CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia’s main opposition party on Wednesday decided to oppose the government’s model for constitutional recognition of Indigenous people in a development that appears to doom the prospects of a successful referendum this year.
A referendum has not succeeded in changing Australia’s Constitution since 1977, and bipartisan support of the major political parties is widely regarded as a prerequisite for success.
But lawmakers in the conservative Liberal Party, the second largest after the ruling center-left Labor Party, said they’ll oppose the government’s proposal to create a so-called Indigenous Voice to Parliament. The Voice would be an elected group charged with advocating Indigenous interests to Parliament, but would not have a vote on laws.
Opposition leader Peter Dutton said his lawmakers would prefer Indigenous people were represented by regional and local “Voices” rather than one in the national capital Canberra.
Senior Liberal lawmakers would campaign for a “no” vote when Australians are expected to decide at a referendum whether to enshrine the Voice in the constitution sometime between October and December, Dutton said.
“Creating another national body out of Canberra as the prime minister is proposing divides our country, it doesn’t unite, and it will not deliver the outcomes on the ground,” Dutton told reporters.
“What I fear with the Voice is that it changes our system of government forever and we end up with no practical net benefit to people in Indigenous communities and that would be the worst of both worlds.”
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the Liberal Party’s stance made the constitutional change more difficult to achieve.
“Yes it will. Of course it will. That’s why it is so disappointing that in the (Dutton) press conference today, it was all about politics,” Albanese told Australian Broadcasting Corp.
“It’s not about me or Peter Dutton or any other politician. It’s about Australia, how we see ourselves, whether we give respect and recognise the fact we share this great island continent of ours with the oldest continuing culture on Earth and whether we have a process where we listen — we give a voice to — Indigenous Australians,” Albanese added.
Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney, the first Indigenous woman to fill the role, stood by the wording of the referendum questions and expressed confidence that the referendum would succeed.
“We have worked assiduously, we have worked faithfully and we have worked carefully to make sure that the question and the amendments are the ones that are going to provide what is envisaged by the Voice and also be very, very clear in terms of the role of the Parliament,” she said.
The Nationals party, which was the Liberals’ junior partner in the last coalition government, announced in November last year that their lawmakers opposed the Voice for reasons including that it would divide the Australian population along racial lines.
A poll published in The Australian newspaper on Wednesday found that 54% of respondents supported the Voice proposition and 38% opposed it. The poll was based on a survey of 4,756 voters between Feb. 1 and April 3. It has a less than 3 percentage point margin of error.
Many suggest public support needs to be higher for the constitution to change.
Indigenous Australians from the Torres Strait archipelago, off the northeast coast, are culturally distinct from the mainland Aboriginal population. The two peoples account for 3.2% of the Australian population, and are the nation’s most disadvantaged ethnic group.
The Voice was originally proposed by a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advocates in 2017.
Changing Australia’s Constitution has never been easy. Of the 44 referendums held since 1901, only eight have been carried.
George Williams, a constitutional lawyer and author of a history book about Australian referendums, said that did not mean bipartisanship was essential for future success.
“We haven’t had a referendum for 20 or so years, the political environment is very different to what it’s been for a number of past referendums and it’s also the case of the rusty-on vote of the major parties is much lower than it has been for any prior referendums,” he said.