A small crowd has gathered in the Northern Territory town of Santa Teresa, also known as Ltyentye Apurte, having been drawn in by the aroma of bacon and eggs being laid on at a community event.
But there is something else on the menu today: a chance to chew over Australia’s upcoming referendum that has placed indigenous communities like theirs in the national spotlight.
Known as the “Voice”, the vote on October 14 has been called a once-in-a-generation chance to improve the lives of Aboriginal people, who have suffered brutality and discrimination on the soil their ancestors have called home for more than 60,000 years. That history includes widespread killings during colonisation to harmful assimilation policies that broke up indigenous families.
Voters are now being asked to support an amendment to the constitution to formally recognise the indigenous population as Australia’s original inhabitants and, secondly, to establish a body to advise parliament on issues that concern the 1mn First Nations people.
Despite a positive start, the latest polls show support for the referendum is dwindling. There is now only a few weeks left to convince Australians of the vote’s merits.
In Santa Teresa, about 50 residents of the remote red desert town south-east of Alice Springs, originally established as a Catholic mission in the 1950s, listen quietly as Australian singer John Farnham’s power ballad “You’re The Voice” — the anthem of the Yes campaign — rings through a single speaker.
Raymond Palmer, the town’s local delegate for the Central Land Council, the elected body that negotiates land rights on behalf of those in the Northern Territory, is here to appeal to the Eastern Arrernte community, or mob, to back the referendum, arguing that without it the indigenous population will “stay in the dark”.
But he assures the crowd that choosing to vote is a personal decision. “We’re not going to force you,” he says. “It’s up to you, mob.”
Such tiny remote communities of the Northern Territory — the giant, sparsely populated landmass that stretches roughly 1,600km from the port city of Darwin to the sacred site of Uluru in the south-west — are at the heart of the debate surrounding the referendum.
The highly charged vote has become a touchstone for the country’s national identity. Those in the Yes camp believe the Voice offers a belated path towards reconciliation with the aboriginal and Torres Strait islander population, providing them with greater self-determination over issues such as education, health and criminal justice.
The No camp, including Peter Dutton, who leads the country’s opposition Liberal party, argues that a successful vote would divide the nation by race and undermine the country’s principle of egalitarianism by, in the eyes of some, putting the interests of one group of people above the rest.
It is the proposal for an advisory body that has caused the deepest tension both in Canberra and across kitchen tables around the country ever since Anthony Albanese, the Labor prime minister, announced that a referendum would go ahead in his victory speech in May 2022.
Critics say the idea lacks detail and enshrines “victimhood” in the nation’s rule book. Some indigenous activists have derided the Voice as a toothless compromise offering little but symbolism to assuage white guilt over the country’s past.
When the vote to agree a referendum passed through the upper house of Australia’s parliament, Lidia Thorpe, an indigenous senator, yelled “Happy Assimilation Day!” The proposal for a “powerless” advisory body, she said, was yet another law to force indigenous communities to fit nicely into the mainstream.
The shadow of the referendum has also spread to business, some of which have warned of the potential damage to the country’s international reputation if a No vote prevails. Australian miners such as BHP and Rio Tinto, which have been trying to forge better relations with indigenous communities, have donated to the Yes campaign, drawing sharp criticism from the vote’s political opponents.
Such debates seem a world away in Santa Teresa, where Natasha McCormack, another representative from the Central Land Council, lays out what the vote could achieve and why she believes it matters.
“We’re filling up all the jails. We’re dying earlier than other Australians. We’re the sickest people in the country,” says McCormack. “We know here in the bush about these issues, but it’s different out on the coast [where the majority of the country lives].”
Pointing out that indigenous communities only account for 3 per cent of the population and lack the numbers to significantly influence the outcome of the referendum, McCormack presses her case: “We need to tell people to walk with us. We were colonised in 1788. It’s 2023. If we get a Yes vote we will finally get recognised. If it’s a No then that’s it.”
First among equals
There are many in Australia who argue that the Voice is well overdue.
Unlike its neighbour New Zealand — which in 1840 enshrined the rights of Maori people in its founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi — neither Australia nor any of its states have a similar pact with its indigenous communities. In Canada, the government has since the 1970s signed numerous reforms to its treaty documents with its indigenous population.
Australia has been far slower in making meaningful amends with First Nations people in the years since 1967, when a successful referendum recognised Aboriginal communities as citizens for the first time.
A symbolic gesture towards reconciliation arrived in 2008, when then prime minister Kevin Rudd formally apologised for the stolen generation, a 60-year period when indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and made to assimilate into mainstream culture.
