They took to the streets to defend a historic reform of indigenous rights, which will be the subject of a referendum on October 14. Thousands of people took part in Walk for Yes demonstrations across Australia in several major cities on Sunday (September 17) ahead of the vote that could grant indigenous Australians the constitutional right to be consulted on the policies that concern them.

More than two hundred years after British colonization, indigenous people – whose ancestors have lived on the continent for around 60,000 years – have lower life expectancies and lower education levels than other Australians and are significantly more likely to die in jail.

“I think we need a voice in Parliament, it’s about time,” said Laurel Johnson, a 58-year-old retiree who works in indigenous community services and joined the hundreds of people who participated at the Sydney rally. Cameron Lum, 34, said he joined the rally in Sydney to support “long overdue change in this country”. “I think this sets the stage for massive policy change led by first nations people,” he said.

Compulsory voting

Yes supporters also rallied in Melbourne, Canberra, Perth, Brisbane, Darwin, Hobart and Alice Springs. They say that this emblematic reform project of the center-left government of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese would, if adopted, help to remedy these inequalities.

Recent polls, however, show that around 60% of voters oppose reform, representing a near turnaround from last year. Opponents of the proposal say it would grant special privileges to indigenous people while adding an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy. They deplore the lack of details concerning the reform, which would be developed by Parliament if the yes vote prevails.

To be adopted, the reform must obtain majority support across Australia in the referendum, but also a majority in at least four of the six states. Voting is compulsory and non-voters without a valid reason are subject to a fine of 20 Australian dollars.