SYDNEY (Reuters) - A majority of Australians support giving more recognition to its Indigenous people in the constitution through a 'Voice to Parliament', but there is a big minority, including many First Nations people, who oppose the plan.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Thursday announced the question the government wants to put to a vote in a referendum later this year to give Indigenous people a representative body in parliament, seeking to heal wrongs done to them over centuries.
The First Nations have inhabited the land for 60,000 years but are not mentioned in the 122-year-old constitution. Any constitutional alterations require a national referendum.
Those opposed to the Voice say having a consultative committee in parliament will not improve conditions for the Indigenous people.
"The only thing that really works is treating people equal in the society...," said Warren Mundine, an Aboriginal politician running the 'Recognise a Better Way' campaign that's asking people to vote 'No' in the referendum.
"The Voice is not going to fix one iota of the problems that we have in indigenous affairs," he added.
Indigenous people track well below national averages on most socio-economic measures. Their life expectancy is about 8 years lower than the national average.
Suicide rates are twice as high, and their health outcomes are dismal with high levels of child mortality and disease. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are massively over-represented in prisons, deaths in custody, and children sent to out of home care.
The conservative opposition Liberal Party has not said which way it would vote, while the rural-based National Party, the junior partner in the opposition coalition, has said it would oppose the Voice.
Supporters of the Voice campaign argue having a representative body in parliament is about fairness and making sure the community is heard on matters affecting them.
It would also bring Australia to par with other countries with First Nations population like neighbouring New Zealand and Canada which have done better at ensuring their rights.
"It would be a terrible reflection on Australia if we lose this referendum," said Thomas Mayo, a Torres Strait Islander and a member of the referendum working group.
"I mean how backward are we? The only country without a treaty with indigenous people, the only country without constitutional recognition of Indigenous people. It'll set us back in our setting in the world," he said.
(Writing by Praveen Menon; Editing by Sonali Paul)