Then came the Uluru Statement from the Heart, signed in 2017, inviting the non-indigenous population to recognise their rights and paved the way for the Voice referendum.
Yet even the simple terms of October’s vote have been met with resistance.
Albanese has been repeatedly forced to deny that the Voice advisory body would ultimately lead to a third arm of parliament with the ability to strong-arm lawmakers in Canberra. He has also had to address fears the body could clog up legislation with court challenges.
At the same time, he has also had to convince people that the proposal can make a material difference to some of the most vulnerable and marginalised communities in the country. Describing this catch-22, Catherine Liddle, chief executive of the indigenous children’s welfare body SNAICC, says the Voice “mysteriously seems to have the simultaneous ability to do way too much and nothing at all”.
Previous attempts to create dedicated advisory bodies to represent indigenous affairs were disbanded and policies set in Canberra designed to tackle the social problems faced by indigenous communities have struggled to work.
That long-term policy failure was highlighted in the annual Closing the Gap report published by the country’s Productivity Commission, the Australian government’s independent research and advisory body, which monitors progress for indigenous groups across 15 targets such as life expectancy, education, employment, housing and incarceration.
The 2023 report showed that improvement had only been made across four metrics, with a deterioration in key areas, including rates of suicide and the number of children being removed from their families and placed in care.
Liddle says that decades after the hurt of the stolen generation, 42 per cent of all children removed from their families by child protection agencies in Australia are indigenous. The majority never return to their communities and this has a life-long impact by alienating those young people from their culture, she says.
“A lot of harm is done from trying to do good,” Liddle adds. “We’ve got a fundamentally flawed system. It’s not working because there is no voice.”
Scarred by trauma
The situation for many indigenous is perhaps most apparent in Alice Springs, a small desert city in the Northern Territory, which has become a symbol for failed government policy.
The city centre is surrounded by the town camps set up by different Aboriginal communities after being displaced from their traditional lands. The camps have been the focus of persistent political and media attention over alcoholism, violence and crime.
Residents of Alice Springs were on the receiving end of what is known as “the intervention” in 2007, when the Australian government declared an emergency response aimed at disproportionate levels of domestic violence and allegations of sexual abuse of children in the region.
A troubled history
The first British ships arrive in Australia to set up a penal colony. The date of the landing on January 26 today is celebrated as Australia Day, but considered a day of mourning for some indigenous people
Six British colonies vote to unite and modern Australia is established. The White Australia policy, formally the Immigration Restriction Act, comes into effect, prohibiting all non-European migration
Indigenous children, now known as the stolen generation, start being removed from their families and forced to assimilate as part of a “child welfare” policy that continues for roughly the next 60 years
A referendum is passed that classifies indigenous people as Australian citizens for the first time and the Council for Aboriginal Affairs is set up
The abolition of the Aborigines Welfare Board in effect brings the forced removal of indigenous children to an end, although the practice continues on a smaller scale under subsequent child protection laws
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd formally apologises over the stolen generation in a speech known as the National Apology. Survivors are still suffering from the trauma of being cut off from their family and culture
Indigenous people issue the Uluru Statement from the Heart calling for substantive reform to recognise and protect the rights of these communities
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announces a referendum asking Australians to recognise the First Nations people in the constitution and set up an indigenous “voice” in parliament
The army was deployed and measures such as restrictions on purchasing alcohol were introduced, while property rights and racial discrimination laws were suspended. Welfare budgets were also squeezed in an attempt to stem spending on alcohol, but led to a loss of much-needed public services.
In 2017, the UN drew international attention to the situation, questioning the political will to solve the social issues blighting Alice Springs. It highlighted significant budget cuts of more than A$500mn to indigenous programmes and a paternalistic approach to policymaking. “I would like to recommend that policies be made with communities — rather than to communities,” said Dubravka Šimonović, the UN representative who visited the area.
The intervention laws were eventually lifted in 2022, but an uptick in crime led by some of the town’s young men provoked the government to reintroduce some of the measures.
Supporters of the Voice in Alice Springs believe the city is the perfect example of a place that would have benefited from the input of the indigenous population when drafting policy.
Shirleen Campbell, co-ordinator of the Tangentyere Women’s Safety Group, says that the intervention had a shattering impact on residents. “It put another scar on us. It added to the trauma, especially [for] our kids. It painted every man with the same brush,” she says. “If we had a voice it wouldn’t have happened.”
Campbell, who lives in the town camps, describes the panic the intervention caused particularly among the elderly, who lived through the “stolen generation” era and worried it would happen again.
