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

During a televised match between Australian Football League Women’s (AFLW) teams in Melbourne on Friday, the players stood at attention to hear a Salute to the Nation which was immediately followed by a minute’s silence for the Queen.

However, the juxtaposition of a declaration that the players were standing on “unceded” native land followed by a tribute to the country’s former monarch said it was uncomfortable for some.

The incident reflects the lingering pain felt by the people of Australia’s First Nations since British settlers took over their country in 1788. In other Commonwealth Nations, death of the Queen has prompted rumblings — some louder than others — of moves to abandon the British monarchy for a republic. But in Australia, despite Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s pro-republican views, there has been no concerted push in that direction.

In interviews and press conferences since the Queen’s death, the 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 the Albanese, the reluctance to push for a republic for now is not just respect for the late monarch. The Labor leader made a promise before the election to hold a referendum to recognize Australia’s First Nations people in the constitution within his first three-year term, if he wins the seat.

When asked about this on Monday, Albanese said: “I said at the time that I could not imagine a situation where we replaced our Head of State with an Australian Head of State but still did not recognize the people of the First Nations in our constitution and the fact that we live with the oldest continuous culture on Earth. So those are our priorities this term.”

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese attends the Proclamation of King Charles III, in the forecourt of Parliament House on September 11, 2022 in Canberra, Australia.

A resounding ‘no’

Changing the constitution requires a majority of Australian citizens 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 the 44 proposals for constitutional change was approved.

The last rejection came in 1999, when the people of the country were asked if they wanted the President to replace the Queen and Governor-General.

Back then, campaigning focused on cutting ties with an ancient monarchy and advancing as a brave new multicultural nation seeking to forge its own path. Indigenous issues were not high on the agenda, although Australians were asked a second question, to approve a new preamble to the constitution that honored First Nations people for their “kinship in their lands.” That too failed, with Aboriginal elders of the day complaining that they had not been consulted on the wording.
An Aboriginal land rights protest in Spring Street, Melbourne, 1971.

This is not a surprise. Indigenous peoples have long complained that their voices have not been heard by successive governments, so in 1999, Yawuru man Peter Yu, now Vice President First Nations at the Australian National University (ANU), took advice of a local elder to bring their message to the Queen.

“An old senior leader said, ‘You’d better go see that old woman in another country … because they call her by her name wrong here,'” Yu recalled. The old man meant that the only time Aboriginal people heard the Queen’s name was when they were arrested, Yu told CNN. “They felt that, because of the community’s respect for the Queen, her name was being maligned and her reputation damaged, 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 warmer welcome from the monarch than from either the UK or Australian government, he said.

Now, Yu says views within Australia’s Indigenous community on the Queen are mixed — as they are in most communities.

“There are strong emotions,” he said. “And we continue to suffer the full force of the consequences of colonization. But do we hold him personally responsible for this? I don’t,” he said. “What I hold responsible for this is the Australian government … governments that are willfully neglecting their duty of care. That’s what makes me angry.”

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

Voice in Parliament

At the end of his first term, Albanese promised a referendum on the Voice to Parliament — a constitutional body that would for the first time give Indigenous people a say in laws that affect them.

John Warhurst, Emeritus Professor of political science at ANU and former chair of the Australian Republic Movement, told Voice to Parliament that a referendum was “undoubtedly the first priority” in a republic.

“You won’t get an argument about that with republicans,” he added.

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

Voice to Parliament is important for several reasons, says Warhurst. “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 message around the world will be a shocking one too, if we don’t pass this referendum.”

However, not all natives support the concept.

Telona Pitt, a Ngarluma, Kariyarra, and Meriam woman of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent, is the admin of the Facebook group “Vote no to constitutional change”, which has 11,000 members.

He believes that not enough Indigenous peoples were given a say in the drafting of the document that led to plans for a Voice to Parliament. And he says the government is aware of Indigenous problems but hasn’t done enough to fix them — and a referendum on a Voice to Parliament won’t change that.

“All it will do is disempower Aboriginal people and strengthen Parliament against us,” he said.

Protesters took part in a

Pitt said a referendum should be held among Indigenous people to see who supports the change before any questions are put to the wider public.

Warhurst said approving the Voice to Parliament would ease the passage of further constitutional change — but on the other hand, rejecting it could mean a longer road to a republic.

He said after Voice to Parliament passed, Australia might be ready to consider life after the monarchy.

That may not happen for another five to 10 years, but campaigning on the issue needs to start early “from scratch” because Australia is not the same place it was in 1999, he said.

Possibly, convincing Australians that it is time for a republic may be easier by then, as the nostalgia of a life under the Queen’s reign will have passed for the older generation, who grew up with closer related to the British monarchy.

“Queen Elizabeth’s presence is influential 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 in the Australian community has gone away.”

However, Yu, from the ANU, said the issue of Indigenous Australians must be addressed before any talk of a republic.

“How can you have a republic without settling the matter in the First People?” he asked. “For me, It’s a nonsense. It has no integrity. It has no sense of moral or soul.”

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