Australia after the Queen’s death: Why Indigenous rights take precedence over the King vote

During a televised match between the Australian Football League (AFLW) women’s teams in Melbourne on Friday, players stood to attention to hear an acknowledgment of the country immediately followed by a minute’s silence for the queen.

However, the juxtaposition of a statement that the players were standing on “unceded” indigenous land followed by a tribute to the country’s former monarch who claimed so was uncomfortable for some.

The incident demonstrates the lingering pain felt by Australia’s First Nations people since their country was occupied by British settlers in 1788. In other Commonwealth countries, the Queen’s death has prompted rumblings – some stronger than others – of movements to abandon the British monarchy. for a republic. But in Australia, despite the pro-republican views of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, there is no concerted push in this direction.

In interviews and press conferences since the queen’s death, Albanese has repeatedly said that now is not the time to talk about a republic. And on Tuesday, the Australian Republican Movement appeared to agree, suspending its campaign on the issue until the end of the mourning period “out of respect for the Queen”.

But for Albanese, the reluctance to push for a republic at this time is not just a matter of respect for the late monarch. The Labor leader made a pre-election pledge to hold a referendum to recognize Australia’s First Nations people in the constitution during his first three-year term, if elected.

Asked about it on Monday, Albanese said: “I said at the time that I couldn’t imagine a circumstance where we changed our head of state to Australian head of state, but we still haven’t recognized First Nations people in our constitution and the fact that we live with the oldest continuous culture on Earth, so that’s our priority this term.

A resounding “no”

Changing the constitution requires a majority of Australians across the country, as well as a majority in most states, to vote “yes” in a referendum, a notoriously difficult task. Since Federation in 1901, only eight of 44 proposals for constitutional change have been approved.

The latest rejection came in 1999, when the country’s citizens were asked if they wanted to replace the Queen and Governor-General with a President.

At the time, the campaign was about cutting ties with an archaic monarchy and moving forward as a bold new multicultural nation determined to chart its own course. Indigenous issues were not on the agenda, although Australians asked a second question, to approve a new preamble to the constitution that honored First Nations peoples for their “kinship to their lands”. This also failed, with indigenous elders at the time complaining that they had not been consulted on the wording.
A demonstration for Aboriginal land rights in Spring Street, Melbourne, 1971.

It was no surprise. Indigenous peoples had long complained that their voices had not been heard by successive governments, so much so that in 1999 Yawuru man Peter Yu, now Vice President of First Nations at the National University Australia (ANU), took the advice of a local elder to bring their message to the Queen.

“A very old senior leader said, ‘You’d better go see that old girl overseas…because here they’re calling her name the wrong way,'” Yu recalled. The old man meant that the only time the aborigines heard the queen’s name was when they were arrested, Yu told CNN. “They felt that, given the community’s respect for the queen, her name was besmirched and his tainted reputation, and therefore we had to go and explain the situation,” he said.

So they did.

Yu and a delegation met Queen Elizabeth for about 30 minutes at Buckingham Palace and received a much warmer welcome from the monarch than the British or Australian governments, he said.

Today, Yu says opinions within Australia’s Indigenous community about the Queen are mixed – as they are in most communities.

“There are strong emotions,” he said. “And we continue to bear the brunt of the consequences of colonization. But do we hold it personally responsible? I don’t,” he said. “What I hold responsible for is the Australian government…governments that willfully neglected their duty of care. That’s what I’m angry at.”

Queen Elizabeth II attends an Aboriginal cultural performance near Cairns, March 2002.

Voice in Parliament

At the end of his first term, Albanese promised a referendum on the vote in parliament – ​​a body enshrined in the constitution which, for the first time, would give indigenous peoples a say in laws that affect them.

John Warhurst, emeritus professor of political science at the ANU and former chairman of the Australian Republican Movement, said a referendum on the vote in parliament is “undoubtedly the first priority” on a republic.

“You’re not going to get discussion about it among Republicans,” he added.

An image of Queen Elizabeth II looks down from the sails of the Australian Opera House, September 9, 2022.

The voice in parliament is important for a number of reasons, Warhurst said. “It’s a line in the sand about Australia’s colonial past. It’s a line in the sand about race relations in Australia…and I think the international message would also be shocking if we fail to pass this referendum .”

However, not all indigenous people support the concept.

Telona Pitt, an Ngarluma, Kariyarra and Meriam woman of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent, is the administrator of the ‘Vote No to Constitutional Change’ Facebook group, which has 11,000 members.

She believes that not enough Aboriginal people had a say in the writing of the document that led to the plans for a voice in Parliament. And she says the government is already aware of indigenous issues, but hasn’t done enough to address them – and that won’t change with a one-vote referendum in parliament.

“All it’s going to do is just disempower the indigenous people and turn Parliament against us,” she said.

Protesters take part in a

Pitt says a referendum should be held among Indigenous people to see who supports change before questions are posed to the general public.

Warhurst said approving the vote in parliament would make it easier to pass further constitutional changes – but on the other hand, rejecting it could mean a longer road to a republic.

He said that after Voice to Parliament passes, Australia may be ready to consider life after the monarchy.

It may not happen for another five to ten years, but campaigning on the issue should start early ‘from scratch’ as ​​Australia is no longer the same place it was in 1999, he said. declared.

Potentially convincing Australians that it’s time for a republic may be easier by then, as the nostalgia for a life under the Queen’s rule will have passed for older generations, who grew up with much closer ties with the British monarchy.

“Queen Elizabeth’s presence was pivotal for some in maintaining the status quo,” Warhurst said. “So I think now that we’ve moved on to a new king, some of the reluctance from the Australian community is gone.”

However, ANU’s Yu said the issue of Australia’s indigenous peoples needed to be addressed before any discussion of a republic.

“How can you have a republic without settling the matter with the First Peoples?” He asked. “To me, that’s nonsense. He has no integrity. He has no sense of morals or soul.”


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