Before Australians last voted in a referendum on First Nations people in 1967, Uncle Bob Anderson set up a table and chair at a tram stop in central Brisbane.
From his rail-side office, he’d tell anyone who would stop and listen that Australia counted its horses, cows, sheep and goats, but not its Indigenous people. “My question to you is, do you think they should be?” he’d say.
Some 56 years later, the Ngugi Elder sat on a chair under the hot Brisbane sun on Sunday, his wispy white hair covered in a straw hat, his presence a sign of support for another referendum concerning his people.
Nearby, thousands of people gathered for “Walk for Yes” rallies in multiple cities around Australia ahead of the October 14 vote.
On that day, some 17.5 million registered voters will be asked whether Australia should change the constitution to include a permanent body made up of First Nations people to advise the government on matters affecting them.
Now 94, Anderson says a Yes vote isn’t just important for him but the country.
“By talking and walking together as a nation and as a society, we will share a common destiny,” he said.
A vocal No
But less than four weeks out from the vote, polls suggest the split between the supporters and opponents is widening, in favor of no change to the constitution.
Veteran grassroots Aboriginal activist Wayne Wharton wore the reason for his objections on his T-shirt, as he shouted at Yes supporters on a bridge in central Brisbane.
“You’re a thief, a liar and a gatekeeper,” he yelled, to a mix of ages and races walking by. “Give back what you stole, give back what you stole, give back what you stole.”
The 62-year-old Kooma man told CNN on the phone that fundamentally people are being asked the wrong question.
“In a well-meaning country and a country seeking justice, this question would never have been raised or tabled. The question that would have been offered would have been a question about [a] treaty or just occupation,” he said.
Like Anderson, Wharton remembers the curfews that confined First Nations people to the outskirts of town between sunset and sunrise, the racial slurs hurled at him and his family, the abuse of his ancestors forced to live in missions, and the theft of First Nations children under policies of assimilation that later prompted a national apology.
Wharton said he wants “liberation, freedom and restitution” delivered through negotiation by the hundreds of Aboriginal nations with people occupying their land.
“I’ve seen many things change in my 60 years, and as the White bigots that created this continent of privilege die, the next generations have a greater sense of fairness and justice,” Wharton said.
“I believe in my children’s time a lot of this will be overcome. And that’s why I want to make sure that the door of opportunity is always going to be there for those people when the opportunity comes to create a just occupation, that the mechanism will be there and that it wouldn’t have been hijacked by some desperates in 2023 that changed the constitution.”
A Yes for change
Other First Nations people see it differently, including Nick Harvey-Doyle, who at 31 is half the age of Wharton, and a third of the age of the Aboriginal Elder Anderson.
From his New York apartment, Harvey-Doyle, an Anaiwan man from New South Wales, co-organized a walk across Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday, attended by more than 350 people, mostly Australians, calling for a Yes vote.
“I’m from a really small country town that has about 10,000 people and I think there’s about 8,000 Australians in the New York tri-state area. To me, that’s almost essentially a whole country town worth of votes,” he said.
Harvey-Doyle is a former lawyer who is studying at New York University with a Roberta Sykes Scholarship that provides funding for Indigenous students to undertake postgraduate research abroad. Sykes, who died in 2010, was the first Black Australian to study at Harvard, and fought for a Yes vote in the 1967 Referendum.
That referendum, to count Indigenous people in Australia’s Census figures, passed with over 90% approval.
Harvey-Doyle implored Australians living overseas to cast their votes to improve the life outcomes for First Nations people, who have lagged behind the country’s non-Indigenous population in heath and welfare statistics for decades.
“We as Aboriginal people don’t feel like we have carriage over our most intimate and important personal affairs,” he said.
“I think Aboriginal people do have a different way of life from non-Indigenous people and the current structures and institutions we have in place, don’t always acknowledge that and aren’t always in the best cultural place to service our needs.
“Actually having a body that exists that is enshrined in the constitution that allows us empowerment, to give advice over our own lives and our own issues is actually super important.”
According to the Australian Electoral Commission, as of Sunday, more than 96,000 registered voters were outside Australia – including those living abroad and some 58,000 who have notified the commission that they’ll be traveling on October 14.
While voting is compulsory within Australia, being overseas is considered a valid reason not to vote. More than 100 polling centers will be open worldwide to enable people to vote in person, or they can return a postal ballot. Overseas voting starts early, on October 2.
To pass, the referendum needs the majority vote across the country, as well as the majority of people in at least four states.
Indigenous people won’t determine the outcome of this vote – that will be up to millions of other non-Indigenous Australians, some of whom object to Indigenous people being given a special place over others within the constitution, calling the vote “divisive.”
Wharton says the concept of millions of non-Indigenous voters deciding what’s best for 3% of the population is racist in itself.
However, Harvey-Doyle says he’s wary of the message a no vote would send in the country and beyond.
“If we vote No, it says that we are really happy to be apathetic towards the poor life outcomes that some average Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience, and I feel like that goes against what it means to be Australian to give everyone a fair go,” he said.
“It’ll be a really sad global position for us to put ourselves in, if we do vote No.”