“The biggest fear was what was happening to those kids behind four walls [in foster care] when kids can come out more broken [and] with no connection to the land or to their families,” she says. “We were treated unfairly and disrespected.”
The intervention has been criticised for failing to offer an optimistic vision of what a positive, Aboriginal future could look like. This is why Ken Lechleitner, a public servant in Alice Springs, is backing the Voice. “When we have our aspirations channelled we will be able to participate [in society] with gusto,” he says.
Greater civic participation, he argues, would inspire business creation and employment, particularly in Alice Springs where tourism was devastated by the impact of Covid-19. Visitors have dropped even further, put off by negative media coverage of the area. The introduction of direct flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Uluru, one of Australia’s most popular landmarks, has increased the town’s isolation as tourists no longer have to pass through.
The alternative, Lechleitner says, is a continuation of existing policies of management, which triggers resistance from the very communities it aims to help. “When one demonstrates power over another, it makes you feel that you’re not good enough to be heard,” he adds.
Despite evidence of inequality, the Yes campaign faces an uphill task to win over hearts and minds.
Part of the battle is structural. To date, only eight of 44 referendums in Australia have succeeded. Any vote needs a majority of the population to vote in favour of it as well as the majority of its six states. The Northern Territory, however, is not a state.
Anne Twomey, a constitutional expert at the University of Sydney who advised on the vote’s structure, says that referendums were designed to be a brake on radical policies. “It is a people’s veto rather than an instrument for change,” she says.
The country’s mandatory voting system also means that undecided voters tend to swing the result against success. In addition, Twomey says, the Voice, similar to the UK’s Brexit vote in 2016, has asked the public to support the general idea of an indigenous advisory body, although the particulars of how it will work will not be ironed out in parliament until after the referendum.
Twomey says opponents of the Voice have latched on to that lack of detail as a reason for voters not to support it. “It is causing confusion,” she says.
The other hurdle is a social one. Both sides feel they are voting for Australia’s future, but what that looks like is very different.
The referendum campaign has been mired by disinformation from warnings that Australians could “lose their backyards” in a new wave of land claims to false narratives that the indigenous population would be signing away their sovereignty.
Accusations of racism have been levelled at both sides, despite Albanese pleading that “fear mongering” will not advance the country.
One of the politicians leading the charge for the No campaign is Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, a Country Liberal party senator and former deputy mayor of Alice Springs. She describes the referendum as a “vote of division” proposed by people who want to split Australia along racial lines.
Price, speaking at the National Press Club in Canberra on September 14, argued that enshrining a Voice in the constitution would cement the “gap” between the indigenous and non-indigenous population in perpetuity.
“If we keep telling Aboriginal people that they are victims, we are in effect removing their agency, and giving them the expectation that someone else is responsible for their lives. That is the worst possible thing you can do to any human being,” says the politician.
Those sentiments are not shared by many indigenous people in Alice Springs.
Palmer, sitting on the sidelines of the Santa Teresa event, says Price’s words would be heard in remote communities but the sentiment would not necessarily cut through. “We need positive words, not negative ones,” he says.
While a few residents say they would be backing a No vote despite being open to more input on policymaking, for Veronica Dobson, it is past time for indigenous population to stop being shoved about. She recalls walking 80km to Santa Teresa as a child after the Catholic mission was moved there from the gold town of Arltunga, where the water supply had been poisoned by a mine.
“People should vote yes,” she says. “We haven’t been given the right to speak on behalf of ourselves.”
However, recent polling data has shown support for the Yes vote has started to drift. In mid-September, support for Yes had slumped to 43 per cent with only the state of Tasmania in positive territory, according to polling company Resolve.
Twomey, of the University of Sydney, points out that the 1967 referendum recognising indigenous people as citizens was successful because it had bipartisan political support at both the state and federal levels. Contested referendums such as the Voice have always failed.
John Black, executive chair of political profiling group Australian Development Studies, suggests Albanese may have moved too soon, by failing to build cross-party consensus first.
Black predicts there may be “recriminations” for Labor and Albanese in particular should the No vote prevail. “The honeymoon is over,” he says.
Some are not yet ready to give up hope. Yes supporter Connie Shaw, the co-co-ordinator of the Tangentyere Women’s Safety Group, says the stakes are too high.
“My grandfather did three military tours overseas but when he came home he was classified as a native plant,” she says. “Put yourself in our shoes,” she adds, speaking to Australian voters. “You should listen — not [let our voice] go in one ear and out the other. We know what’s best for our people.”