Australians start applying for mail-in ballots ahead of Indigenous Voice referendum

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Voters began applying Monday for mail-in ballots ahead of the Oct. 14 referendum that would create an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, a proposal for constitutional change that opinion polls suggest is becoming increasingly likely to be rejected.

Australians will vote at the first referendum in a generation whether to enshrine in the constitution a collection of appointed Indigenous advocates aimed at giving the nation’s most disadvantaged ethnic minority more say on government policy.

People who are unable to attend a polling booth on Oct. 14 for reasons including distance, disability and prison sentences can apply from 6 p.m. Monday for authorities to provide them with postal ballots, which will be cast in Australia’s first referendum since 1999.

A majority of voters across the nation and in a majority of Australia’s six states need to support the referendum for it to pass. Only eight out of 44 referendums have achieved that double majority.

But a Resolve Political Monitor opinion poll published in newspapers on Monday suggested the smallest state, Tasmania, was the only one with majority support for the Voice.

National support for the Voice was at 65% when polls on the question were first held in August 2022, but support has been declining for months.

Proponents hope support will rally when voters become more engaged with the question closer to the voting day.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese took the final step in ensuring the referendum goes ahead by directing the governor-general late Monday to issue electoral authorities with a required legal order to conduct the vote.

Opposition leader Peter Dutton had earlier urged Albanese in Parliament to call the referendum off because of the declining support in polls.

“Will the prime minister withdraw his Voice referendum so that we can avoid an outcome which sets back reconciliation and divides the nation?” Dutton asked Albanese.

Albanese criticized Dutton over his opposition to the Voice, saying the conservative party leader had “chosen politics over substance.”

The Voice referendum would be the first in Australia’s history to pass without bipartisan support.

Melbourne University election analyst Adrian Beaumont said referendums proposed by Albanese’s center-left Labor Party have always been opposed by their conservative opponents since 1946.

“It’s very clear that Voice support is slumping in all polls,” Beaumont said. “Conservative oppositions always oppose Labor referendums, and they are able to scare the electorate into opposing changes."

Proponents say embedding the Voice in the constitution would recognize the special place that Indigenous people have in Australian history while giving them input in government policies.

Opponents argue it would be the biggest change to Australia’s democracy in the nation’s history and divide Australians along racial lines without reducing Indigenous disadvantage.

Indigenous Australians account for 3.8% of the population and they die around eight years younger than Australia’s wider population on average.