Aziz Al Sa’afin: The bitter debate around the Australian referendum

The Australian referendum takes place on October 14

Analysis: 1News Australian correspondent Aziz Al Sa’afin explores Australia's Voice to Parliament referendum from a New Zealand perspective.

As a Kiwi who has had the privilege of living on both sides of the Tasman, the debate around Australia’s upcoming referendum has been an eye-opener.

While Aotearoa New Zealand certainly has its own challenges when it comes to Indigenous issues, Australia's current debate on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament referendum feels like a journey through the wild west.

Let’s look at some of the statements Australia’s politicians have made about the issue so far:

One Nation leader Pauline Hanson has already compared the Aboriginal stolen generation to the plight of convicts in one speech shared by the Vote No campaign.

“What about the stolen generation of the convicts that were forced out here or the children that were taken away during the Second World War from England,” she said.

“People have faced atrocities over the years, but this guilt trip has to stop if we are going to be strong and united.”

Then there are the comments made by shadow Indigenous Australians Minister Jacinta Nampijinpa Price during a speech to the National Press Club earlier this month.

She claimed Indigenous groups were trying to “demonise colonial settlement in its entirety and nurture a national self-loathing about the foundations of modern Australian achievement”.

She also said she doesn’t believe there are any ongoing negative impacts of colonisation.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the debate, prominent Indigenous academic Marcia Langton has been accused of calling ‘No’ voters “racist” and “stupid”.

The intent of her words may have been misunderstood – she claims her comments were directed at tactics employed by the ‘No’ campaign rather than voters – but it further highlights the heightened tensions here.

What are Australians actually voting on?

The question of this referendum is relatively simple and explained by one word: representation.

It’s about altering the Constitution and recognising the First Peoples of Australia by “establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament”.

It's not about overruling Parliament, as suggested by some online commentary.

It’s about providing advice on matters directly affecting First Nations communities – basic things like health, education, and employment.

The Voice can’t give advice on link roads, defence spending or tax policy. It also can’t “force Parliament” to do anything, which is why some people say they’re voting against it, labelling the move “tokenistic”.

Polling suggests the ‘Yes’ vote will fail

This is Australia’s 45th referendum and its first in 23 years.

Only eight of those previous referendums have passed, so it’s fair to say Australia doesn’t really like saying “yes” to constitutional change.

As vote day approaches on October 14, support has been dwindling, and it really isn’t looking good for the ‘Yes’ camp this time either.

For it to even get over the line, a double majority would need to be reached between votes and states. That means approximately 8.5 million of the 17 million enrolled voters, as well as four out of six states, would have to say ‘Yes’.

At the time of writing, the overall ‘Yes’ vote was polling at 43.7%, in comparison to 56.3% of ‘No’ and ‘Undecided’ votes. Meanwhile, only one state appears to voting in favour so far, and that is Tasmania.

Regardless of how people intend to vote, you’d hope the debate leading up to it could be respectful and grounded in facts.

But from what I’ve seen so far, it’s unfortunately become entrenched in misinformation, disinformation, and – in some cases – outright lies.

Australia stands at a pivotal moment in its history, where it can choose to recognise and empower its First Nations people or maintain the status quo.

Supporters of the ‘Yes’ vote say it’s about affirming a commitment to justice and equality - and finally giving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders a chance to be seen.


More Stories