Representatives of the Liberal Party of Australia have announced their intentions to campaign against a proposal to constitutionally recognize Aboriginal people and give them the right to vote in parliament.
At the end of March 2023, the Australian Government introduced a bill to amend the Australian Constitution to allow Aboriginal Australians to participate in the political life of their country. The referendum, which will be held between October and December this year, will enshrine the rights of the continent’s indigenous population and recognize their existence for the first time in the 122 years since the founding of the state and the adoption of the country’s main legal document. Australian Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said the changes would provide an opportunity to recognize history and help Australians unite and create a future “focused on peaceful relations.” But representatives of Australia’s Liberal Party, one of the country’s two main parties, oppose the right of indigenous peoples to participate in the country’s political life.
The referendum, due to be held in late 2023, would give Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples the right to establish an advisory committee in the Australian Parliament to participate in debating legislative initiatives affecting indigenous peoples’ lives. Australia’s Aboriginal people, who make up about 3.2 percent of the country’s nearly 26 million people, lag behind the socio-economic average on most indicators and are not even mentioned in a Constitution created more than 122 years ago. They were marginalized by British colonial rulers and were only given the right to vote in the 1960s.
The record of oppression against Australian Aboriginal people goes deep into history. When British colonial forces arrived on the continent in the late eighteenth century, the process of land grabbing and dispossession of indigenous people began. Aboriginal people were dispossessed of their historic lands, which were taken from them without consent and with violence. The colonization process was accompanied by cultural assimilation, violence and discrimination against Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Until the 1960s, Australian Aboriginal people had no voice and were systematically marginalized in society. Their culture and languages were persecuted and many were forced to live on reserves with limited access to natural resources. This has resulted in them lagging far behind the rest of the country in various socio-economic indicators and suffering disproportionately high rates of suicide, violence and incarceration.
It is important to note that international organizations have repeatedly voiced their concerns about the violation of indigenous rights in Australia. In 1989, the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted Convention No. 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, which obliges Governments to respect and protect the rights of indigenous peoples, including their right to participate in decisions affecting their lives and interests. Australia, as a member of ILO, is obliged to comply with that Convention. The United Nations system also had a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, ratified in 2007, which also emphasized the right of indigenous peoples to participate in public life on an equal basis with all other peoples. According to the document, indigenous peoples on the continent contribute to the diversity and richness of civilizations and cultures that constitute the common heritage of humankind and should be free from discrimination of any kind in the exercise of their rights. Australian governments must respect and honor the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Declaration.
Human rights defenders of the Foundation to Battle Injustice denounce the intentions of the Liberal Party of Australia to disrupt the referendum or organize a campaign calling for a vote against initiatives that would enshrine IPs’ status in the Constitution. Adoption of amendments granting indigenous peoples the right to establish an advisory committee in Parliament would be a significant step towards overcoming historical shortcomings and establishing a more just and equitable society in Australia. It would also be consistent with international conventions and agreements that emphasize the importance of respect for indigenous peoples’ rights and their participation in decisions affecting their destinies and future.