Australia has voted against a landmark referendumaimed at recognizing Indigenous people in its constitution.
The referendum, known as the Voice, also sought to establish a First Nations body to advise the government on matters affecting their communities. The No campaigners labeled the vote as divisive, while Yes advocates framed it as a historic opportunity for change.
The rejection of the proposal signifies the conclusion of a bitter and prolonged debate, raising concerns that it may leave lasting scars. Throughout the campaign, reports of racist abuse directed at Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people surged, and misinformation and disinformation fueled discussions about whether Australia was entering a “post-truth” political era.
Nearly 18 million people were eligible to vote, with over six million casting their ballots early, including many who were voting in a referendum for the first time. The No result was declared less than an hour and a half after the polls closed on Australia’s east coast.
The final results revealed that the No vote prevailed in every state and in the popular vote. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who called for the referendum earlier this year, respected the outcome and called for unity following the divisive debate. He emphasized that the moment of disagreement should not define the nation and that the referendum had placed the issue of Indigenous disadvantage at the center of public discourse.
The Yes camp expressed devastation, with many feeling that a dishonest and misleading No campaign had influenced the outcome. Meanwhile, the No campaigners celebrated the referendum’s failure and emphasized the need for practical outcomes for Indigenous people. They argued that Australians were tired of government shortcomings and were supportive of recognizing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the constitution.
The referendum marked the 45th attempt to change Australia’s founding document, with only eight proposals having succeeded. It was also the second time the issue of Indigenous recognition was put to a national vote, following the previous attempt in 1999.
The Yes campaign’s central argument was that the Voice, which aimed to create an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander body to advise governments on issues affecting their communities, could address the entrenched inequalities faced by Indigenous people. The suicide rate among Indigenous Australians, for example, is nearly double that of non-Indigenous Australians, and they account for a disproportionate percentage of the prison population.
On the other hand, the No campaign argued that the Voice would lead to division and create different classes of citizenship, warning of special rights for certain groups. Their slogan, “divisive Voice,” ultimately resonated with voters.
In the aftermath of the referendum, all sides called for national unity and reflection as they come to terms with the outcome. Indigenous advocates fear that the referendum’s failure may be seen as another rejection by Australia’s first inhabitants, who showed strong early support for the Voice.
Assistant Minister for Indigenous Australians Senator Malarndirri McCarthy said, “There are so many people who aspired for our country to be seen differently tonight, and that is going to be deeply felt.” She also noted the resilience of Indigenous people in the face of disappointments over decades and centuries.