How the world reacted to Australia’s Voice referendum
Finn van Herten
Australia’s rejection over the weekend of a proposal to constitutionally recognise its First Nations peoples through an Indigenous Voice to Parliament left a trail of heavy emotions across the country – an expected result whichever way the referendum fell. However, with the dust of an incredible campaign settling and a new chapter in Australia’s long road towards reconciliation now written, it is worth remembering that the scale of the referendum attracted significant attention overseas.
Ahead of polling day, the volume of commentary from Australia’s established and emerging partners alike was telling – perhaps nowhere more so than among Australia’s Pacific neighbours.
Ten days out from the vote, for example, Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General Henry Puna described the referendum as an opportunity for Australia to raise its international credibility and profile, particularly in the Pacific. He did not go so far as to predict the contrary implications of a No vote, instead deferring to Australia’s right to non-interference in its domestic policymaking.
Even earlier than this, eight former Pacific public figures who comprise the Pacific Elders Voice, including former leaders of Kiribati, Palau and the Marshall Islands, issued a statement saying they would “pray that Australians find it in their conscience” to vote Yes and address “the injustices” Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to face.
Vanuatu’s then-Deputy Opposition Leader Ralph Regenvanu, however, (who was formerly his country’s foreign minister) was more forthcoming in his analysis of a No result. Earlier in October, describing the Voice as no “radical proposal”, he claimed Australia’s standing in the region would suffer clear setbacks.
Some academics in Australia, including those with links to Pacific educational institutions or nations, voiced similar views, from suggesting a No vote would inform Pacific perspectives on how Australia treats First Nations peoples, to reinforcing negative views on a perceived “paternalistic and privileged status quo that discounts diversity” in Australia (per the University of Sydney’s Professor Jioji Ravulo).
Elsewhere, international media tried to contextualise Australia’s debate in no small terms. The United Kingdom’s BBC observed suggestions that the referendum could be Australia’s “Brexit moment”, noting that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was conscious the referendum could impact Australia’s reputation, and that the “disinformation and division” which characterised the national debate could be compared to the 2016 US general election when Donald Trump clinched the US presidency.
Reports from polling night
The results flowed quickly on October 14. Contrary to some pre-polling, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation called a No vote first in Tasmania, before identical calls in New South Wales and South Australia sealed the Voice’s fate less than 90 minutes after polls closed on the east coast.
Reporting among major international media focused on implications the result could entail for reconciliation efforts, and the apparent quality of the debate in Australia in the weeks and months before polling day.
Before all six states had finished delivering their varying degrees of No results, major international media began beaming the news worldwide. Reuters headlined their report on the ‘decisive rejection’ bluntly: “Australia rejects Indigenous referendum in setback for reconciliation”.
Reuters was far from alone in striking a solemn tone. CNN penned their headline “Australians vote No in referendum that promised change for First Nations people but couldn’t deliver”, quoting ‘experts’ afraid that the referendum would “inflict lasting damage” on Indigenous Australians. The New York Times followed suit with their story “Crushing Indigenous hopes, Australia rejects ‘Voice’ referendum” which reviewed the course of the referendum debate, arguments by Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians for the Yes and No cases, and early responses in Australia to the result.
The Japan Times, Japan’s largest English-language newspaper, framed their report via news agency Jiji Press from a rights perspective with the headline “Australian voters reject greater Indigenous rights”, observing that the proposal was “roundly rejected” following a “divisive and racially tinged referendum campaign”. Their analysis claimed the tone of Australia’s national debate had exposed “a gulf between First Nations people and the white majority”.
The same approach was taken by France24 whose sources, Agence France-Presse, also share a partnership with Japan’s Jiji Press. Their headline “Australians vote to reject constitutional ‘Voice’ for Indigenous people” came with a subheading suggesting Australia had “roundly rejected greater rights for Indigenous citizens” with the vote.
Germany’s Deutsche Welle News, in its story “Australia’s Indigenous Voice referendum fails”, described the failure to secure constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians as “a major setback to the country’s efforts for reconciliation with its First Peoples”.
Having described the referendum as a landmark vote earlier in the day, Canada’s The Globe and Mail national newspaper gave a brief recount of the scope of the proposed Voice, various indicators of inequality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, the arguments of each campaign and their proponents’ responses to the final poll.
The United Kingdom’s BBC launched a live blog on the “historic” vote shortly after polls opened in New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and the ACT, reporting Australian commentary up to the minute as votes were counted. The BBC also preceded their coverage with several explainer pieces, one of which sought academic input to compare Indigenous recognition in Australia and New Zealand, and analysed most New Zealanders’ reactions to majority No pre-polling as one of puzzlement considering the “political voice” assured by the Treaty of Waitangi (despite rights in the treaty not being fully afforded until the 1970s).
New Zealand media were understandably quiet on referendum day due to the country’s historic national elections, which saw New Zealand Labour resoundingly relegated to opposition after six years in power.
Naturally, referendum stories did not lead in the world’s media metropoles but the matter was certainly on show. It seems fair to suggest that the wider world is now far more aware of the referendum and the heated debate that preceded it than it was in the weeks before the final vote.
Finn van Herten is completing his final year studying a Bachelor of Communication (Social & Political Sciences) and Bachelor of International Studies (China major) at the University of Technology Sydney. He is currently External Affairs Analyst at PremierNational, a government relations and corporate affairs consultancy. Finn has broad interests in seeing Australia develop collaborative relationships with Pacific nations, and the quality of Australia's bilateral engagement with China.