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Australia has overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to recognise the country’s indigenous population in the constitution despite last-ditch efforts by the prime minister and aboriginal leaders.
The proposal, which would have also enshrined an advisory body on indigenous affairs called “The Voice” in the constitution, had been pitched by Anthony Albanese, the Labor prime minister, as a once-in-a-generation opportunity.
The failure of the high-profile referendum, which had been supported by some of Australia’s largest companies and institutions, represents a setback in the country’s attempts to deal with its past and present treatment of its native people, who make up 3 per cent of the population.
With more than 8mn votes counted, the split was 59 per cent to 41 per cent against The Voice at the national level, with the highest levels of support in high income seats in inner Sydney and Melbourne.
The referendum also required a majority in four of the country’s six states to pass. The initial vote trends suggested it would fail in all of the states as well as the Northern Territory, the sparsely populated region in the middle of the country, where a large portion of the country’s rural indigenous population lives.
Albanese said on Saturday night that Australia “must seek a new way forward with the same optimism” that launched the original proposal.
The No vote, backed by the opposition Liberal and National parties, gained momentum after the Yes campaign failed to build support in the run-up to the country’s first referendum since 1999.
The proposal was criticised on a number of fronts, ranging from a lack of detail about the structure of the advisory body to whether the it would divide the country along racial and ancestral lines. No Australian referendum has passed without bipartisan support.
Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, the opposition indigenous affairs spokeswoman who has been the face of the No campaign in recent weeks, said she was proud that Australians had refused to back what she called a divisive referendum. “We are absolutely not a racist country,” she said of the public rejection of the Voice.
Linda Burney, the government’s indigenous Australians minister, said it was “a day of sadness” but that the campaign had at least highlighted the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia. “This is not the end of reconciliation,” she said.