CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australians appear likely to reject the creation of an advocate for the Indigenous population in a referendum outcome that some see as a victory for racism.
Two opinion polls published in newspapers on Monday are the latest to show a majority of respondents oppose enshrining in Australia’s constitution an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. Creating the Voice would aim to give Australia’s most disadvantaged ethnic minority more say on government policies that effect their lives.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Monday would not concede defeat before voting on the referendum ends Saturday.
“We’ll wait and see when they cast their vote. I’m not getting ahead of the Australian people,” Albanese told Australian Broadcasting Corp.
“I know there’s some arrogance has crept into the no-side campaign, but it’s a campaign based upon fear,” Albanese added.
Albanese has said the world will judge Australians on how they vote at their first referendum since 1999.
Indigenous Australians account for 3.8% of Australia’s population. They have worse outcomes on average than other Australians in a range of measures including health, employment, education, incarceration and suicide rates. Statistically, Indigenous Australians die around eight years younger than the wider community.
The Yes campaign argues that a Voice, a representative body selected by Indigenous people, would lead to better outcomes.
Human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson has warned that the referendum’s failure would be “interpreted by outsiders” as the “vote of an ignorant and racist populace.”
“If Australians vote No, we will appear to outside observers as racist, in the sense of denying to an ethnic minority an opportunity for advancement to which they are entitled,” Robertson, a London-based Australian, wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper last month.
Noel Pearson, an Indigenous leader and architect of the Voice, said Australians face a “moral choice” at the referendum as a well as a question of constitutional law.
“One choice will bring us pride and hope and belief in one another and the other will, I think, turn us backwards and bring shame to the country,” Pearson said on Monday.
“’No’ would be a travesty for the country and we will possibly never live it down,” Pearson added.
Some observers argue that the referendum was doomed because none has ever passed in Australian history without the bipartisan support of the major political parties.
The opposition conservative parties argue that the Voice would be risky because the courts could interpret its powers in unpredictable ways. They also argue that the Voice would divide Australians along racial lines.
Sussan Ley, deputy leader of the conservative opposition Liberal Party, said either result would have a negative impact on Australia.
“It’s a lose-lose, whatever the result is on Saturday,” Ley told Sky News.
“It will be bad, divisive and unhappy for Australians the next day, so we do need to bring the country together,” Ley added.
Marcia Langton, an Indigenous academic who helped draft the Voice proposal, has dismissed arguments against it as either stupid or racist.
“Every time the ‘No’ case raises one of their arguments, if you start pulling it apart you get down to base racism. I’m sorry to say it, but that’s where it lands. Or just sheer stupidity,” she told a public forum last month.
Opinion polls showed a majority of Australians supported the Voice when Albanese first proposed the referendum after his center-left Labor Party was elected last year.
A poll published in The Australian newspaper on Monday showed 58% of respondents opposed the Voice and only 34% supported it.
The poll was based on an online survey of 1,225 voters nationwide from Oct. 3 to 6. It has 3.1 percentage point margin of error.
A poll published in The Sydney Morning Herald on Monday found 56% of respondents rejected the Voice and only 29% supported it. The poll was based on an online survey of 4,728 voters nationwide from Sept. 22 until Oct. 4. It has a 1.4 percentage point margin of error.
A record number of Australians are enrolled to vote at the referendum.
Of Australia’s population of 26 million, 17,676,347 were enrolled to vote, which is 97.7% of eligible Australians.
More than 2.2 million people had already cast their ballots in early voting by Monday, while a further 1.9 million intended to make postal votes.