© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A depiction of the Australian Aboriginal Flag is seen on a window sill at the home of indigenous Muruwari elder Rita Wright, a member of the “Stolen Generations”, in Sydney, Australia, January 19, 2021. REUTERS/Loren Elliott/File Photo
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s Senate passed legislation on Monday that paves the way for the country to hold a landmark referendum later this year on whether to recognise its Indigenous people in the constitution.
In a final vote in the upper house of parliament, 52 voted in favour of the bill while 19 voted against, allowing the bill to be passed with an absolute majority.
The referendum will ask Australians whether they support altering the constitution to include “Voice to Parliament”, a committee that can advise the parliament on matters affecting its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will now have to set a referendum date. It will be the first referendum Australians will vote on since 1999 when they rejected the establishment of a republic.
Aboriginal people, making up about 3.2% of Australia’s near 26 million population, track below national averages on most socio-economic measures and are not mentioned in the constitution. They were marginalised by British colonial rulers and not granted full voting rights until the 1960s.
Lawmakers supporting the bill clapped and cheered as the final numbers of the vote were read out in the house.
“It is a very simple request….to be recognised in the constitution,” Malarndirri McCarthy, an Indigenous woman and Labor Party senator told the house.
“To be included in the constitution is a very big deal for Indigenous people. A majority of the Indigenous people want this to happen,” she said.
Support for the constitutional change has been wavering. A poll published last week showed those against the referendum was ahead for the first time, 51% to 49%.
To change the constitution, the government must secure what is known as a double majority in the referendum. That means more than 50% voters nationwide, and a majority of voters in at least four of the six states must back the change.
Groups opposing the constitutional change have argued that it is a distraction from achieving practical and positive outcomes, and that it would divide Australians by race.
“If the yes vote is successful, we will be divided forever,” said Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, the opposition spokesperson for Indigenous affairs. The main opposition Liberal Party is asking people to vote “no” in the referendum.
Independent Indigenous Senator Lidia Thorpe, who has also been a vocal opponent of the bill, said the change will only create a “powerless advisory body”.