Phone Lines at Indigenous Helpline in Australia Ring Off the Hook Ahead of Landmark Referendum
By Praveen Menon
Aboriginal People Seek Help as Landmark Referendum Approaches
Phone lines at 13Yarn, a national Indigenous helpline in Australia, are buzzing with activity. The team, led by National Program Manager Marjorie Anderson, is receiving three times more calls each week from distressed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people. The surge in calls comes as the country prepares to vote on a landmark referendum to recognize Indigenous people in the constitution.
Anderson expressed concern over the safety of Aboriginal people, stating that they are feeling overwhelmed and unsafe due to the escalating debate. Many have even opted to stay away from social media platforms, which have become toxic battlegrounds.
Landmark Referendum: Recognizing Indigenous People in the Constitution
The upcoming referendum poses a single-line question to Australians: whether they agree to amend the 122-year old constitution to recognize the First Peoples. In addition, the referendum aims to establish a body called the Voice to Parliament, which will provide advice to the government on matters affecting the Indigenous community.
Supporters of the referendum believe that this change will bring about unity in Australia and mark a new era for its Indigenous people, who have long faced marginalization. However, polling trends indicate that the ‘No’ vote is likely to prevail, which concerns experts and human rights organizations. They fear that such an outcome could set back reconciliation efforts by several years.
Divisions Arise: Debunking Misinformation and Addressing Racist Rhetoric
Opponents of the referendum argue that it fosters division in Australia by giving special rights to Aboriginal people and introducing racial lines into the country’s founding document. Moreover, misinformation circulating on social media platforms has fueled fears that the Voice will become a third chamber of parliament, leading to increased federal aid for Aboriginal people and potential land disputes.
Amidst this heated debate, prominent figures such as Aboriginal leaders, journalists, and sports personalities have become targets of hate speech, resulting in many retreating from public discourse.
United Nations Urges Full Implementation of Indigenous Rights
The Uluru Statement from the Heart, a 2017 document proposing the Voice to Parliament, has called for further steps towards Indigenous reconciliation, including a treaty and a truth-telling process. Surya Deva, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Development, emphasized that the proposed constitutional amendment is not an act of charity but an obligation based on international human rights law.
In a letter sent to Australian authorities, the UN urged the Voice to be seen as a first step towards implementing the Uluru Statement and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Deva highlighted the positive aspect of this divisive debate, stating that it has exposed the hidden discriminatory attitudes towards Indigenous Peoples.
Long-standing Discrimination and the Hope for Change
Australia, unlike Canada and New Zealand, has yet to formally recognize or establish a treaty with its First Peoples. Indigenous Australians, constituting 3.8% of the population, have long endured discrimination even after the nation’s formation in 1901. Policies such as forced relocations and the separation of Indigenous children have resulted in a “stolen generation” and perpetuated marginalization.
Despite some Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders calling for the referendum to be canceled, recent polls indicate a decline in support for the Voice, even among Indigenous voters. This suggests that the ‘No’ vote will likely prevail, raising concerns that the Indigenous community’s voice may be silenced.
Indigenous rights advocate and First Nations Foundation chair, Ian Hamm, expressed a sense of dread if the polls are correct, highlighting the potential repercussions of such an outcome.