Early voting has begun in parts of Australia for a landmark referendum on creating an Indigenous body that can advise Parliament on matters affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
People eligible for early voting in the Northern Territory, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia will be able to cast their ballots from Monday, while voters in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory will be able to do so from Tuesday.
The referendum itself is scheduled for October 14, and voting is compulsory.
As early voting began, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese hit the streets of Melbourne, the capital of Victoria, to rally support for the “yes” vote.
“I sincerely think the key to the next fortnight is those one-on-one conversations with people to accept this request of the overwhelming majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,” he told reporters.
The proposal asks Australians whether the country’s constitution should be altered to enshrine an Indigenous advisory body called the “Voice to Parliament”.
Supporters say embedding the “Voice” in the constitution would recognise Indigenous people’s special place in Australian history while giving them input into government policies. Opponents argue it would divide Australians along racial lines without reducing the severe inequalities faced by Indigenous people.
The proposal, backed by Albanese’s Labor government, has been struggling to get majority support, with recent opinion polls showing voters will reject it.
A survey published by the Australian Financial Review on September 25 showed that support for the “Voice” had fallen to 33 percent, down by 15 points since May. The “no” vote was at 50 percent.
Some voters who had switched their stance said the Voice was a distraction from their two biggest concerns – the cost of living and the price of housing.
But Albanese said he remained optimistic that the proposal would pass despite the poor showing in polls.
Volunteers for the Yes Campaign were also out in Melbourne, with officials saying there was still a chance to turn public opinion around.
“As with any election, Australians tend to really put their focus into their decision-making much closer to the vote, so 12 days out, there’s plenty of time for us to have that conversation,” Dean Parkin, the director of the Yes23 Campaign, told Sky News.
“There is a very clear choice in this referendum, a ‘yes’ vote gives us real recognition and a chance for practical change, whereas a ‘no’ vote gives us absolutely nothing,” he added.
Australia has no treaty with its Indigenous people, who make up about 3.2 percent of its 26 million population. They were marginalised by British colonial rulers and are not mentioned in the 122-year-old constitution.
They remain the most disadvantaged group in the country.
Indigenous people have a life expectancy of about eight years less than non-Indigenous Australians and suffer disproportionately high rates of suicide, domestic violence and imprisonment.
The “yes” campaign faces significant odds.
A referendum to change the constitution requires what is known as a double majority – the support of most Australians nationwide plus a majority of voters in a majority of states.
Of the 44 referendums held since the constitution took effect in 1901, only eight have been carried and none since 1977.
Five referendums have failed because while they were supported by most Australians, they fell short of gaining majorities in at least four of the six states.
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