Australia’s prime minister has announced the date for a landmark referendum that would change the country’s constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and create an advisory body for them.
The vote, which will be held on 14 October, will be the country’s first referendum since 1999. Australia has not passed one in nearly 50 years.
If approved, it would enshrine in the constitution an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, a collection of advocates aimed at giving Indigenous Australians more say on government policy.
However no referendum has ever passed without bipartisan support and the major parties remain divided over the Voice.
Announcing the date at a news conference in Adelaide in South Australia, Mr Albanese said:
“The idea for a voice came from the people and it will be decided by the people. Today I announce that referendum day will be 14 October.
He continued: “You are not being asked to vote for a political party, or for a person. You’re being asked to vote for an idea. To say yes to an idea whose time has come.”
Australia has no treaty with its Indigenous people, who make up about 3.2% of its near 26 million population and track below national averages on most socio-economic measures.
They are not mentioned in the constitution despite inhabiting the land for over 60,000 years.
The “Voice to Parliament” would be an Indigenous committee to advise federal parliament on matters affecting the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people.
The proposal was recommended in 2017 in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which calls for a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.
Public debate on the issue has been divisive, and support for the proposal has dipped in recent months, according to opinion polls.
Supporters of the voice say it will help mend fraught ties with the Aboriginal community and unite the nation, and the advisory body will help prioritise Indigenous health, education, employment and housing.
Opponents argue the move would divide Australians along racial lines and hand excessive power to the Indigenous body. Others have described the Voice as a symbolic and toothless body.
Getting constitutional change is difficult in Australia. The referendum must gain more than 50% of votes nationwide, and support from a majority of voters in at least four of the six states.