SYDNEY, March 23, 2023 (BSS/AFP) - Australia's prime minister on Thursday made a tearful appeal to voters, asking them to support the creation of an Aboriginal "voice" in lawmaking as he announced the wording of the referendum question.
Anthony Albanese said that Australians had a chance to make up for centuries of injustice, to formally recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island groups, and give them a voice in decision-making at a vote later this year.
This is "about how our nation sees ourselves. Whether we have the confidence to embrace our history", said Albanese, painting the vote as a chance for Australians to make their country fairer.
"What we have done up to now hasn't worked," he said, hailing the vote as a "historic democratic opportunity, a chance to show the very best of our national character, our fundamental optimism and a deep sense of fairness, our instinctive respect and kindness for each other."
The referendum aims to create an Indigenous advisory body that would have a constitutionally enshrined obligation to advise parliament on new laws and regulations.
Sometime later this year, Australians will be asked to vote on a proposal to "alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice".
Albanese said he felt a "weight of responsibility" about a proposal that is far from certain to pass.
Polls show that about 60 percent of Australians back the constitutional change, but support has been declining and there are lingering questions about how the "voice" would work.
The body will not have a veto on legislation. It is not yet clear how or if the body would be democratically elected.
Albanese sought to allay concerns about the project, stressing it was a "modest" request that was as much about how Australia sees itself as nuts-and-bolts lawmaking.
For decades, Australia's white majority has struggled to reckon with its frequently brutal past.
For more than a century, Indigenous Australians were not considered full citizens and although those rights are now enshrined in law, there is still deep inequality.
Indigenous Australians are much more likely to be poor, to have limited access to education or healthcare and to be incarcerated than their white compatriots.
"A Voice to Parliament, enshrined in our Constitution, will mean that our people are listened to and heard on the issues that affect us," said Aboriginal Senator Patrick Dodson.