Australia’s PM Albanese takes share of blame for Indigenous referendum failure

Anthony Albanese

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on Monday he accepted his share of blame for the failure of a referendum question on Indigenous recognition that could weaken his authority.

More than 60 percent of Australians voted “No” in the landmark referendum on Saturday that asked whether to alter the constitution to recognise the country’s Indigenous peoples, and create an advisory body that would have advised parliament on matters concerning the community.

Albanese staked significant political capital on a “Yes” vote, pushing ahead despite the opposition Liberal party opposing it.

Only eight of 45 referenda have been successful in Australia’s history as a nation, none without bipartisan support.

He faced Liberal leader Peter Dutton during parliamentary question time on Monday for the first time since the referendum failure.

“We know that referendums are hard, that is why only eight of 45 have passed,” Albanese said. “I certainly accept responsibility for the decisions that I have taken.”

Dutton, who had backed a second referendum solely on recognising Indigenous people in the constitution, appeared to row back on the pledge on Monday, saying there would be no appetite for a second vote “for some time”.

Albanese still leads Dutton as the country’s preferred leader, and the governing Labor party is polling above the level at which it won power in the May 2022 election, regaining ground on the eve of the referendum. Political analysts have said the unpopularity of the referendum has not yet shown a significant adverse impact for Labor in polls.

The referendum outcome is seen as a major setback for reconciliation efforts with the country’s Indigenous community and risks damaging Australia’s image in the world regarding how it treats people in that community.

“The damage from Saturday’s vote will be extreme,” an editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald said on Monday. “This will set back the cause of reconciliation, despite what politicians are saying.2

The country’s main business newspaper, the Australian Financial Review, called the result “heartbreaking” for the country’s Indigenous community, who make up about 3.8 percent of the population and have suffered from centuries of neglect and discrimination since colonisation by Great Britain in 1788. Remote areas dominated by Indigenous communities voted strongly in favour of the referendum question, Albanese said, in contrast to the rest of the country.