer disproportionately high rates of suicide and imprisonment.

Aboriginal people were marginalised by British colonial rulers' doctrine of terra nullius - nobody's land - and not granted voting rights until the 1960s.

Albanese urged Australians, who will be asked to vote between October and December, to amend the constitution to create a consultative committee in parliament called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.

It would provide non-binding advice to parliament on matters that affect First Nations people.

The government will introduce the bill next week, hoping to pass it in the parliament by the end of June. Any constitutional alterations require a national referendum.


Opposition leader Peter Dutton said the government still had not responded to his queries on how the consultative panel would function and he needed more details.

"We will decide in due course whether we support the Voice or oppose it," Dutton told reporters.

The rural-based National Party, the junior partner in the opposition coalition, has said it would oppose the Voice, while the left-wing Greens party and some independent lawmakers have promised support.

A Guardian poll out on Tuesday showed public support for the referendum was down 5% but was still backed by a majority, with 59% in favour.

Albanese has staked significant political capital on the referendum. Since Australian independence in 1901, there have been 44 proposals for constitutional change in 19 referendums, and only eight have been approved.

In the last referendum in 1999, Australians voted against changing the constitution to create a republic and replace the British monarch as head of state with a president.

Opponents criticised the wording of that referendum, and Albanese has said he would aim to frame the current question as simply and clearly as possible.

The referendum question to be put to Australians will be: "A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?".

The federal government on Wednesday said the legislation has passed the Senate - where it does not have a majority - with bipartisan support to ensure that the referendum voting process mirrors that of a federal election.

The opposition conservative coalition had been demanding funding for campaign groups who support and oppose the referendum but the government has made no promise.

The federal government said the 'Yes-No' pamphlet, containing arguments on both sides, will be sent to all households.