Australia’s referendum to enshrine a First Nations voice in the country’s constitution was unsuccessful. But the spotlight remains on the Australian government to ensure First Nations people’s rights to self-determination, and full and effective participation are properly realized.
Establishing an Indigenous Voice to parliament was put to a vote on October 14, 2023, as constitutional amendments in Australia must be decided by a referendum.
Many Indigenous Australians campaigned for a “yes” vote, hoping it would deliver better outcomes for their communities, which continue to face disproportionately high rates of incarceration and other systemic socioeconomic disadvantages due to the legacies of colonialism.
The Voice is a proposed advisory body, made of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who would advise the Australian parliament and the government on issues that affect them.
First Nations people had called for the Voice through the Uluru Statement from the Heart, following extensive consultation. Human Rights Watch supported the Voice as an important way to ensure self-determination for First Nations people in Australia.
While the results are disappointing for many First Nations people in Australia, the “no vote” does not diminish their rights as Indigenous people, which the Australian government has a continued responsibility to uphold.
In deciding next steps, the Australian government should prioritize the views of Indigenous communities.
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was endorsed by Australia in 2009, recognizes that Indigenous people have the right to participate in decision-making in matters that would affect their rights, and that governments should consult with Indigenous people before making laws that affect them.
It is a blight on Australia’s history that successive governments of various political persuasions have failed to uphold the rights of First Nations people.