Australia PM pushes for bipartisan support on Indigenous referendum

SYDNEY — Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will push for bipartisan support on a referendum that aims to set up an Indigenous consultative committee in parliament, when it meets on Monday for the first time this year.

The landmark referendum, to be held later this year, will establish an Indigenous “Voice”, that can make representations to parliament on policies affecting them.

If passed, that would add language to its constitution – which cannot be amended without a referendum – to recognise Australia’s Indigenous citizens for the first time.

A poll by The Australian newspaper released on Monday showed 56% of voters supported the change in the constitution, with 37% opposing it.

Australia is seeking to give more recognition to its Aboriginal people, who have inhabited the land for 60,000 years but track well below national averages on most socio-economic measures.

“I believe very firmly that Australians should take the opportunity that they’ll have in the second half of this year to cast a vote for yes, to cast a vote to walk upon the path of reconciliation,” Albanese told reporters in Canberra.

“It might just make some people’s lives, some of the most disadvantaged people in our country, their lives better.”

Albanese, who has staked much of his political capital on the referendum in a country that has only passed eight of them since becoming an independent nation, said he wanted to get “as much agreement as possible”.

“This should be above politics,” he said, adding he hoped to introduce the legislation in the current term of the parliament.

The federal opposition Liberal Party has not yet backed the referendum but a group, which includes some prominent Indigenous Australians and lawmakers, have launched a campaign against it.

They say it will not resolve the issues affecting the country’s roughly one million Indigenous citizens.

Opposition is also forming among progressives. A Greens party senator quit the party and moved to the crossbench on Monday because of concerns about the Voice proposal. 

She first wants a treaty between the government and indigenous people, similar to what exists in New Zealand and Canada.

“Greens MPs, members and supporters have told me they want to support the Voice. This is at odds with the community of activists that are saying treaty before voice,” said Senator Lidia Thorpe at a news conference on Monday.

Her exit complicates the passage of legislation through the senate, where the government is in minority. 

A combination of independent crossbench members and the Greens are needed to pass non-bipartisan legislation. — Reuters