Australian prime minister will set a referendum date for Indigenous Voice to Parliament

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australian Prime Anthony Albanese said on Tuesday he expects public support for creating a so-called Indigenous Voice to Parliament will grow after he focuses the nation’s minds on the issue by setting a date for Australia’s first referendum in a generation.

Albanese will announce on Wednesday a date for a referendum that would enshrine in the constitution an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, a collection of advocates aimed at giving the nation’s most disadvantaged ethnic minority more say on government policy.

Media speculation favors Oct. 14 as the most likely date for Australia’s first referendum since 1999.

Albanese has long maintained confidence that the referendum would succeed despite opinion polls showing marginal majority support for the Voice waning in recent months as the public debate has become more heated and divisive.

“I think people will begin to focus more. I expect that many Australians won’t focus until the last few weeks,” Albanese told reporters. “A majority of Australians will come to an answer that there’s nothing to lose here, only upside.”

The Australian Electoral Commission, which runs federal elections and referendums, on Tuesday said it had begun distributing 13 million pamphlets to households with arguments penned by lawmakers for and against the Voice. Australia’s population is 26 million.

Proponents hope the Voice will improve living standards for Indigenous Australians, who account for 3.8% of Australia’s population and are the nation’s most disadvantaged ethnic group.

Opponents argue that the constitutional change is either too radical or not radical enough.

If the referendum is passed, it would be Australia’s first since 1977 and the first ever to pass without bipartisan support.

The Voice was recommended in 2017 by a group of 250 Indigenous leaders who met at Uluru, a landmark sandstone rock in central Australia that is a sacred site to traditional owners. They were delegates of the First Nations National Constitutional Convention that the then-government had asked for advice on how the Indigenous population could be acknowledged in the constitution.

The conservative government immediately rejected the prospect of the Voice, which it likened to a third chamber of Parliament.

Albanese committed his center-left government to creating the Voice on election night in May last year. The opposition party is opposed.